Female Freedom in the 19th Century Analysis

Female Freedom in the 19th Century: Two Short Stories

The short story entitled the “Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin and “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman both approach the subject of female sanity and wellness from different angles. Both stories suggest that society and those closest to the woman have really no idea about the inner life of the female, nor what is best for her mental health and overall well being. The incorrect assumptions of those around them are precisely what contribute to the ultimate tragedies and unraveling of mental states present within each story.

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Chopin’s famous “Story of an Hour” demonstrates the ill-conceived presumption that so many of the era project on to the heart and mind of a woman. We are told of Mrs. Mallard’s fragility in the opening of the story. As a result of this fragility, “Knowing that Mrs. Mallard was afflicted with a heart trouble, great care was taken to break to her as gently as possible the news of her husband’s death” (Chopin). The news, everyone believes, will break her, and possibly kill her, and she plays along with their expectations, giving them the show of emotions that they are expecting. “She wept at once, with sudden, wild abandonment, in her sister’s arms. When the storm of grief had spent itself, she went away to her room alone” (Chopin). Everyone around her presumes to know what’s going on with her internally, but they actually have no idea. This is a theme common in both stories: the inner life of the woman is something that is completely different from what is presumed by those around her.

When Mrs. Mallard is alone, we find out that she craves freedom—freedom from her marriage, freedom from the domination of her husband, freedom from all of it. She does not mourn the death of her husband, as much as she craves her own liberty, and celebrates her presumed liberty. Her freedom and autonomy are so precious to her that the mere sight of her husband, alive and well is enough to make her heart stop. No doubt many of the people around her had assumed that she was would be scared to live on her own, without the safety, protection and guidance from a husband. However, Mrs. Mallard’s reaction implies that her husband was controlling and domineering and that she didn’t have much freedom within the confines of their relationship. This is supported by the text: “There would be no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature” (Chopin). Hence, one can conclude that for her marriage was like a form of prison cell. Only through the death of her husband, could she get a taste of freedom.


Freedom is a theme inherent in both short stories. When Mrs. Mallard believes to have her own freedom finally granted and it is ripped away, it kills her. In “The Yellow Wallpaper” the protagonist’s freedom is constantly encroached upon day after day, and this is what culminates in her eventual insanity. The unnamed protagonist of Charlotte Gillman’s famous story has been diagnosed by her husband, a doctor, as having a “temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency.” She is given a prescription of fresh air, exercise, rest and is to avoid any and all mental or intellectual endeavors. We are also told her brother is a doctor as well, and this detail serves to give the reader the image that this woman is surrounded by men telling her what’s “wrong” with her and controlling her freedom and how she spends her time. As the character in the story directly asserts, in such as a case “what is one to do?” This illustrates how little control women had over their own fate and present circumstances.

This lack of control over her circumstances combined with the odd environment (a large mansion for the summer that the heroine describes as a haunted house, isolated from the rest of the town) creates a “perfect storm” for a mental breakdown. She spends most of her time in the room that her husband has chosen—the airy nursery at the top of the house. The yellow wallpaper is ghastly, commits every artistic sin and torn off in patches. She expresses her concern with it to her husband, and instead of being sensitive to her fragile mental and emotional state “At first he meant to repaper the room, but afterwards he said that I was letting it get the better of me, and that nothing was worse for a nervous patient than to give way to such fancies” (Gillman). Her husband then explains that if he repapers the room, she’ll no doubt find something else to complain about. Rather than taking her concerns with the odd images of the wallpaper and the distressing designs (and how they all made her feel in her condition), her doctor husband just dismisses them. This is another example of men in the 19th century who thinks he knows what is best for a woman’s mental health when he clearly does not. The heroine’s subsequent madness demonstrates this clearly.

In summary, both stories meditate in their own way on the dire results that occur with women who lack agency and the ability to direct their own lives. While these stories do go in somewhat different directions with this theme and demonstrate a different approach, they both deliver a very dark, cautionary message. When people (men) continue to assume what women want, need, feel and think and hence strip them of their independence, only the worst can occur.

Works Cited

Chopin, Kate. “”The Story of an Hour”.” VCU – Central Authentication Service – Login, 1894, archive.vcu.edu/english/engweb/webtexts/hour/.

Gillman, Charlotte P. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” National Library of Medicine, The Literature of Prescription, www.nlm.nih.gov/theliteratureofprescription/exhibitionAssets/digitalDocs/The-Yellow-Wall-Paper.pdf. Accessed 12 Sept. 2018.

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