A Brief Analysis of Woman as an Object in Turn of the Century Literature

By Trudy A. Martinez

At the turn of the century in both beliefs and treatment, woman is an object that is either preferred for her outer beauty and nurtured or cultivated as a servant for the pleasure or the benefit of man. Woman was expected to become an extension of her husband in all respects: to become, in a sense, “his second self.” In principle, she is viewed as a possession that he controls at his will. She has no right to question her status and divorce is only an option of the husband. Consequently, she is suppressed and losses her identity and longs for freedom as Mrs. Mallard did in The Joy that Kills; or she is victimized and retaliated as Mrs. Wright did in Trifles; or she chooses death as a means of escape as Edna did in The Awakening.

Mrs. Mallard is a repressed human spirit hopelessly controlled and nurtured for the pleasure of her husband, Brently. He calculates her every move. For example, the time schedule he places on her allows him to know what she was doing every minute of the day. Her maid serves as an observer who reports non compliance. Hence, Mrs. Mallard is like a bird in a cage that sings only for her husband and is resigned to experience life only through his eyes. Her weak heart provides him with justification. Consequently, she sees only what he wishes her to see of the outside world through pictures he supplies.

When Mrs. Mallard shares with the doctor her fantasy world in pictures, Brently becomes angry. “I never told about the light,” she said. Dissatisfied he responds, “Now that you’ve told someone—our world is over.” Defending herself she replies, “You always do the talking; I was trying to talk for myself.” Then he places his hand on her head and says, “Your mind in every thought.” In other words, you are not allowed to think for yourself. Even though the doctor advises she may now travel, her husband refuses to allow it.

Later, when new is received that Brently died in an accident while on travel, the tone changes from helpless suppressive tone to an optimistic tone. Suddenly, she is able to do things on her own, the thought of experiencing life invades her thoughts and she matters, “I am free, terribly free.” She is no longer forced to be a mere product of her husband’s desires. She approaches the front door filled with the thrill of finally being able to experience life for herself. The glow of the light from the outside world beckons her to escape. Then suddenly, the light is blocked by her husband’s form. The shock of her freedom again being obstructed deprives her of her strength of endurance and her escape is accomplished only through death.

In Trifles, Susan Glaspell used a rebellious tone to describe Mrs. Wright’s escape. Because she was not present during an investigation into her husband’s death “from a rope around his neck”, similarities to her circumstances with that of other women surface; this is achieved as Mrs. Hale, and the sheriff’s wife, Mrs. Peters, piece together and ultimately eliminate the evidence. The two women are able to sum up the situation because incidents in their lives are quite similar. Mr. Hale perceived John as a selfish man who wanted things his way. It didn’t matter what his wife wanted only what he wanted and “all he wanted was peace and quiet.” The men laughed at Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters for dwelling on the trifles such as spoiled preserves or whether Mrs. Wright was going to quilt or knot her quilt when in their estimation there were more serious things to worry about.

The women could not bring themselves to judge or condemn Mrs. Wright. Instead, they found themselves defending her when the men started criticizing the appearance of her kitchen. Her table was only half cleaned. Mrs. Hale remarked, “It’s wiped to here” in expressive recognition that Minnie may have been interrupted, thus preventing her from completing her work. As she spoke, she completed the cleaning for her. Mrs. Hale maintains a resentful tone in response to the men’s outcry, while Mrs. Peters remains apologetic of their insensitivity. Together the women find certain conditions like the nervous stitches in the quilt block to be similar to their own. The “bad sewing” irritated Mrs. Hale so she pulled it out. They reasoned: “We all go through the same things.” In essence, they dismissed that the crime was not the death of John, after all, he got what he wanted: “peace and quiet”. The crime was their absence from the scene during a time when Mrs. Wright needed a friend. When it was decided that “Mrs. Peters didn’t need any supervising because she was married to the law,” the women quickly maneuver the last piece of evidence that represented the motive (the little box containing the dead canary with the wrung neck) out of sight. When a motive could not be produced, Mr. Henderson settles for a trifle: “Well at least we found out she was not going to quilt it—she was going to–.” “Knot it,” replied Mrs. Hale.

Chopin’s novel, The Awakening, questions the motives of society concerning the rights of women. This is done through Edna who marries outside her own culture, religion, and class status against the advice of her father to a man whom she did not love. As a consequential repercussion of her marriage, she is subjected to differences that leave her out of step with the cultural norm and leave her silently weighing the emotional oppression she feels. Her husband demanded she be a slave to his whims and that she understands his predominance. For example, he was to come and go as he pleased; she was not to question his actions or authority; she was to be attentive to his desires at all times regardless of the time of day or night. In short, he looked upon Edna as his property.

Edna’s anguished feelings resulted from her husband’s infliction of criticisms; she could not explain the reasons for her feelings. But she knew that because of this treatment she was being stripped of her individuality. For instance, when she dared to discourage him through inattentive behavior, her husband immediately reciprocated with criticism, finding fault where there was no fault and judging her guilty of neglect to him and to his children. It was something he “felt rather than perceived.” Consequently, she lives a “dual life”: outwardly conforming while inwardly questioning.

Edna didn’t want to be identified as a creole wife who had no identity and who worshipped her husband and relinquished her individuality, nor did she want to be identified as a mother who was treated like an invalid. She wanted to be free as a bird and flee her controlled existence, but she was not strong enough to endure. He need to experience life with a passion was secondary to her husband. He would not consider divorce and there was this honor among men that her love, Robert, would not betray. Consequently, Edna exercised her own choice of death as a means of escaping her misery.