In Erik Margraf’s essay on The Awakening, he points out that naturalistic writers frequently “focused their attention on heredity and environment respectively as the primary forces that determine the individual. ” This emphasis in part on environment is a major theme in three texts that have female protagonists—The Awakening by Kate Chopin, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Maggie: A Girl of the Streets by Stephen Crane.
Though all three women experience remarkably different environments—whether they are vast rooms of a lush or cataclysmic landscape, or a physical and mental prison-each woman shares a common victimhood to forces beyond their control, and which their environments dictate. An analysis of each woman’s environment and how it pushes them to physical and psychological limits will show that they are doomed to different, yet similar, gender-related fates. In The Awakening, the environment of the Grand Isle serves as the spark for Edna’s burgeoning consciousness of the need for sexual, emotional, and physical emancipation from societal conventions.
Edna, a self-reserved Calvinist, finds herself thrusted into and affected by this tropical landscape environment among the free-thinking and speaking Creoles; however, it is not the whole of the landscape and the society that she keeps that prompts her awakening, but the stimulation that she experiences because of the sea and the music she hears. The sea reminds her of being a formerly unrepressed child, walking through a tall meadow “idly, aimlessly, unthinking and unguided. On the island, she is able to tap into this previous mindset, and is reborn into a world of independence in which her learning to swim allows her to experience. The sea to her is all at once erotic, lonely, empowering, and appealing to her soul, and helps her to become conscious of her agency over the listlessness and longing that she experiences. In addition, because of Mademoiselle Reisz’s piano playing, Edna becomes further aware of her aspirations for something better for her life than just motherhood and wifely duties.
Instead of the musical chords inspiring images in her mind of the lives of others, she responds emotionally from within herself: “She saw no pictures of solitude, of hope, of longing, or of despair. But the very passions themselves were aroused within her soul, swaying it, lashing it, as the waves daily beat upon her splendid body. ” Edna awakens to a new kind of consciousness that the sea and Mademoiselle Reisz’s piano elicits in her, but the consequences of this stimulation upon Edna are fatal. The freedom that the environment of the Grand Isle allows for Edna to experience leads to social and physical death.
Chopin writes, “The voice of the sea is seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander in abysses of solitude. ” Edna’s journey towards independence and self-discovery results in a rejection of society. The effects of the sea, her learning to swim, and the music she hears inspires her to be true to herself; however, the world in which she lives is unsympathetic to women’s desires, and she realizes that the only way in which she can gain absolute freedom is to swim out to the one place where this can be realized: the afterlife.
After the failure of her romantic pursuits with Arobin and Robert, she realizes that only the sea can fulfill her desire for physical intimacy: “The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace. ” Edna finds herself attempting to solve a problem in which there is no escape because the solutions are mutually conflicting. She wants to be able to fulfill her desires, experience romance, independence, and freedom from social duties, but this would involve a rejection of the society that is necessary in order to realize this.
The Yellow Wallpaper” is another story where environment impedes on a woman’s progress; however, the effects of the wallpaper environment in this story are a result of confinement, not liberation. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a woman is confined to an unpleasant and restrictive physical and social environment because her husband believes it will cure her mental illness. The woman is described as suffering from a “nervous condition,” and her husband, a physician, imposes upon her a “resting cure” that involves her being kept from writing, socializing, and taking care of her child.
He thinks that she suffers from illusions and an over-active imagination, and attempts to tell her how to think. She notes the futility of this cure if her husband, the patriarchal authority in her environment, does not acknowledge his hand in the sickness: “John is a physician, and… perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster. ” She is kept in this small room with ugly yellow wallpaper, which she stares at in order to pass the time. Unable to carry out her profession as a writer, she treats the wallpaper like a meaning-making project, and determines to “follow that pointless pattern to some sort of conclusion.
