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The Theme Of Oppression in “The Yellow Wallpaper” and “Sweat”

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This paper compares the theme of oppression found in “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and “Sweat” by Zora Neale Hurston. Both the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Delia are products of male influence, most of the time being negative ones. What is interesting is that in both stories it is hard to determine their true emotions towards their husbands, because “love and hate continuously go back and forth between them” (thematic analysis of “sweat” article myriad.) They seem to want to love the men who dominate them yet, are able to disregard their emotions and set themselves free from oppression.

In “Sweat”, the reader is first introduced to hard working Delia, the protagonist of the story. Delia’s devotion to her household responsibilities is deeply captured through her positive attitude towards completing her work as a washerwoman, who has the habit of getting a head start in her work every Sunday. Delia is constantly oppressed by internal and external forces that seem to be out of her reach. Sykes, Delia’s husband is the most overpowering and dominant figure she has to deal with. Sykes spends all of her money by wandering off with a woman named Bertha while she “sweats” in order to support herself and her husband. Sykes sparks the fire or triggers Delia’s extreme anger by bringing a snake home although he knew that she was afraid of snakes.

At this point, Delia can no longer hold in her fury and anger towards him. Delia says “ Ah hates you tuh de same degree dat ah uster love yuh” (Hurston –.) Delia remembers her sincere emotions towards Sykes when they were first married and the steps that she took to achieve her dream of maintaining a nice home and pleasant life. It is at this point in which Delia seems to take the step into asserting her own identity by becoming more aware and“awakens” to the reality of their marriage. The narrator mentions that Sykes had constantly abused Delia both physically and verbally throughout their marriage.

“Two months after the wedding, he had given her the first brutal beating. She had the memory of his numerous trips to Orlando with all of his wages when he returned to her penniless, even before the first year had passed…Two late now to hope for love, even if it were not Bertha it would be someone else…Too late for everything except her little home.” (Hurston 351 reference: http://www.enotes.com/sweat/q-and-a/what-has-delia-sykes-marriage-been-like-what-47389) This quote validates the readers’ assumption of Delia being oppressed by Sykes both physically and verbally.

An example of his physical abuse is when he slithers a bullwhip across Delia’s shoulders, leaving her terrified to think that it was a snake. “Just then something long, round, limp and black fell upon her shoulders and slithered to the floor beside her. A great terror took hold of her. It softened her knees and dried her mouth so that for a full minute she could not cry out or move.” (Hurston 349). Symbolically, “the bullwhip represents Sykes’s dominance over Delia.

It seems that Sykes is whipping Delia into submitting to him and yielding complete control over her” (Literary contexts in Short stories: Zora Neale Hurston’s Sweat-Library Reference Center.) Therefore, Delia’s “love” for Sykes should no longer be an excuse for her to tolerate the torment she lives in. Luckily, towards the end of the story, these dreams, emotions, and thoughts no longer have meaning. They all seem to fade away causing Delia to watch her husband die without having pity for him.

“The Yellow Wallpaper”, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman gives us a synopsis of how women were treated in the 19th century. Gilman defines the gender role situation in the late 1800s, through the perspective of male dominance in marriage. “Typical during the time, the story presents the relationship between male dominance through female imprisonment within the household. Gilman does so by taking the reader through the terrors of a woman’s mental state characterized by her encounters with the wallpaper in her room.” (identify source) As readers, we could claim that the narrator is unreliable due to “her constant assertions that she is going mad.” These assertions help convey the narrator’s feelings of misery and imprisonment.

This leaves the reader to consider both theories Gilman presents: “either she is “mad” or “she is suffering oppression” (Article Myriad.) Her unhappiness and her husband’s treatment of her prove that she is oppressed. Surely, the vast use of symbolism in the wallpaper supports and “enhances the theme of oppression in The Yellow Wallpaper leaving the reader to contemplate if John in fact was to blame for the outcome. Although the narrator is unreliable due to her “nervous condition”, she is still able to make “very strong statements about her situation as an oppressed woman. Therefore, it is impossible to ignore the fact that John’s mistreatment is the main contributor of the outcome” (Article Myriad.)

An example of this is when the narrator arrives at the house her husband has taken to spend their summer vacation. The narrator refers to it as a “colonial mansion, a hereditary estate, I would say a haunted house, and reach the height of romantic felicity” (Gilman 1392).From the very start, the narrator mentions that John laughs at her ideas. “John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage” and “he is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction” (Gilman 1392.) . This is just one of the sheer levels of disrespect John shows his wife. This quote causes the reader to realize the reality of her environment, her relationship with John, and his constant efforts to infantilize her.

