Gender Dynamics

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In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, the idea of women being subordinate to men is prominent. The main female characters are berated for their alleged incompetence and are subject to repression of their true selves. However, when the men are subjected to similar conditions, they prove to be much weaker than stereotypes would suggest. In both stories, the authors depict the ironies of conventional society to show how despite men’s perceived strength, women are really the stronger sex.

In “The Yellow Wallpaper”, Gilman paints a picture of a woman, Jane, whose husband and doctor have told her that she is sick, and she needs to do nothing but rest. Right from the start, the reader gets a clear image of the societal hierarchy. At the beginning, Jane doesn’t think she is sick, just suffering from a slight case of depression after having her first child, but her husband, John, says that she needs to rest and do no work until she is completely well. Jane is given no choice; she follows John’s orders without much question. Her spirit, creativity, and all around state of being is suppressed. He controls every aspect of her life, and she says nothing. She internalizes her anger and resentment toward him because he is “a physician of high standing and [her] own husband,” and she should not argue with what he says (808). Over the months, Jane remains calm and collected on the outside, always making sure to not let her “nervous condition” show in front of John (809). However, she eventually retreats so deeply into her own mind that she suffers a psychological break and cannot escape. John’s suppression of her vitality not only prevents her coming out of her depression, but it actually pushes her mind closer to collapse. With this story, Gilman highlights the differences in the roles of men and women in society. During this time period in upper middle class white society, men held all power and women were considered inferior and unable to think for themselves. Women were not supposed to question a man’s opinion or orders. In the story, the only way Jane rebels to John’s suppression of her is through writing, which he has forbidden. Other than that, she stays quiet and does not stand up for herself because it is not her place and she fears seeming disloyal. John, like most men, assumes he is superior and has a certain wisdom that she doesn’t possess. Therefore, he knows what is best for her and is allowed to treat her and her illness however he sees fit.

Throughout the story, the reader can watch Jane’s emotional decline through her writings. Along with making a statement about the gender differences in this society, Gilman is also poking holes in the assumed “resting cure”. After reading the story and the article “Why I Wrote ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’”, the reader can come to the conclusion that Jane would have likely made a full recovery from her depression if she had been allowed to exercise freedom of her mind, rather than be forced to rest and not think. Jane thinks this too, because she writes, “Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good” (809). However, because she feels she is forced to obey John, she cannot break out externally, so she breaks out internally. Regardless of how it happened, she does manage to break free of John’s tyranny and express herself. It’s possible to consider that her psychological break is not necessarily a decline, but more of an escape. She feels trapped in this life with a husband and new baby, and she is in a great state of depression. She couldn’t escape John’s tyranny outwardly, and though a psychological break is considered a negative thing to us, it was the only way she could really escape her depression. She retreated into her fantasy, but to her, it was the only place she could still have control over herself.

There is no doubt that Jane’s psyche took a lot of abuse throughout...
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