Them Themselves And They
A standard question asked by English instructors in college literature classes across America is: “Who occupies the privileged position?” For the sake of this essay, we shall employ Derrida (originally Heidegger’s) deconstructionist’s method and state that “it is all that is NOT privileged”, in other words: “the other”. This said, we shall now analyze three different “other” positions in works of literature and attempt to draw similitudes and differences between them. Today’s lucky “others” are: the main protagonist in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s: “The Yellow Wallpaper”, the man about to be lynched in Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” and the character of Desiree in Kate Chopin’s “Desiree’s Baby”.
The saying; “Ladies first” (which is uttered mostly when doors are opened for women but that could pretty much be used in any situation where the female is encouraged to take the leading position), I speculate, couldn’t have been around for a long time. Today, we live in a society that promotes gender equality as much as possible. However, it is a proven fact that a woman still earns only seventy five cents to a man’s dollar, which is reminiscent of the old times where males were undisputedly the predominant gender.
The short story: “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a perfect illustration of the aforementioned old times. In it, the author attempts to illustrate the multiple struggles faced by the main protagonist, a woman, who occupies the said underprivileged position.
Before commencing the digestion of the material incorporated within the story, I feel the obligation to state that the former reminds me of a downplayed, less shocking and obscene version of the famous French novel: Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary”. Perhaps the American society is not yet ready for such raunchiness associated with a females free-spirit and independence.
The story begins with a description of John, the main characters husband. It quickly comes to our attention that the protagonists name is never mentioned and her identity remains masked until the end. She is simply referred to as John’s wife. This little detail the author cleverly places at our feet is actually a symbol of the oppressed gender living amongst people in a paternalistic society. The anonymity of females depicted in “The Yellow Wallpaper” reminds me of the one still observed in countries such as Saudi Arabia, where, chronologically, females are pretty much disregarded when it comes to counting children, then when they are married, they acquire the title of; “Wife of…”.
The personification of the house they live in is nothing but an ideological prison that subjected and silenced woman. By keeping the latter imprisoned indoors all day, John rendered his wife submissive, hence her vulnerability and dependence on his patriarchal head.
The next intriguing observation arises very quickly with the quotation: “what is one to do? […] Personally, I disagree with their ideas”. In this paragraph, the elements of the authors dilemma are rendered concrete through her journal writings. The prevailing, authoritative voices of her husband, her family, the medical community and the entire society she lives in incapacitate her and force her to be passive. In fact, the narrator has internalized her husbands strong, patriarchal and stereotypical authority to the extent that she can almost hear his voice in her head, commanding her what to think. The despair illustrated in the question she asks is typical and symbolic of the defiance of the norms of society that is anything but present. On the other hand, her own conviction: the need to be both active and stimulated is disregarded faster than you can say “feminism”. Her opinion carries very little weight or significance and she has absolutely no power or control of the situation she’s in.
Finally, in the scene preceding John’s entering of his wife’s room, the latter has torn enough wallpaper that the woman inside it is set free. The narrator thus makes a connection between herself and the woman inside, which is nothing but an image of herself. The narrator also discovers (due to her insanity) that she is not alone in this cruel world and that there are many women that share her fate; numerous members of the “other”, less in the spotlight category. The questions: “did they have to struggle” and “were they all trapped in homes that were really prisons” intentionally remain unanswered; this is because the author leaves it to other women to contemplate their “less-advantaged” situation and formulate an answer of their own.
On an almost separate tangent, an implicit demonstration of the slyness of Gilman comes to our attention. In Frederich Nietzsche’s “The Gay Science”, the former makes use of a madman, someone with little, if no command of his full cognitive capacities and that probably has no sense of logic to pronounce the over-quoted and rendered famous: “God is Dead” phrase. Using the same Modus Operandi, the author conveniently makes sure that her main character suffers from neurasthenia, a mental condition, in order for her to make it somewhat socially acceptable to animate the character and give her the audacity to proclaim such injustices pertaining to feminism and individuality; thus avoiding latent criticism and/or censorship and allowing the author to make her main protagonist define the “other” by herself.
Having dealt with the oppression of women in a paternalistic society as our first example of the “other[‘s]” position in literature, we shall now occupy ourselves with the example of the “black man”.
Why do they congregate in groups of four,
Scatter like a billion spores,
And let the wind just carry them away?
How can kids be so mean?
Our famous doctor tried to gleam
As he went home at the end of the day.
In this Nature show that rages every day
it was bound apart his intuition, Say
we were all basically all alone…
The actions of the lynch mob in chapter XXII of Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” are somewhat echoed by the lyrics of the previously cited Andrew Birds’ song; “Imitosis”.
The Jesus Fish, two simple arcs that intersect to resemble the profile of the animal has become a modern & widespread symbol of Christianity throughout the U.S.A. In parallel, more liberal states have witnessed the appearance a parody to the aforementioned symbol: The Darwin fish, which has feet and legs & symbolizes the theory of evolution in contrast to the idea of Creationism.
In a not so similar manner & by using literary connotations & symbols, Mark Twain employs satire to make a mockery out of religion.