Although some of her comments made about their marriage and relationship may seem to be “off-hand, the narrator’s increasing madness cannot be disregarded as they include important statements about John’s never-ending overprotection.” (Article Myriad) Gilman’s inclusion of the narrator’s increasing anger causes the reader to take her claims more seriously. An example of her increasing frustration could be shown through the following quote,“I get unreasonably angry with John sometimes. I’m sure I never used to be so sensitive. I think it is due to this nervous condition” (Gilman __).

Although the narrator believes that this results because of her condition she later reveals a very crucial point to understanding John’s oppression to her. She says that “despite her love for writing” (Article Myriad), “He hates to have me write a word” (Gilman __.) This quote clearly portrays the narrator’s entrapment in her marriage and the lack of freedom she has to bear. Accordingly, John (like Sykes) dominates the narrator by having an effect on the establishment of the narrator’s identity. John disparages the narrator’s imaginative ideas and thoughts and forbids her from engaging into them.

She feels deprived of happiness to immerse into her own dreams and feels that freedom and taking part in interesting work would help her reveal her inner self. For this reason, the narrator turns her imagination “onto a seemingly neutral object-the wallpaper and begins to write in her secret journal despite John’s opposition.” (FIND SOURCE) The narrator describes the pattern of the wallpaper in a vague manner. “It is dull enough to confuse the eye in the following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a distance they suddenly commit suicide—plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard contradictions” (Gilman 1393).

This description of the pattern is very symbolic as it portrays the narrator’s emotions characterized by severe depression due to the people who constantly deprive her and contradict her longings. The curves symbolize the narrator herself. Due to her husband’s ridiculous suggestions she finds her ideas of establishing her own identity scattered into outrageous angles, destroyed by others’ interferences with her. The description of the paper being dull and “constantly irritating” symbolizes her sense of inferiority and burden. The narrator feels that she is isolated from the world and “comes to a greater understanding of the inner reality of her life” (Put any source.) The narrator then longs for adventure, activity, company or any source of entertainment that would nurture her soul. These were the essentials in establishing her identity.

The narrator’s identity is split into two parts: inner and outer. This split is very important in understanding the narrator’s suffering and struggle within her. As the story progresses, she is able to greatly connect to the wallpaper and allows it to have a great influence upon her. “Up and down and sideways they crawl, and those absurd unblinking eyes are everywhere. There is one place where two breaths didn’t match, and the eyes go all up and down the line, one a little higher than the other” (Gilman 1395). The eyes represent John and Jennie’s constant overprotection upon her. The “two breaths that didn’t match” represents the clash between her and John. What’s interesting is that the mention of “crawling up and down and sideways” foreshadows how John finds her at the end.

The description of the room floor portrays the narrator’s struggle with herself and others to achieve her goals. “…the floor is scratched and gouged and splintered, the plaster dug itself here and there, looks as if it had been through the wars” (Gilman 1395). These wars could resemble her fights with depression, and disagreements with John over writing in her journal. The narrator yearns to reach to a stage were she is be able to make decisions for herself and be free to live her life in any way she pleased. For this reason she begins to question herself about which path she should take; the path in wish she was fully obedient to John or the path that would help her achieve her dreams and desires.

“The whole thing goes horizontally, too, at least it seems so, and I exhaust myself in trying to distinguish the order of its going in that direction” (Gilman 1396). The pattern symbolizes the narrator’s state of confusion and decision to take the step of establishing her own identity instead of following John “horizontally” throughout life. The wallpaper plays an important part in depicting the narrator’s realization of the importance of establishing her own identity and escaping the empowerment of others. “Behind that outside pattern the dim shapes get clearer every day. It is always the same shape, only very numerous.”

This description of the patter symbolizes the narrator’s clearer view of her goals, desires, and dreams. She complains about John’s patronizing ways. John’s intention is to help the narrator break out of her depression. Yet, John fails because he disregards the narrator’s opinion and feelings forcing her to hide them. “He laughs at me so about this wall-paper” (Gilman 1394). John ridicules her, and shows her no sort of encouragement in developing her imagination. “He says that my imaginative power and habit of story-making, a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fantasies, and that I ought to use my will and good sense to check the tendency.

