Society continually places specific and often restrictive standards on the female gender. While modern women have overcome many unfair prejudices, late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century women were forced to deal with a less than understanding culture. Different people had various ways of voicing their opinions concerning gender inequalities, including expressing themselves through literature. By writing a fictional story, authors like Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Henry James were given the opportunity to let readers understand and develop their own ideas on such a serious topic.
In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story The Yellow Wallpaper, the main character is a symbol for all repressed women of her time. Throughout the entire story, her name is never mentioned, alluding to the fact that the women of her era simply lacked their own personal identity. Her husband treated her as a frail and incapable being. He laughed at her fears, and disregarded her concerns as frivolous worries. She recognized this as nothing beyond the normality, and accepts it because that is what her society deems standard.
When commenting that there must be something queer about a house so large and beautiful, yet rented to them at such a reasonable price, she continued “John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in a marriage” (1). John continually tells her that her illness is psychological, and encourages her to try and get more fresh air, for her own efforts will be the best for a quicker recovery. However, on the one occasion she asks him for permission to visit her Cousin Henry and Julia, he denies her so, leaving her in tears and telling her she could not handle such a trip.
Eventually, the woman turns her attention to the hideous yellow wallpaper that lingers on the walls of the room she stays confined within. As time goes on, she begins to see a woman in the wallpaper. The woman is behind the bars of the paper during the day, but at night she is free and creeps about the room. This is obviously the women’s gradual path to insanity, and a reflection of her problems is projected into her perception of the wallpaper. The woman is herself, kept behind the bars of marriage and her husband’s dominance. When John leaves, however, she is free to walk around the room as she pleases.
The woman in The Yellow Wallpaper was left feeling helpless and confused in her marriage. Her eventual outcome was a descent into madness. While most women of this time were in no way insane as a result of repression, many dealt with the inequality in other ways. One such way was to completely deny the standards and simply construct your own rules. In Henry James’ short story Daisy Miller, Daisy is an American girl who is spending time overseas in Europe. She was a young and flirtatious girl lost in a world of extremely conservative and narrow-minded individuals.
Instead of bowing down to the cultural restrictions, she chose to ignore them and do as she pleased. This eventually, however, led to her untimely demise. Early one evening, Daisy announced to her Italian acquaintance, Mrs. Walker, that she was leaving alone to meet a romantic interest of hers. When they discovered that the man was Mr. Giovanelli, warned her against doing so. While Mrs. Walker was subtle in making her point, Daisy clearly understood that by meeting this man, she would be violating the strict code of conduct in the Italian culture.
Daisy made the attempt in trying to fit in by saying “I don’t want to do anything improper” (33). She eventually went, however, and continued to walk with the man even after Mrs. Walker drove by and told her that she would save herself much embarrassment by climbing into the coach and halting her activities. Daisy bluntly refused, even after Mrs. Walker said things like she was “old enough to be talked about [and] reckless” (39). She did not believe that such customs were necessary, and decided she need not follow them.
Time went on, and Daisy’s “reckless” behavior and flirtatious nature became the talk of the town. Still, the girl continued in her ways, always out with Mr. Giovanelli. She eventually became an outcast, but refused to let it change her course of actions. Laye one night, while Daisy was out with her suitor, Mr. Winterbourne came across the pair at the Colosseum. He warned Daisy that she would catch a fever, and should not be out with the other man so late in the evening. Of course Daisy refused. Soon after, however, Daisy did come down with a fever, and eventually passed away as a result.
The people around her looked at it as a sort of inevitable punishment, while in truth, Daisy was just victim to a disease that was not then treatable. Throughout the centuries, great strides have been made in the liberation of women everywhere. One can easily recognize, however, that times were not always so generous as now, and different women found their own ways of dealing with their individual situations. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s character created a twisted image of the world in her mind, and eventually became mentally insane.
While most cases were not so extreme, this character was imperative in creating a realization of such a serious situation. James’ character did what most rebellious young American women would do. She broke free from cultural restrictions and lived her life as she pleased. A woman of passion, she chose to ignore the repressive attitudes of those around her. Women of today are still fighting for equality, but have authors of the past and women like the characters in their stories to thank for the improvements they made.