Comparison and Contrast of a major or minor theme.Charlotte Perkins Gilman – The Yellow Wallpaper Susan Glaspell – Trifles Before you develop your paper, consider the following questions: What does each text imply about each author’s view of society? Of human nature? Why is setting so important in each work? What about society would each author like to see changed? Remain the same? : Struggle Place Stereotypes Society’s values The relationship between people, especially between people of differing backgrounds in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, age Culture capsules: What each story implies about societal values and attitudes during a particular time period Communication or lack of communication Blindness and/or awareness Truth-telling (also consider dissembling, lying, hiding)
A Comparative Analysis of Societal Views and Themes in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Susan Glaspell’s “Trifles”
Literature has long been a mirror reflecting the values, beliefs, and struggles of society. Within the pages of well-crafted stories, authors often weave intricate themes that shed light on their perspectives of the world they inhabit. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Susan Glaspell’s “Trifles” are two such literary works that explore major and minor themes, providing readers with a glimpse into the authors’ views on society and human nature. This essay will undertake a comparative analysis of these two remarkable texts, examining their implications for the authors’ perspectives on society and human nature. Furthermore, it will delve into the significance of setting in both works, elucidate the societal changes each author desires or wishes to remain unchanged, and explore themes such as struggle, stereotypes, communication, and truth-telling.
Setting as a Reflective Tool
Before diving into the themes and societal perspectives of Gilman and Glaspell, it is essential to acknowledge the profound importance of the setting in their respective works. The setting serves as more than just a backdrop; it acts as a symbolic representation of the characters’ lives, emotions, and struggles.
In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the setting is a crucial element in conveying the author’s perspective on society and human nature. The story unfolds in a Victorian-era mansion, where the narrator is confined to a room adorned with yellow wallpaper. This room becomes a prison, mirroring the constraints placed upon women in a patriarchal society. The barred windows and intricate patterns of the wallpaper symbolize the societal limitations placed on women’s roles and voices during the late 19th century. The setting also reflects the narrator’s deteriorating mental state, which can be seen as a commentary on the consequences of suppressing individuality and creativity within society.
Similarly, in “Trifles,” the setting is an abandoned farmhouse in rural America. This setting serves as a microcosm of the society in which the characters live. The farmhouse itself is a stark representation of isolation and neglect, mirroring the isolation felt by the central character, Mrs. Wright. As the story unfolds, the setting becomes a canvas upon which the characters’ values and attitudes are painted. It is through their interactions within this space that Glaspell subtly critiques the gender roles and societal expectations prevalent in early 20th-century America.
Now that we have established the importance of setting, let’s explore the themes and societal perspectives embedded in these two texts.
Struggle and Suppression of Identity
One of the central themes in both “The Yellow Wallpaper” and “Trifles” is the struggle faced by individuals, particularly women, in a society that seeks to suppress their identities and voices. Both Gilman and Glaspell present characters who are confined, both physically and mentally, by societal norms and expectations.
In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the protagonist, who remains nameless throughout the story, is subjected to the “rest cure” by her physician husband. This treatment, which was believed to cure women of hysteria in the 19th century, involves complete confinement and the prohibition of any mental or physical activity. The woman’s struggle against this oppressive treatment is palpable as she becomes increasingly obsessed with the room’s wallpaper, ultimately leading to her descent into madness. Through the protagonist’s experiences, Gilman critiques the medical and societal practices that sought to silence and control women.
In “Trifles,” the character of Mrs. Wright is at the center of the narrative. Her struggle is different from that of the narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” but it is equally significant. Mrs. Wright is isolated and ostracized by her community, and her husband’s oppressive demeanor is evident even in his choice of words. The women in the story, while accompanying their husbands to the crime scene, notice seemingly insignificant details in the farmhouse that the men dismiss as “trifles.” These details, including a broken birdcage and a dead canary, serve as symbols of Mrs. Wright’s suppressed identity and her desperate struggle for a sense of self. Glaspell’s work highlights how societal norms and the expectations placed on women can lead to profound feelings of isolation and despair.
Stereotypes and Gender Roles
Both “The Yellow Wallpaper” and “Trifles” explore the impact of gender stereotypes and societal expectations on the lives of their female characters. These works challenge traditional gender roles and shed light on the consequences of conforming to or defying these roles.
In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the narrator’s husband, John, represents the epitome of patriarchal authority. He is a physician who believes he knows what is best for his wife, even when it comes to her own thoughts and feelings. The narrator is expected to adhere to the role of a dutiful wife and mother, and her mental illness is dismissed as mere hysteria. The story underscores how gender stereotypes and rigid roles can suppress women’s autonomy and lead to their mental anguish.