So I try.” (Gilman 1394) This quote portrays how John did not want the narrator’s thinking to broaden and go beyond his standards. “He looked at me with such a stern, reproachful look that I could not say another word” (Gilman 1398). Oppression is portrayed through the stern look John gives the narrator. The narrator dares not argue with John because she thinks that John does this out of love and care. “He is careful and loving and hardly lets me stir without special direction” (Gilman 1393). The narrator knows that she is being dominated yet uses excuses saying that her husband’s domination over her comes out of love and care. The narrator lacks self confidence and cannot stand up for herself.

John repeatedly tells the narrator to stop writing although she enjoys doing so. When in despair the most that she says is “What is one to do?” She speaks as if her opinions don’t count and is willing to shed her dreams in favor of being faithful and loyal to John. The narrator demeans herself at times, “I meant to be such a help to John, such a real rest and comfort, and here I am a comparative burden already” (Gilman 1392). The narrator continuously puts herself down and allows herself to form her own identity without the interference of others and depending on what they say. Most definitely this is the source of the narrator’s confusion which has an effect on her formation of her own true identity.

The narrator is internally convinced that writing is the cure for her depression and knows that it is her passion. Yet, she allows her husband and brother to discourage her, and at times, she too undermines herself. However at the end, the narrator is able to overcome all the sources of confusion and dominance around her. The wallpaper seems to represent society and the bars seen represent the barriers of reaching her freedom. The woman who creeps in the wallpaper and tries to break open the bars symbolically represents the narrator. Similar to the narrator she intends to break free the man-dominated society that she and many other women at the time lived in. The narrator achieves this by freeing the woman in the wallpaper by tearing all the paper down and letting her free.

“Metaphorically, this represents her own fervor to tear herself free of her entrapped relationship with John, shed the standards of her being a faithful and loyal wife, and bearing with the constant disrespect and equality within her marriage. As she rips the paper, she is free, liberated, emancipated, and no longer under control” (Source 1.) The narrator celebrates her accomplishment of establishing her own identity and overcoming the empowerment of others. “I’ve got out at last”, “in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!” (Gilman 96) This portrays her defeat of the influence of the outside world and the victory of the establishment of her own identity and freedom.

Both “The Yellow Wallpaper” and “Sweat” are linked to “ideas of love and hate through repression” (Article Myriad.) Both characters in the short stories are the result of male dominance,” which is clear, even though their rage is displayed and resolved in different ways” (Article Myriad.) What is very interesting is that there isn’t a “white” or “black” division when it comes to interpreting both women’s emotions. Truly, both works deal with oppression, yet there are major differences between them. For example, unlike Delia, the narrator is “not beaten or physically abused” (Article Myriad), but is verbally overpowered.

Therefore, she cannot express her feelings of love and hate naturally which leads her to express them through the wallpaper itself. Symbolically the lady behind the wallpaper represents the narrator herself, and as explained by the narrator ,“all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern — it strangles so; I think that is why it has so many heads.” The pattern is a symbol of the woman’s oppression that she can’t get out of her “cage” because he husband is keeping everything about her suppressed. The heads could symbolize the people who interfered with the narrator’s desire to achieve her dreams such as her brother.

John, and his sister Jennie. In “The Yellow Wallpaper”, the narrator’s brother and Jennie seem to support society’s standards of imprisoning a woman’s creative thoughts and condemning her to have a role in society other than being a devoted housewife and mother to her husband and kids. Whereas in “Sweat” people of the society condemn a male figure’s (Sykes) actions. An example of this is when we are presented to the scene of “several men sitting on the porch remarking about how Delia must be suffering since she works hard and Sykes abuses her. These men criticize Sykes up to a degree that they agree that there should be a law against Sykes’ behavior.

One of the men proposes that they should beat Sykes and kill him, and all seem to agree but “the heat” seems to melt their “civic virtue”” (Literary reference **) Another difference between the love/hate relationships and gender roles in “Sweat” and “The Yellow Wallpaper” is that in “Sweat” the female main character knows by the end that she hates her husband and what he puts her through. She actually is able to express her feelings of love and hate, even though she is a woman that is oppressed by the behavior and abuse of husband.

The main character in “The Yellow Wallpaper” remains clueless though about her true feelings of hate that she might have for husband and it seems like she’s on the verge of saying she feels smothered when all of a sudden, there’ll be a line expressing how he takes care of her and she forgets thinking (or writing) ideas like “I get unreasonably angry with John sometimes. I’m sure I never used to be so sensitive. I think it is due to this nervous condition. She blames her feelings of hate on her “condition” which almost seems like something her husband put on her to keep her in her place, but that is debatable.

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