The wallpaper itself is an ugly yellow with a confusing and ever-changing pattern that gives off a foul odor and stains everything that it touches. The woman sees this wallpaper in this “room for worlds” as imbuing frightening human characteristics: “This paper looks to me as if it knew what a vicious influence it had. There is a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down. ” This environment of an oppressive husband and wallpaper worsens her condition.
The oppressive environment meant to help restore the woman’s mental health ends up exacerbating it as her nervous condition develops into madness. Her restrictive surroundings cause her to struggle to maintain the appearance that she is getting better, so that her husband will not impose harsher regulations such as sending her to Weir Mitchell. Though writing helps her to relieve “the press of ideas,” the effort she has to make to hide the act tires her. In addition, she is told that she cannot think certain ways, or even acknowledge her mental condition, which she struggles with: “… ut John says the very worst thing I can do is to think about my condition, and I confess it always makes me feel bad. ”
Her idleness and lack of activity begins to take its toll on her as she starts to see life and movement in the pattern of the wallpaper, and a woman trapped within it, which occasions her to see herself as proceeding from a similar fate. Like Edna, who seeks to overcome her environment by swimming out into the ocean, the woman in this story tears off the bars of the wallpaper in an effort to experience a similar kind of freedom, but it is too late.
The negative effects of this environment on the woman causes her nervous condition to worsen, and eventually she descends into madness. Maggie: A Girl of the Streets is a similar story in its vho is a victim of environmental circumstances. In Crane’s novel, Maggie grows up in the slums of the Bowery —a harsh environment where poverty is the root cause of senseless violence and cruelty. In the beginning chapter, the reader is introduced into a world where hand-to-hand combat is the only way in which a young boy can prove his worth, a mother is no less ferocious than a father, and it is easy to inspire the hatred of your parents.
It is a brutal environment where violence is rewarded, retribution is certain, and fairness is disregarded. Maggie is born into this already an adult as she dreams of one day rising above the poverty and violence, despite her mother’s attempts to prevent this from happening. Unlike Edna and the woman of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Maggie works for a living, but still suffers a similar fate. She is able to find a way out through Pete, who scoffs at his circumstances and environment.
She feels an immediate attraction to him, finding camaraderie with his pessimistic worldview: “To her the earth was composed of hardships and insults. She felt instant admiration for a man who openly defied it. ” In addition to Maggie’s empathizing with Pete’s brutality, she is duped by his high-class airs, fancy clothing, and job that requires for him to mingle with the upper classes because she has known nothing better in her life. In Maggie’s environment, poverty and violence force her to seek out something more for her life, and the outlet she finds in a relationship with Pete results in a tragic conclusion.
The effects of Maggie’s impoverished and violent environment cause her to look for love in the wrong places, and results in a devastating conclusion. She comes to equate Pete’s clothes, job, and irascible temper with all that glitters. Maggie naively overestimates Pete’s character: “Here was a formidable man who disdained the strength of a world full of fists… one whose knuckles could defiantly ring against the granite of law. He was a knight. ” Seduced by this man, she becomes a fallen woman who has “gone teh deh devil” for having sex out of wedlock.
She is ostracized from her community and family, and takes to the streets to earn a living as a prostitute when Pete finds another girl that he wants to be with and leaves Maggie behind. In this unsympathetic world, Maggie is a victim of a double standard that rewards men for being sexually promiscuous at the expense of women. The love that Maggie thought was an authentic way in which to move up and out of her limiting circumstances was false, and the consequences of this lie result in the loss of her life. All three of these texts reveal women who seek to better their lives but are thwarted by their environments.
Edna’s story reveals that the economic pressures that Maggie contends with, as well as the patriarchal oppression that the woman in “The Yellow Wallpaper” struggles with, are not the only obstacles necessary to overcome in order for a woman to achieve happiness. Though all three women suffer in different environments, they each share the same gender-related fate of powerlessness and inability to self-determine because of their environments. These are issues related to gender and environment, and cannot be overcome by Maggie and Edna both show that love cannot be