Enclosed Women: On the Use of Enclosure Imagery by 19th-Century Female Authors to Expose Societal Oppression Hannah Carlson
The theme of enclosure is not uncommon in the literary writings of nineteenth-century female authors. Scholars have suggested that it was used as a way to portray the figurative imprisonment these women felt in their own lives. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, in their groundbreaking work The Madwoman in the Attic, comment on the use of ―obsessive imagery of confinement‖ and how it ―reveals the ways in which female artists feel trapped and sickened both by suffocating alternatives and the culture that created them‖ (64). The dominating force of patriarchy and the societal restrictions of the time prevented women from being free to fully express their opinions. Instead, women used their talents as writers to create scenes in their works that evoked images of enclosure. These images are manifested through the depictions of the female protagonist in a physically and mentally enclosed space, specifically through descriptions of the home where she is centrally located. Writing that expresses the author‘s feelings can be seen as therapeutic for the individual as well as a statement about society. It can be argued that due to the consistent repetition of the theme of enclosure in its various forms, women writers consciously included images of confinement in their works as an accessible way to express how they felt about the world around them to the general public. This hypothesis is supported by their personal fight for the equality of women in their civic roles. They were fighting to be heard and regarded as independent thinkers. It is important to recognize this phenomenon as it gives a personal and realistic glimpse into an important era in women‘s social history. The nineteenth century is a significant literary period for examining literature written by female authors, if only because of the significant changes occurring in societies. Women still fulfilled their traditional roles as domestic wives and mothers, but early feminist ideals had already begun to surface. Female authors such as Jane Austen and Charlotte Perkins Gilman lived chronologically and geographically distant lives, but both included in their work similar themes of enclosure, indicating that the enclosure motif is not merely coincidental. This motif can also be seen in works by Elizabeth Stoddard, Charlotte Bronte, Kate Chopin, and many others. Though the means of expressing themes of enclosure are different across authors, it is possible to see an underlying theme of oppression in all their works. Women writers felt the need to expose the problems in the dominating patriarchal society and did so through the imagery, themes, and diction in their depiction of physical, spatial, metaphorical, and mental enclosure. Works such as ―The Yellow Wallpaper‖ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman are especially interesting to focus on because of the popularity that they and their authors have achieved both in their own time and in the present day. Gilman was born in 1860 in Connecticut and wrote ―The Yellow Wallpaper‖ in 1890. By critically analyzing Gilman‘s works, as well as biographical information about her, it is possible to understand the society that she lived in and her experience of it. Gilman‘s short story has become known for its representation of nineteenth-century women‘s feelings of oppression as well as its revelations of nineteenth-century misunderstandings about women‘s health. This work is an example of how literature gives a firsthand and intimate
look into the minds of people living through an historical period: through a better understanding of women‘s history, it is possible to achieve greater gains in women‘s lives in the present. While some earlier female authors were subtle in their depiction of a confined woman within the home, Gilman was more blatant in her portrayal of enclosure themes. She shows her female...
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