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Gender Roles in The Yellow Wallpaper and Huckleberry Finn

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In the late 19th Century, America experienced it’s most “gilded era,” so to speak, in non-traditional women’s literature encompassing new inquiries into of gender freedom and equality. A common element of several of the works from this time period focused on themes of the Cult of True Womanhood and non-traditional parent-child relationships. The stories also make light of some gruesome social inequalities apparent in this era, or at least bring the double standards to the surface. Two of the best examples of this are Mark Twain’s, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Charlotte Gilman’s, The Yellow Wallpaper. We get differing views of the female/parent figure in the literature, and it’s interesting to see the rampant gender inequalities and instances of social inferiority.

In The Yellow Wallpaper, we get a glimpse of the social inferiority of women as there was an odd dynamic in the relationship with John, the husband. He addressed his wife as if he was speaking with a very young, ignorant daughter. This is most evident when Gilman writes, “Then he took me in his arms and called me a blessed little goose,” (Gilman, 794). She even begins to fit into the childish role, as you can see when she says, “I cry at nothing, and cry most of the time.” (Gilman, 796). John’s actions were a consequence to her distressed mental state, but still struck a particular interest in her condition. In this situation the parent-child dynamic is not geared towards a real family, but to the wife, and very demeaning in his approach. She is left nearly no freedoms to recuperate from her condition, which was likely due to post-partum depression as we know it today.

In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain seems to suggest that Huck wasn’t happy with the life he was living with the Widow Douglas. She was a single mother figure, and Huck really wanted for a father figure and a freer way to live life. The widow was very strict and did not have any charisma for Huck to latch onto. This is evident when Huck says,

The Widow Douglas, she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me; but it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways; and so when I couldn’t stand it no longer, I lit out. (Twain, 131). His biological father eventually took Huck in, it was a bad situation for him, but was still happier than his time with the Widow Douglas. When Huck finally decides to run away, he meets Jim who is a much better role model, despite being from a different ethnicity at the height of racial discrimination. Jim genuinely cares for Huck, and you can see this most clearly when Jim doesn’t let Huck see his father on the boat, and refuses to tell him who it was. Jim tells Huck, “It’s a dead man. Yes, indeed; naked, too. He’s ben shot in de back. I reck’n he’s ben two er three days. Come in, Huck, but doan’ look at his face –it’s too gashly.” (Twain, 161). Huckleberry also cares for Jim, as you can see when he resolves to buy Jim’s freedom. This seems to be a caring relationship that both Jim and Huck wanted, and it was infinitely better than Huck’s real father situation and the expectant Widow Douglas.

Considering these works were written at a similar time, it’s very interesting to compare how the parent figures are presented. When you observe John and his wife in the Yellow Wallpaper, the relationship seemed one of caregiver and infant. She often defers not to ask questions, as he is much wiser and knows better. This is evident when Gilman rights, “It is so hard to talk with John about my case, because he is so wise, and because he loves me so.” (Gilman, 797). It almost seems as if he pities her, and she needs him because she’s unable to take care of or fend for herself. In Twain’s work you acquire a completely different portrait. Jim and Huckleberry have a very good relationship, one that almost resembles a healthy father-son relationship.

The Widow Douglas and her embodiment of the Cult of True Womanhood was distasteful for Huckleberry. Unlike The Yellow Wallpaper, the child reciprocates care for the parent in Twain’s work, and this is clear when Huck and Tom agree to free Jim. Twain writes, “I’m low down; and ‘m agong to steal hm, and I want you to keep mum and not let on. Will you?’ His eye lit up, and he says: ‘I’ll help you steal him’” (Twain, 269). The difference may lie in the “child’s” willingness to have a parenting figure, and Huck had more desire than the wife in the Gilman work.

The Yellow Wallpaper showed a different relationship, one that wasn’t as agreeable to the freedom that women should expect. The wife was clearly mentally unstable, and treatment was being forced upon her by her husband. At no other time in the story was it more evident when John said, “The repairs are not done at home, and I cannot possibly leave town just now. Of course if you were in any danger, I could and would, but you really are better, dear, whether you can see it or not. I am a doctor, dear, and I know.” (Gilman, 798). She didn’t want to be locked in a room with no stimuli, but her husband believed it to be the best course of action. Throughout the work John is going over his wife’s head, treating her like a child, and doing what he believes to be best without ever consulting her. This was a real contrast in comparison to the Twain story, as the parent-child relationship in the Gilman work was not completely consensual. John forced treatment upon his wife, doing what he believed to best, and ultimately he didn’t help and pushed her further into madness.

Ultimately one of the biggest differences in the two works was the willingness of the child figure to parented. Huckleberry was longing for the relationship he never could have had with his father, while the Narrator in the Gilman work had no desire to be treated as a child. This is probably why the two works show such different presentations of the relationship. John genuinely cared for his wife, but it didn’t have the same effect on the reader as the Twain story.

When comparing the two works you see connections to the author’s real lives as well. You can see Gilman’s situation clearly as she experienced a breakdown very similar to the Narrator’s in the story. She was going along with the same treatment of no stimulation or socialization as the Narrator, but eventually decided that the only way she would get better is with writing and mental stimulation. In the Twain work it is more of a stretch, but Twain lost his father at a young age, and Huck’s relationship with Jim could reflect the adolescent relationship Twain himself missed with his

In the Gilman work, you cannot help but wonder if she holds some sort of resentment towards her husband. The narrator is experiencing a mental break-down similar to what Gilman herself experienced, and she makes a point to show how unhappy with the treatment the narrator is. Gilman herself wrote on about how unhappy she was with the lack of stimulus, just as the narrator did, and often snuck around to write, just as the narrator did. She was very similar to her narrator, and perhaps the tone of the father figure in the story is similar to an experience Gilman herself experienced while she was receiving treatment.

In both works we’re presented relationships that are untraditional. Parent figures are caring for children figures, when in reality there is no basis for the relationship. In Twain, it was a positive relationship with Jim, as both members of the relationship cared for each other and wanted to help and be helped, yet the disliked Widow Douglas detracts from a healthy parent-child relationship. This is in contrast to the Gilman work, where the narrator didn’t specifically ask for help, and even seemed to resent it. She needed mental help, but her husband talks down to her nearly the entire time, and it seemed as though help and treatment was being forced onto her. Overall the two works share similar things in respect to having an untraditional relationship, but the willingness of the child figure is what makes all the difference. Huckleberry was willing to have a parent after the strict Widow Douglas gives him up, while the narrator in the Yellow Wallpaper didn’t regain any of her health with help pushed upon her.

Crane, Stephen, and Gilman, Mary. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 8th ed. Vol. C. New York: Norton, 2012. Print.

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