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The Awakening and The Yellow Wallpaper: An Intertextual Comparison of the "Conventional" Connotations of Marriage and Propriety

       Kate Chopin's story The Awakening and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's story The Yellow Wallpaper draw their power from two truths: First, each work stands as a political cry against injustice and at the socio/political genesis of the modern feminist movement. Second, each text is a gatekeeper of a new literary history. Kate Chopin and Charlotte Perkins Gilman seem to initiate a new phase in textual history where literary conventions are revised to serve an ideology representative of the "new" feminine presence. Two conventions in particular seem of central importance: "marriage" and "propriety".
       Donald Keesey, editor of the critical collection Contexts for Criticism, describes "convention" for us as,

devices of structure and plot, techniques of character representation, and a vast reservoir of images and symbols are conventions that most Western literatures, at least, have in commonBut like the conventions of language, they have meaning only to those who have learned them (Keesey, 262).

       Literary convention is on one side the particular tool or image; for example, "baptism" can be used as a literary a convention. It is a "convention" because it brings with it a set of inferences, i.e. rebirth, renewal, awakening, initiation, etc. This relation of the signifier to the signified is what Chopin and Gilman seek to revise in the conventions of "propriety" and "marriage". The preceding definition of "convention" leaves us with an important question, namely, "What if what the existing conventions imply is insufficient? What if, as in the case of Chopin and Gilman, the canon (as a reflection of society at large) has failed to recognize the feminine voice?" As these authors have shown us, when such is the case, one's "truth-speaking" takes on the sound of one crying out, of one rebelling. The revolution these authors bring comes in the way that they will use the same language, as in verbiage and construction, as their male counterparts but will insist that what is seen as a "male contrived language" be seen in full light of the fact that language is "a-sexual" and it is its use which engenders it. These women give birth to a recognizable set of feminist conventions based on the existing conventional lexicon. It is wrong to insist that a truly "female" voice can only be heard and respected in its independence and separation from the once "male" canon. It seems that the only chance for independence would come from the creation of a new language, concretely female and "Amazonian". It must be understood that it is no flaw of "feminist convention" to be seen in relation to male convention; in fact it is necessary, for what is the male without the female, or the female without the male? There was no "male" voice until a female movement emerged to pose opposition to it. The "male" voice which we now identify, before the feminist movement, had simply been the "canon", the sanctioned and the status quo. The relationship of the female to male voices gives strength to both, makes each more distinct and profound. The language they use is the same. This language's maleness derives from the ways in which "men" have insisted it be used. For example, "penis" as a signifier of power was surely an idea purported by a man. It would be silly to say that at the genesis of our English language, the first time someone said the word "penis" it immediately denoted power. The word "Xerox" is an a-sexual example of the way a word, through certain usage, can become the signifier of an idea or concept that it did not denote at its genesis. It will be seen that what Gilman and Chopin add to such existing conventions as "propriety" and "marriage" is a sense of fullness. They add a femininity which fills these existing conventions with truth and dynamism, they add the feminine opinion on what these conventions really imply; that what they add is seen as revolution is a sardonic reflection of the early canon's prevailing "single vision".
       "Propriety", as defined by the American Heritage Dictionary (Second College Edition), represents: 1. The quality or condition of being proper, 2.Conforming to prevailing rules and conventions. Chopin makes propriety a central motif in her story so that she might compel a reconsideration of its patrimonial tenets. While Creole society provides a backdrop of "sexual" openness, it is clear in its social code. The "entire absence of prudery" and their "freedom of expression" pose a contrast to the reality of the feminine position. It appears that "women" have exchanged this nominal freedom for each of their individual identities. We learn most about Edna and the social code when Chopin poses them in contrast. As she writes,

In short, Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother-woman. The mother-women seemed to prevail that summer at grand isleThey were women who idealized their children, worshipped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels. (Chopin, 8)

The "mother-woman" role is an image which encapsulates this idea of propriety. It is a behavioral code which bases a woman's identity on her capacity to bear children, look after them and worship the patriarch; it is a role based on the effacement and the extrication of each female individuality for the sake of the "mother-woman" raiment.
       What Chopin elicits at length, Gilman addresses in a terse, psychological statement: "There comes John's sisterShe is a perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper, and hopes for no better profession" (Gilman, 18). Gilman elucidates directly the "deep-rootedness" of the prevailing social code. Propriety insists that the woman's role is "within the home"; its influence is so immanent that even women themselves expect no more. It is fitting that this inadequate idea of "propriety" has as its root the Latin word propietas, or ownership; in society women are the objects, the property. What is clear by Chopin's and Gilman's presentation of this convention is the way in which "propriety", as reflective of what is social norm, derives from an oppressive sense of patriarchal ownership. As Chopin writes, Leonce says, "'You are burnt beyond recognition,' he added, looking at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of property which has suffered some damage" (Chopin, 2). Leonce's concern arises from a fear of transgressing a social more that holds that fair skin is a reflection of prosperity and wealth. Property is the essence of propriety. Chopin and Gilman present this idea of propriety and property to intentionally rarefy the social code, bringing to light its true implications. Both main characters' rebellion is not a new convention, but their strikingly female voice is. It confronts the existing social norms with a new insight into their inherent failings. As Gilman writes, "He thought I was asleep first, but I wasn't and lay there for hours trying to decide whether that first pattern and the back pattern really did move together or separately" (Gilman, 25). The speaker's question is whether that first image, representative of the social and gender code, is really the same as the second image, a metaphor for the woman in society. Both authors insist that they are not one and the same images, they are different, and contradictory; the feminine can not be encapsulated or molded.
       This revised concept of propriety is based on an assertion of the free female presence. In this vein, Chopin and Gilman address the institution of marriage and criticize it as a convention that while expounding mutual happiness and satisfaction is really a means of oppression. Gilman writes in a book titled Women and Economics,

[regarding women]the same human energies and human desires and ambitions within. But all that she may wish to have, all that she may wish to do, must come through a single channel and a single choice. Wealth, power, social distinction, fame, -not only these, but home and happiness, reputation, ease and pleasure, her bread and butter,-all, must come to her through a small gold ring (Gilman, 57).

