The Role of Feminism in The Yellow Wallpaper and The Revolt of “Mother”
~ Nicole Kapise Perkins
Feminism is defined as 1: the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes; and 2: organized activity on behalf of women's rights and interests (http://www.merriam-webster.com). In The Yellow Wallpaper and The Revolt of “Mother” readers see both aspects of the definition. In Freeman’s Sarah Penn we see the go-getter: the suffragette organizing equal rights marches and speeches, graciously fighting for what she believes to be right. In Gilman’s unnamed protagonist is the dreamer: she longs to be taken seriously, to be believed in. She wants to write, but her husband tells her she can’t, it’s too much work. Gilman gives readers the theory of feminism, whereas Freeman gives readers the reality.
In the opening lines of Freeman’s story readers see that Sarah Penn is not a woman to be trifled with. Her relentless questioning of her husband is a direct contrast to Gilman’s protagonist, who voices her frustrations on paper, hidden away from her husband so he cannot ridicule her poor attempts at personal fulfillment. “ ‘Look here, father,’ Sarah demands, ‘I want to know what them men are diggin’ over in the field for, an’ I’m goin’ to know. (651)”
How different are Sarah’s words from this woman’s: “…John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that. […] You see, he does not believe I am sick! And what can one do? [...] So I will let it alone and talk about the house… (697).” Instead of standing firm and demanding to be heard as Sarah does, this woman allows herself to be trivialized and mocked, and while she complains of it, she complains to a piece of paper rather than solving the root of the problem.
Following her mild but determined confrontation, Sarah Penn next tries to make her husband see things from her standpoint. Just as women involved in the feminist movement of the nineteenth century organized speeches, Sarah Penn gives reasonable circumstances for why her husband should build the family a new home: “ ‘Here,’ said she, ‘is all the buttery I’ve got—every place I’ve got for my dishes, to set away my victuals in, an’ to keep my milk-pans in. Father, I’ve been taking care of the milk of six cows in this place, an’ now you’re goin’ to build a new barn, an’ keep more cows, an’ give me more to do in it.’ (654)”
Sarah says what she needs to say and doesn’t hound her husband any more after she’s had her say, but as soon as he’s gone she takes matters into her own very capable hands. The woman in The Yellow Wallpaper makes an attempt at facilitating change as she urges her husband to move her from the prison-like room with the disturbing wallpaper to one of the other bedrooms: “ ‘Then let us go downstairs,’ I said. ‘There are such pretty rooms there.’
Then he took me in his arms and called me a blessed little goose, and said he would go down to the cellar, if I wished, and have it whitewashed into the bargain. (699)” Sarah’s husband may not be moved by her rationalities, but he certainly does not make light of them. One almost has the impression that he respects her too much to mock her. He certainly has more respect for his wife than John of The Yellow Wallpaper has for his wife.
Sarah’s decision to move the family to the new barn is based on her own rational observations. She wants a larger home, she wants her daughter to be married in a nice house and more important, her husband promised he would build her a house on that particular piece of land forty years before. The building he has erected is livable, and so they will live in it. Furthermore, she has no fear of what her husband will do or say when he arrives home and sees what she has done: “Sarah Penn had supper all ready. […] She had on a clean calico and bore herself imperturbably. […] …an inborn confidence in their mother over their father asserted itself. (659)”
Sarah’s husband returns home from his journey and is shocked; he cannot believe what his wife has done, and yet she offers no apologies, just places dinner on the table and tells him he needs to “put in some windows and partitions.” Sarah has exerted her power as the caretaker of the family, and in the face of her power, her husband “was like a fortress whose walls had no active resistance, and went down the instant the right besieging tools were used”: his wife’s feminine determination.
For the woman writing in The Yellow Wallpaper, her every effort to improve her situation is thwarted by her lack of courage and her husband’s high-handedness: “It is so hard to talk with John about my case, because he is so wise, and because he loves me so. But I tried it last night. […] I got up softly and went to feel and see if the paper did move, and when I came back John was awake. ‘What is it, little girl?’ he said. […] ‘Really, dear, you are better!’
‘Better in body perhaps―’ I began, and stopped short, for he sat up straight and looked at me with such a stern, reproachful look that I could not say another word. (702-03)”
She understands the true nature of her illness, and yet she cannot seem to change her situation. While Sarah acts on her impulse and moves the family, this woman stays closed in the room, and her stress and depression begin to feed off her confinement. While Sarah creates a physical change for the better, this woman undergoes an emotional change for the worse. Soon, she does make a change to her surroundings. In tearing down strips of wallpaper to “get that woman out” she comes to believe she has freed herself, as she explains: “I wonder if they all came out of the wallpaper as I did? I suppose I shall have to get back behind the pattern when it comes night, and that is hard! (706)”
In the face of Sarah’s determination to move the family to the barn, he husband agrees to let the family stay. They will not go back to the cramped little house he built so long ago. Gilman’s unnamed narrator will also stay free, as she states to the man who has entered her room and stands gaping at her in horror. “‘I’ve got out at last,’ said I, ‘in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!’ (707)” What has she lost in her weakness? Her husband’s respect, herself, and in losing herself she has lost her femininity.