Comparative analysis in literature is one of the most essential and illustrative techniques that allows for an effective demonstration of themes and images in several texts at once. This is particularly true when the pieces the analysis is focusing on were written within the same period and therefore share a common context. Such is the case for Kate Chopin’s The Story of an Hour, written in 1894, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, written in 1892. Both short stories reveal that for the 19th century women marriage was, most often, a trap, that should have been avoided, if possible, for the sake of their mental health. This paper aims to compare and contrast the conflicts the heroines of these marriage-focused stories experience to prove this thesis. It discusses the shared themes of the story and the use of irony in the examination of those themes. Furthermore, it aims to examine the narrative consequences the protagonists face in their respective endings. Patrick Henry’s quote “Give me the liberty or give me death!” appropriately illustrates the dark aftermaths they’re experiencing. Yet it remains to be discussed how the stories deal with their themes and chilling implications.
Firstly, one may examine the surface images and story structures that reveal central themes of both pieces and refer said themes to the thesis statement. The heroines of The Story of an Hour and The Yellow Wallpaper alike are profoundly unhappy and powerless in their married wife. In the first story, the protagonist is experiencing a hysterical catharsis after learning about the death of her husband, as for her it means the long-awaited freedom. It is heavily implied that throughout her marriage to the man in question, the protagonist Mrs. Mallard did not belong to herself, and wasn’t in control of her own life. Her swift shock-induced death in the end of the story, when she learns of her husband still being alive, illustrates how disturbed she must have felt within this marriage. Thematically it conveys the unhealthiness of the gender inequality in the family lives of that era and the continuous destructive effect it had on women.
Similar topics of marital power imbalance and insanity are examined within The Yellow Wallpaper. Its heroine gets trapped in a room by her own husband, who has decided it would benefit her continuously deteriorating mental health. In a way, the link between disturbance and married life is displayed more clearly in the second short story, with the implication being that the marriage was depression’s main cause. As the protagonist’s world is forcibly narrowed down to a single room with the yellow wallpaper, she spirals into madness.
The Use of Conflict
Secondly, let’s examine and compare the conflicts the women protagonists experience in their respective short stories. Despite the thematic parallels and shared imagery of the unhappy and unequal marriages causing harm to women who’ve become their victims, the central conflicts of the short stories differ dramatically. In The Story of an Hour the heroine is drunk on her newly experienced sense of freedom, that has compromised her ability to think clearly. Her euphoria is overwhelming and boarders on hysteria yet is positioned as the most natural reaction to what she believes was a dramatic shift in circumstances. Despite her emotions being cathartic and almost aggressive they are never displayed as unhealthy or unnatural, but rather born from the sense of liberation from the restrictive environment. The conflict exists between the bewildered internal sense of self and the controlling circumstances, with the latter being embodied by the heroine’s husband and her marriage itself.
In the same time, for the protagonist of The Yellow Wallpaper even the promise of freedom is inconceivable. When feeling lonely and depressed, she becomes a victim of her husband’s ideas to subject the heroine to further isolation. The pattern of societal control over the married women and the power their husbands possessed over them is reinforced by the fact, that the protagonist’s husband is also her physician. By subjecting his wife to the “rest cure”, the husband takes the last chance of ever getting better away from her (Gilman, 1996). Thus, in the second story, the conflict lies in the way the actions and practices perceived by the male social majority as beneficial for women were frequently actively harmful instead.
The Use of Irony
Thirdly, it is worth bringing the analysis back to the similarities between the two texts and examining the ways in which they utilize irony to convey their respective themes and conflicts alike. The ending of The Story of an Hour reveals that the heroine’s husband hasn’t died, and thus her newly awakened consciousness will soon be restrained anew. After the passages of Mrs. Mallard rediscovering and recontextualizing the smell of the rain and the colour of the sky, the revelation feels almost comedic in a dark, disheartening way (Chopin & Seyersted, 2006). Similarly, the idea of a rest cure being applied to Jane in The Yellow Wallpaper is no less dramatically ridiculous. The supposed treatment consists in simply locking a depressed woman up, all alone with her thoughts (Gilman, 1996). In both cases the irony is very dark and sinister, almost twisted, and stems from the fundamental injustice of the world the protagonists share.
Finally, it is interesting to analyze the consequences that the narrative progression has for both Mrs Mallard and Jane. Their endings have already been mentioned before and involve sudden tragic death or descend into madness. Yet before either of the short stories concludes, these women undergo their own personal transformations. Their eyes are finally open to the toll that married life has been having on them the entire time. Mrs Mallard’s euphoric adoration of nature stems from her feeling restrained from dedicating her attention to it in the past, with her affections glued to her husband (Chopin & Seyersted, 2006). Jane, meanwhile, realizes that being trapped in a room has a lot in common with being trapped in an unloving and controlling marriage. The diversions in their internal evolutions are caused by the differences between the central conflicts. Yet both are tied to the realization of how much marriage has been crippling their wings for long periods of time, depriving them of personal freedom and integrity.
In conclusion, The Story of an Hour and The Yellow Wallpaper were clearly written within the shared social and cultural context that had shaped their premises. Both stories are dedicated to the inequality and power imbalance within marriages at the time. Both also examine the harmful consequences said inequalities had for female psyches and well-being in general. The importance of these texts remains strongly defined in the modern day, for they can be interpreted as the portrait of an era. Such pieces are instrumental in understanding the scale and impact of the inequalities of the past when learning about the history of society and women’s struggles.
Gilman, C. (1996). The Yellow Wall-Paper, The Feminist Press Cuny.
Chopin, K., & Seyersted, P. (2006). The complete works of Kate Chopin. Louisiana State University Press.