The criticism is that marriage is the ultimate indemnification of patriarchy. It is not, as it stands on a general whole, a partnership. Gilman's character is so psychologically bound to this marriage type that she asserts matter-of-factly, "John laughs at me, but one expects that in marriage" (Gilman, 9). Gilman is commenting on the condescension of this male attitude and on the sad fact of "marriage" as it seems to condone the "ridicule" of women.
       Chopin's comment is equally as critical as it is that same "small gold ring" that Edna lashes out against. Chopin describes, "Once she stopped, and taking off her wedding ring flung it upon the carpet. When she saw it lying there, she stamped her heel upon it, striving to crush it" (Chopin, 57). Edna's revolt is clear and precise. Her frustration is emphasized by the fact that her attempts are met with absolute resilience. Chopin makes clear that the marriage institution will fall to frustrated tantrums, but one that can be met and conquered in a mature, psychological fashion.
       By adding a feminine vision to the conventions of "propriety" and "marriage", Chopin and Gilman have insinuated a theme of "woman as prisoner". As a result, it seems clear that these women die for or because of the cause for which they choose to fight. In both stories, the heroine's "cause" moves her to separate from masculine hegemony in search of a "room of one's own" (to use Virginia Woolf's term). Edna gets her cottage and Gilman's narrator gets a bedroom. For Gilman's heroine, the final act of individuation has been criticized as the breakdown of a victim, not the triumph of a heroine. The question we ask of this story is, does the narrator choose insanity over resignation to the patriarchy? And then, can insanity be chosen? The answer seems to be, "No, insanity is not a thing chosen". What Gilman purports in her narrator is a personality whose inner "female" pursuits are so deep and so strong that when met with constant oppression and suppression no compromise can be made. By virtue of her very independence she is drawn into an utter despair and frustration that ends in mental breakdown. The same question of control has been asked of Chopin's Edna, as Nancy Walker writes, "In effect, Edna drifts into death because she does nothing to stop it; in this action, as in preceding ones, she has not controlled her own destiny" (Keesey, 63). The strength of a character's rebellion seems to be based on this issue of control; without control, critics make a claim to the lack of integrity and intentionality of their martyrdom, rendering it victimization, not heroism. But in the true sense of "martyrdom", control is of no importance. (For the sake of argument, Edna is in control, her decision not to resist is as much as decision as one might make to resist. Her action is done with such calm self assurance that we must understand her lack of resistance to be the ultimate act of rebellion; for Edna, death is a relief from the slow extrication of her female identity and individuality. ) But, returning to the issue of control, common sense tells us that most martyrs do not necessarily want to die. Their martyrdom comes as a result of the cause which they represent, not the excitement with which they charged to death. Iphegenia, from Aeschylus' Orestia, Lilly Bart from Wharton's The House of Mirth, or Persephone from Greek myth are all examples of women who fall victim to a "male" paradigm yet are seen as martyrs for the very reason that they are victims.
       In their reconstruction of the conventions used to characterize their "story worlds", Chopin and Gilman set out on a reconstruction of what is signified by the signifier. Their cause seeks to engender certain existing conventions with a truer sense of their sexual implications. They did not want the canon to see only that "marriage and propriety represent oppression for women", they wanted to raise the understanding of the full scope of the concepts themselves, elucidating that "propriety" and "marriage" are signifiers of a set of expectations to which women are bound, expectations to which they will resist. It is the cultural "expectation" which they resist, the way that the words "marriage" and "propriety" are engendered with the chauvinism of the patriarchy. Their female voice has asserted itself by revising existing literary convention. In the Afterward of The Yellow Wallpaper, Hedges gives us a fitting quote to close by,

Such suicides as that of Lily, or of Kate Chopin's heroine mentioned earlier, as well as the madness that descends upon the heroine in "The Yellow Wallpaper", are all deliberate dramatic indictments, by women writers, of the crippling social pressures imposed on women in the nineteenth century and the sufferings they enduredIt is to this entire class of defeated, or even destroyed women, to this large body of wasted, or semi-wasted talent, that "The Yellow Wallpaper" is addressed (Gilman, 55).

The voices of Chopin and Gilman represent a reemergence of the feminine voice. They insist that a feminine vision will be a part of the existing set of literary conventions. Though Hedges feels these books are addressed to the "defeated women", let us insist that a precursor to rise, is defeat and in the vein of mythic implication, that Aphrodite rises from the water and Persephone from Hades; that all refer us to the alchemical Phoenix, an "a-sexual", male/female abstraction from the great myth of rebirth.


Bibliography

Chopin, Kate, The Awakening and Selected Stories of Kate Chopin, edited by Barbara H. Solomon, Nal Penguin Inc., New York, 1976.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins, The Yellow Wallpaper, The Feminist Press, 1973.

Keesey, Donald, Contexts for Criticism. Mayfield Publishing Company, 1994.