Similarly, “Trifles” delves into the consequences of adhering to gender roles and societal expectations. The male characters in the story, including the county attorney and the sheriff, dismiss the women’s observations and concerns, believing them to be trivial. However, it is the women who ultimately piece together the puzzle of Mrs. Wright’s motives for murder, highlighting the significance of their perspective. Glaspell challenges the prevailing gender stereotypes of her time by depicting the women as perceptive and empathetic, in contrast to the dismissive and condescending attitude of the men.
Society’s Values and Attitudes
Both Gilman and Glaspell use their works to critique and comment on the values and attitudes prevalent in the societies they depict. Through the experiences of their characters, they challenge societal norms and question whether these norms are just and equitable.
In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Gilman critiques the medical profession and prevailing attitudes toward women’s mental health. The rest cure, which was considered a legitimate medical treatment at the time, is depicted as cruel and inhumane. The story also highlights the societal value placed on women’s submission and the dismissal of their intellectual capabilities. Through the protagonist’s descent into madness, Gilman exposes the damaging consequences of a society that values women solely for their roles as wives and mothers.
In “Trifles,” Glaspell critiques the justice system and the attitudes of law enforcement and the legal profession. The male characters, who represent the justice system, are dismissive of the women’s observations and evidence, demonstrating a lack of empathy and understanding. The story suggests that society’s values and attitudes can be blind to the experiences and perspectives of women, particularly those in abusive relationships. Glaspell raises questions about the fairness and equity of a justice system that ignores the voices of women.
Communication and Awareness
The theme of communication, or the lack thereof, plays a significant role in both “The Yellow Wallpaper” and “Trifles.” Both stories explore how communication, or the failure to communicate effectively, can have profound consequences on individuals and society as a whole.
In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the protagonist’s inability to communicate her thoughts and feelings to her husband contributes to her growing sense of isolation and despair. John, her husband and physician, dismisses her concerns and fails to truly listen to her. The story illustrates how the lack of open and honest communication can lead to a breakdown in relationships and exacerbate mental health issues.
In “Trifles,” the male characters’ dismissive attitude towards the women’s observations is a clear example of communication breakdown. The men fail to recognize the significance of the details the women uncover, ultimately hindering the investigation. The story highlights how gendered assumptions and a lack of communication can lead to misunderstandings and injustice.
Truth-Telling and Dissembling
Both stories also explore the themes of truth-telling, dissembling, lying, and hiding. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the protagonist’s descent into madness can be seen as a form of dissembling. She hides her true thoughts and feelings from her husband, fearing his judgment and dismissal. The story raises questions about the consequences of concealing one’s true self and the toll it takes on mental health.
In “Trifles,” the theme of truth-telling emerges through the discovery of evidence that the male characters initially dismiss as unimportant. The women’s decision to withhold this evidence from the men can be seen as an act of truth-telling, as they believe it reveals Mrs. Wright’s motives for murder. The story challenges the idea that truth is always straightforward and suggests that sometimes it requires a deeper understanding of human experiences and emotions.
Societal Changes and Continuity
Both Gilman and Glaspell use their works to comment on the societal changes they would like to see and those aspects of society they believe should remain the same. Their perspectives are shaped by the time periods in which they lived and the social issues of their eras.
In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Gilman advocates for significant societal changes, particularly in the treatment of women’s mental health. She critiques the rest cure and the medical profession’s dismissive attitude towards women’s mental suffering. Gilman’s work can be seen as a call for greater recognition of women’s autonomy and mental health needs. She envisions a society in which women are not confined to prescribed gender roles and are allowed to express themselves freely.
In “Trifles,” Glaspell’s perspective is rooted in the early 20th-century context of gender roles and societal expectations. While she critiques the dismissive attitude of the male characters, she also highlights the women’s solidarity and understanding of Mrs. Wright’s experiences. Glaspell’s work suggests that some aspects of society should remain unchanged, such as the importance of empathy and understanding. However, she also calls for a reevaluation of gender roles and the treatment of women in abusive relationships.
In “The Yellow Wallpaper” and “Trifles,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Susan Glaspell explore major and minor themes that offer insights into their perspectives on society and human nature. Through the lens of struggle, stereotypes, communication, and truth-telling, these authors critique the societal values and attitudes of their respective eras. They challenge gender roles, advocate for greater empathy and understanding, and shed light on the consequences of suppressing individuality and creativity. While their works are rooted in different time periods and societal contexts, they both serve as powerful critiques of the injustices and limitations placed upon women in their societies. Ultimately, these texts continue to resonate with readers today, prompting us to reflect on the progress that has been made and the work that remains in achieving a more equitable and just society.
Gilman, C. P. (1892). The Yellow Wallpaper. New England Magazine, 5(3), 647-656.
Glaspell, S. (1916). Trifles. The Best American One-Act Plays of 1916. Boston: Small, Maynard & Company.
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