A study of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper highlight the power of context and the influence it has over individual discovery. Expressed through the use of contrast, tone and symbolism, the interactions between discovery and context allow the protagonists of both texts to transcend the confinement and repression of a physical and spiritually suffocating society.
Both The Awakening and The Yellow Wallpaper showcase the interplay between discovery and context by exploring how the protagonists hinder their own discoveries as a response to their environment. In The Awakening, Chopin’s representation of Creole society is contrasted against Edna’s hometown of Kentucky; in this way, Edna is forced to straddle and reappraise the chastity of her Kentucky upbringing against the backdrop of a society that is less rule-bound and freer in expression. This can be seen in Chopin’s representation of Creole society – “a characteristic which impressed [her] most forcibly [which is the Creole’s] entire absence of prudery. Their freedom of expression was at first incomprehensible to her, though she had no difficulty in reconciling it with a lofty chastity”. The connotations associated with prudery often reflect a rejection and judgement of sexual expression which sharply contrasts against Creole’s ‘freedom of expression’. As a response to this shift in perspective, her face “mounts with colour” exemplifying how this new level of latitude is confronting and initially hindering to her own discoveries. Thus, it is clear that she is bound not only by the limitations imposed by society but that she ultimately is the greatest impediment to her self and her own self actualisation. Edna describes this struggle as “an indescribable oppression, which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar part of her consciousness, filled her whole being with a vague anguish”. This sense of oppression is a product of the friction between her own self and her context, and through the use of hyperbolic language, Chopin draws attention to the powerful emotions this friction sparks in Edna and provides a window into the impact of the relationship between Edna and the Creole society.
Whilst in Chopin’s The Awakening Edna is introduced to a context that allows for more freedom, in The Yellow Wallpaper, Gilman introduces the audience to a more restricted and confined patriarchal nature of Victorian society. In The Yellow Wallpaper, the use of the first person narrative immediately provides the audience with a window into her suffocating society. Her husband worships the Enlightenment and this can be seen in the narrator’s depiction of her husband – “practical in the extreme. He has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition, and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures.” In this environment, all the narrator’s attempts of explaining the legitimacy of her mental illness to her husband are met with dismissal, affirming her marginalised state. Through the use of exaggeration and satire, Gilman creates a deliberately submissive character in order to showcase the impact the narrator’s context has on her self discoveries. The narrator mimics the role of a typically obsequious woman by emulating the language of oppression. She minimises her illness, saying “… there is really no matter, just a temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency – what is one to do ?” It is clear that regardless of the confines that her society has against her, she must transcend her own damaging psyche. Therefore, in The Yellow Wallpaper, the narrator’s interactions with her context reveal that without understanding her own personal truth she cannot attain any form of emancipation from her society. Edna and the narrator, in The Awakening and The Yellow Wallpaper, impede their own discoveries as a response to the rigid environments they exist in. In both texts, the burgeoning creativity and imagination of the protagonists enables them to transcend the confines of their contexts by encouraging their expression of passion and individuality.
In The Awakening, art and music play the most crucial role in Edna’s journey to self discovery. The passion that stems from both her own painting and Madamoiselle Reisz’s piano playing washes away the external front Edna presents to society and unlocks a purer form of herself that is free to abide by her own rules. In anticipation of this movement away from her social self, Edna describes “a feeling of having descended in the social scale, with a corresponding sense of having risen in the spiritual”. In order to reach a point of self actualisation, Edna endures the friction between her context and herself since the paradox of her social and spiritual scales shows that they do not work together but instead work against each other. Thus, the role of her creativity is pivotal, as it allows her to move past the constraints of her social self. This shift from her external self is showcased when she listens to the music, as it “strange and fantastic—turbulent, insistent, plaintive and soft with entreaty. The music filled the room. It floated out upon the night, over the housetops, the crescent of the river, losing itself in the silence of the upper air”. In personifying the sound of the piano, Chopin draws a close parallel between the passion and freedom of the music and Edna’s contemplation of independence. Edna’s creativity is the catalyst for her journey for self discovery , just as in The Yellow Wallpaper, the narrator’s emancipation from her husband and society is stimulated by her vivid imagination. Her imagination allows her to access the meaning in the wallpaper, which is ultimately a reflection of her truth. While drawing this connection, she beings to “see a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure, that seems to skulk about behind that silly and conspicuous front design”. This figure that she describes is a clear symbol of her swelling sense of curiosity and independence with the ‘front design’ representing the rigid structure of society, thus this moment showcases the importance of the role of her imagination she moves away from societal constructs. This image of oppression grows stronger throughout the story in synch with her awareness of her own oppressed state. The narrator’s sees an increasingly more defined image of a woman confined behind the walls – “she is trying all the time to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern—it strangles so…”. Perkins draws a parallel between narrator and the woman trapped in the wallpaper, demonstrating how the narrator’s imagination is potent enough to manifest her own mirrored truth in this wallpaper. Her imagination forces her to not only to see her true state of oppression but also allows her to front these forces that are pulling her down, ultimately leading to liberation from her contained world. In The Yellow Wallpaper, imagination serves as the narrator’s mirror of truth, therefore triggering her development into a twisted yet the truest form of herself. Utilising their creativity and imagination, Edna and the narrator, respectively in The Awakening and The Yellow Wallpaper, uncover their personal truths and are thus able to transcend their contexts.
Both The Awakening and The Yellow Wallpaper chart the struggle that the protagonists face in seeking their personal truth and expressing their individuality. Edna and the narrator’s respective contexts bare a heavy influence on them, in that they are initially wired to hamper their own discoveries and block their paths to self actualization. However, through the power of their creativity and imagination they are able to rise above these oppressive forces, and come to realise that they can live independent of the rules that oppress them. The impact of their discoveries and the impact of their contexts interact in that they are inversely related – as their internal, true selves develop, they transcend the confines of their external selves that were governed by society.