Nature or Nurture: Antagonistic Influences in The Yellow Wallpaper and The Story of an Hour
“The Story of an Hour,” by Kate Chopin, shares so many similarities with Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” that Chopin’s story almost seems to be a retelling, or perhaps an answer to Gilman’s. Written only two years apart, both illustrate the internal lives of women under pressure to conform to the social constraints of the day. Both protagonists, Louise and Jane, are cautioned against excitement, as it was strongly believed at the time that mental and emotional stimulation was a significant cause of ill health. Both Louise and Jane lock themselves in their rooms, and people other than just their husbands out, at the moment the protagonists attain their personal victories. Most significantly, the sense of freedom and confinement Louise and Jane both experience is symbolized in the story by patterns of nature and order, which suggests that the antagonistic influences they experience transcend simply husbands and marriage. Instead, their major struggles are internal, in coming to terms with their own wishes to conform as well as to live as they choose.
This struggle is most clearly illustrated in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” where Jane struggles with self control against her own natural tendencies. These tendencies are symbolized by references to nature and the order and chaos that can be found within nature. For instance, it is the regular and orderly movement of the sun and the moon across the random organic pattern of the paper that not only reveals the woman moving inside, but confines her as well, “becom(ing) bars” (361). The natural pattern of the wallpaper has a “lack of sequence, a defiance of law” which is a “constant irritant to a normal mind” (361). The end of the story finds Jane feeling victorious, having freed herself from the randomness of her nature, symbolized by her perceived escape from the wallpaper. By tying herself to the bed, moving regularly around the room in an orderly arc like the sun, she has imposed order on herself and succeeded at implementing self-control. Jane has found a resolution to her inner conflict through the only means she feels she can allow herself.
Though representations of the order Louise struggles against in “The Story of an Hour” are harder to recognize, Louise’s gaze is described as not being a “glance of reflection, but rather indicated a suspension of intelligent thought.” (203) She is not thinking rationally, logically, there is no order to her thoughts. She begins to sense her freedom “creeping,” as Jane’s nature does, to possess her. Louise strives to “beat it back with her will,” an attempt at self-control, again, similar to Jane’s. (203) Unlike Jane, however, Louise decides to embrace freedom. This freedom she finds through her open window, symbolized by “the tops of trees, all aquiver with new life.” (203) It creeps “out of the sky, reaching toward her through the sounds, the scents, the color that filled the air.” She imagines the “spring days, and summer days, and all sorts of days that would be her own.”
While it might be easy for a post-feminist reader to see husbands and patriarchal institutions like marriage and medicine as the main antagonistic influences in these stories, to do so would be to give the authors far less credit than they deserve. Both authors make it pretty clear that their protagonists are complicit in their own repression. If she were not complicit, Louise, in “The Story of an Hour,” would not collapse at her husband’s return, she would simply walk past him out the door. Yet she knows that “men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow creature.” (204) Note this belief is gender-neutral. It seems she cannot deny that right to her own “fellow creature.” And Jane, in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” strives to conform to social constraints to the point that she drives herself insane. She means to “be such a help to John, such a real rest and comfort,” yet she considers herself a “comparative burden.” (356)
Rather, the major conflict of both “The Yellow Wallpaper” and “The Story of an Hour” is internal. Louise and Jane must come to terms with their desire or unwillingness to conform to the constraints of society. They also must come to terms with their desire to live as they choose outside those constraints. This struggle is symbolized through random and orderly patterns of nature, which point away from husbands, marriage, and patriarchy as the major source of conflict in both stories.
Gilman, Charlotte P. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The Norton Introduction to Literature. Ed. Alison Booth and Kelly J. Mays. New York: Norton 2010. 356-57, 359, 361.
Chopin, Kate. “The Story of an Hour.” The Story and Its Writer. Ed. Ann Charters. Boston: Bedford St. Martin’s 2011. 203-204.