Oppression of Women in 19th Century Literature

Oppression of Women in 19th Century Literature In the stories “The Jewelry” by Guy de Maupassant, “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin, and “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the female characters are unequal and less important than the men in society. The duties of women during this time period did not consist of much more than seeing to her husband’s needs and caring for the home and children. The authors show the lack of independence women were allowed in the 1800s, especially in marriage. The stories express women’s cry for equality and their feelings of entrapment in their marriage.
Each story elaborates on the importance of social class in the 19th century, how women were presented in society, and how society trapped and defined them as individuals. Maupassant conveys the importance of marriage during this time frame when he includes in “The Jewelry” that Mrs. Lantin’s mother visited bourgeois families in hopes of marrying her daughter off (Booth69). The public’s view on matrimony took a toll on the independent lives and decisions of women. A woman’s image at this time was important; it reflected who they were, as well as where they came from.
Expectations for women to fulfill their duties as a homemaker left little room to deviate from the social normality. Women usually depended on their husband’s income to support their lifestyle; seldom were they employed. Therefore, many women fancied men who were of a high social class. In “The Jewelry”, Mrs. Lantin’s mother searched among the families of the middle class to find a husband for her daughter. Maupassant mentions in the story that Mrs. Lantin and her mother were poor. In order to relieve her daughter of the burdens of poverty, Mrs. Lantin’s mother tried to find a husband who was of a higher social status.

Due to the substantial increase in the size, power, and prestige of the middle class, the 19th century became known as “the century of the middle class”(“Women in the Middle Class” 1). An individual’s wealth contributed to how they were viewed by other members of society. To some, image seemed like the most important characteristic one could have. In the story, Mrs. Lantin wears precious stones and pearls when she attends the theatre (Booth 70). Her husband mentions how they do not have the means to afford such extravagant treasures, but his wife insists on wearing the jewelry in public anyway. Mrs.
Lantin may be considered wealthy by the public because she wears precious stones. But in real life, her husband does not make enough to support the lavish image she gives off to others. She continues to wear the jewelry out, portraying an image of wealth and well-being. Maupassant mentions in his story how it is unsightly for women to go out in public unaccompanied by their husband (Booth 70). Again, this establishes the unequal views towards women in the 1800s. If it was uncommon for a woman to travel alone, the idea of a woman supporting herself, or even deciding for herself would have been absurd.
In a society where the public frowns upon the idea of female independence, many women were forced to hide any ideas or desires for change they may have had. In this time, if women were to rebel or stand against domesticity, they were often declared insane, and confined to a mental asylum (“Women and Psychiatry” 1). Here, they were treated even more poorly than when they were in the custody of their husbands. The fear of consequences silenced many women who may have desired something more than the typical lifestyle of a home maker.
In “The Story of an Hour”, Chopin expresses the thoughts that could have been running through the minds of women who were caught in this time of gender inequality. Mrs. Mallard is described in Chopin’s story as a typical married woman of the 19th century. A woman we can imply has stood faithfully by her husband and fulfilled her connubial duties throughout the years of their union. In the story, Mrs. Mallard has obviously suffered a terrible loss in learning of her husband’s death. We can tell by her reactions that she cared deeply for him. In the midst of her grieving, Mrs.
Mallard pictures the time that is to come, when she will be able to make all of her own decisions and will be given the freedom to live her life as she pleases. Suddenly, she feels relieved more than she is upset. “She knew that she would weep again when she saw the kind, tender hands folded in death…but she saw beyond that bitter moment a long procession of years to come that would belong to her absolutely (Booth 307). Her desire for freedom overcame the despair of her husband’s death. Chopin includes that Mrs. Mallard tried to fight off these ideas with her will (Booth 307).
Her embraced feelings of independence could have been viewed as forbidden. Although she is excited by these thoughts, she tries to resist the pleasure she truly feels when she realizes the freedom that she has gained. The words “free, free, free! ” escaped from her mouth (Booth307). She attempted to hold back the overwhelming desires for her own life. Perhaps she is hesitant to welcome these feelings because of the public view on women’s rights, and the potential consequences for those who opposed such views. Despite the faithfulness and love Mrs.
Mallard showed for her husband, the extreme relief she felt in no longer having a marital obligation overpowered her feelings of sadness and loss. At the end of the story, Mrs. Mallard’s husband walked through her front door in the flesh, but Mrs. Mallard’s heart could not handle the excitement. The doctors said she died of “joy that kills”. Since Mrs. Mallard was so overwhelmed by her newly gained idea of independence, one can assume this joy is that of forbidden pleasure. Many would consider it immoral to accept so easily the death of one’s betrothed just because of the freedom acquired.
The story shows how it was wrong for women to desire independence from their husbands, regardless of they were treated. In many cases, men responded to their wives as they would children; by limiting their options and making choices for them. Eventually, ideas emerged that women were truly incapable of anything other than caring for their families. In “The Yellow Wallpaper”, Gilman clearly expresses how John (the husband) treats his wife similarly to how one might treat a child. On one occasion, he even refers to his wife as “little girl”.
The name itself signifies the lack of maturity women were thought to have, along with their defenselessness. Ideas such as these allowed men to dominate over decisions made in households, and in most cases, over women themselves. The narrator tells in the story how her husband will “hardly let her stir without special direction” (Booth 323). Throughout the story, the narrator mentions several things to her husband regarding her discomfort in the house and her wishes for early departure, but each time she is disregarded, or redirected.
While women were subject to orders, men were free to do as they please. There were very few who decided to speak in favor of equality for women; of those who did, most were sent to an asylum. This allowed little hope for women seeking progress or escape. Gilman illustrates this in his story. “The outside pattern becomes bars, and the woman behind it as plain as could be” (Booth 323). he is saying that there is woman trapped in the wallpaper, but more importantly he is showing the feelings of entrapment faced by women. Most living conditions were similar among women.
The desire for equality was a mutual feeling amongst the women of the 1800s. Gilman writes “Sometimes I think there are a great and many women behind it” (Booth 325). This signifies how many women in this time shared similar feelings of complication in terms of their marriage and their place in society. Without a voice to lead them out of sexual oppression, most women accepted the conditions given to them. The ideas of 19th century society sculpted lives of many women in ways that were not enjoyable, and rather served as a burden to the women who were indeed victimized in this time frame.
The way a woman presented herself in society strongly reflected her character. Matrimony or lack thereof, served as a strong basis to this social image which was very important. Each story mentioned holds a female character who is in some way oppressed by the social dominance of men. Each character it treated unequally, or as if they were of little importance. Women in this era were trapped in their own lives. Works Cited Anderson, Lori. “Marriage and Women From 19th Century On. ” Women and Issues of a Woman. CyberParent, n. d. Web. 9 February 2013. Booth, Allison, and Kely J. Mays. The Norton Introduction to Literature. 10th ed. Ed. Peter Simon. New York: W. W. Norton, 2011. Print. McElligott, Caitlin. “The 19th Century Debate. ” Women’s Higher Education in the United States. N. p. n. d. Web. 24 February 2013. “Women and Psychiatry. ” Brought to Life. Science Museum, n. d. Web. 20 February 2013. “Women in the Middle Class in the 19th Century. ” http://web. clark. edu/afisher/HIST253/lecture_text/WomenMiddleClass_19c_Europe. pdf. N. p. n. d. Web. 2 March 2013.

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