In the age of “Time’s Up” and the “Me, Too” movement, where women are no longer speaking idly from the sides but shouting from the front lines of the long ongoing battle against inequality, we often find ourselves caught up in the importance of “the now.” Focusing on the current climate of our surroundings is dire, especially in a society where devastating political moves and heart-breaking tragedies can develop within the span of minutes, if not less. That being said, too often do we neglect reflecting on the past and the perspectives it offers to us present day, and how these opinions might aide us in making further strides forward. In looking towards pieces of literature that precede us, we can often find messages that ring true even in today’s society, all the while offering us the ability to grasp the value said piece had in changing the narrative during the time in which it was published. In the contexts of their time, two such short stories do just that; “The Yellow Wallpaper,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and “A Rose for Emily,” by William Faulkner. Despite their very different approaches, these two stories, through their dual uses of point of view and characterization, expose the dangers of patriarchal oppression that women face as a result of the male gaze (what is more modernly known as “mansplaining”).
First published in 1892, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, shares a tale that is deeply rooted in the real-life experiences of the author herself. In this short story, we follow the often-questionable perspective of the Narrator as she spends three months in what she initially believes is a summer home, but eventually comes to realize, that it is in fact, an asylum. The way in which the Narrator is characterized, and often views herself, is based solely on the perspectives those closest to her outwardly project. Her husband, the one responsible for her “diagnosis” and further hospitalization, is the prime example of such outward characterization. He regards her in a fatherly, if not condescending, manner, often depicted laughing at her, managing all of the decisions surrounding her “condition,” and referring to her with names such as “little girl” and “blessed little goose” (171, 180,175). Initially, the Narrator views her husband’s micromanaging and dismissiveness as the manifestation of his love and concern as both husband and doctor. She believes that his opinions about her health are based in sound reasoning, and that leads her to adopt the view of weakness and instability projected by him. However, as the story progresses and her surroundings bring on a further loss of conscious awareness, this seeming deterioration comes to serve as a catalyst for her epiphany. As she recedes further into her mind, she begins to voice discontent with the way in which John treats her, as well as the conditions in which she is held. At the peak of her insanity, which just so happens to be her last day in “treatment,” she fights back against her husband and the patriarchal tones he has come to represent. After throwing out the key in an unsuccessful attempt to keep her husband away, she boasts to him about being able to “[get] out at last” (187). In spite of her instability, the last interaction we as readers view between the Narrator and John, speaks a large deal to the change in self-image that she came to adopt in response to her loss of reality. Where once she was characterized as a weak woman in needed of a man’s coddling and “expert” opinions, the Narrator comes to experience a full metamorphosis into a woman aware of the patriarchal expectations that not only plague her marriage, but society as a whole.
Unlike most other stories where we tend to put our wholehearted faith into the narrator’s ability to accurately tell their story, the Narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” presents a challenge to the typical method in which we read. Due to the instability that the Narrator faces as a result of her lackluster conditions and neglectful treatment, we as the audience are met with the choice of whether or not to trust the credibility of her writings, and furthermore, the point of view presented. Despite this, we find ourselves rooting for the character to overcome. As we follow the character through her stay at this “mansion,” we begin to realize that although her point of view is shrouded in faulty foundations, not giving her the benefit of the doubt only furthers the same patriarchal tendencies seen in John and those assisting him in her caretaking. The point of view in and of itself has come to represent an unfortunate trend many women today are all too familiar with; a tendency to be dismissed and deemed un-credible by their peers both male and female. By putting our faith in the Narrator and following along as she comes to realize the misogyny and mansplaining that has come to define her, as well as how her realization has come to represent her release, we are able to come to an epiphany ourselves, one that allows us to grow and be more aware of the judgements and deductions we are often quick to make, especially in regards to believing the stories of the abused.
In William Faulkner’s short story, “A Rose for Emily,” we see a very different take on the way in which characterization is utilized. Unlike that of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the characterization of our main character Emily Grierson is not interpreted by her own internal monologue, but rather that of those who also occupy her town. To the people around her, Emily represents something of an outsider. Her age and reclusive behavior make her an enigmatic entity, and this causes those around her to be wary. Despite their wariness, the townspeople view Emily with an air of pity that has come from the unorthodox relationship between her and her father, depicted in the form of a tableau; in said “piece”, her father is depicted as an overpowering black silhouette figure in the forefront of the image, horsewhip in hand, his back towards his daughter of white who occupies the background (158). His need to have control over her and keep her bound to him and him alone, alludes to the patriarchy that has come to deteriorate and create an unstable foundation to Emily, a fact becomes more prominent as time continues to roll forward, and she represents as much the house she has become prisoner to, as its outward appearance has come to characterize her. As the conditions of the house continue to worsen, from the rot and “dust and disuse” (155) that has come just as much from earth bound means as the patriarchal society that bound Emily to its floorboards, the townspeople begin to express an irritation towards Emily’s inability to “do what a woman should do.” Although this isn’t an outwardly voiced thought, their assumptions are apparent in the continued meddling in her personal life, and the irritation that is voiced in response to her house’s condition (157). This fear of “other” that the people around her experience directly stems from the patriarchal practice of filling in the blanks of someone else’s story and dismissing them to the outside; a practice that directly diminishes Emily to the near apparition she has become (158).
Although the points of view of these two stories are completely different, with “A Rose for Emily” using the uncommon form of first-person plural, both stories’ methods of narration carry a lack of trust in the narrator(s) itself. Whereas the Narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” faces an assumption of unreliability as a result of the patriarchy that has put her into such a state of instability, the narrator in “A Rose for Emily” poses itself as an untrustworthy narrator not because of an oppression it experiences, but because it represents the monologue and thoughts that come as a result of a society crippled by the patriarchy. The townspeople that make up this point of view project their opinions and thoughts onto Emily so thoroughly, that she comes to represent a medium from which their stigmas can be cast upon and thrive. The ability of our narrator to reduce Emily down to just the pity and suspicion that surrounds her perceived “otherness,” is ironically the system in which the author is able to critique the institution of patriarchy. By creating a narrator that views Emily through the eyes of the male gaze and speaks through the art of mansplaining, Faulkner is able to evoke a feeling of empathy towards Emily that causes the audience to turn against the narrator. We root for her to overcome the patriarchal limits that bind, yet we find that like the Narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the means at which she takes back this power is not truly sound, and in this case, quite morbid, playing towards the substantial damage that prolonged patriarchal practices can create.
In a world where teenagers are able to have conversations within the confines of their cellphones, and movements can make real change overnight, the importance of referring to the perspectives and literature from the past is critical. The critiques of misogyny brought on by the authors of both “The Yellow Wallpaper” and “A Rose for Emily” carry messages that still hold significance today and can be used to push for further progress in the fight for equality.
Faulkner, William. “A Rose for Emily” Seagull Reader: Stories. 4th ed., edited
by Joseph Kelly, W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. 154-163.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper” Seagull Reader: Stories. 4th ed., edited
by Joseph Kelly, W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. 171-187.