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 either desired for her outer beauty and cherished or cultivated as a servant for the pleasure or the benefit of man. Her husband’s expectation is for her to become an extension of him in all respects: to become, in a sense, “his second self.” In principle, she is a possession that he controls at his will. In his view, she is his property. She has no right to question her status. Divorce is only an option of the husband. Consequently, because of woman’s suppression, she losses her identity and longs for freedom just as Mrs. Mallard did in The Joy that Kills; or as a victim, she retaliate just as Mrs. Wright did in Trifles; or she chooses death as a means of escape just as Edna did in The Awakening.

Mrs. Mallard is a repressed human spirit. Brently, her husband, hopelessly controls and nurtures her for his own pleasure, calculating her every move. For example, the time schedule he gives her allows him to know what she is doing every minute of the day. Her maid serves as an observer, reporting her non-compliance. Hence, Mrs. Mallard is like a bird in a cage singing only for her husband. She is submissive. She experiences life only through his eyes. In his eyes, her weak heart provides him justification. Consequently, she sees only what he wishes her to see of the outside world through the pictures he supplies.

When Mrs. Mallard shares her fantasy world in pictures with the doctor, Brently gets 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, thinking for you is not permissible. Even though the doctor advises Mrs. Mallard she may now travel, her husband refuses to allow it.

Later, the tone changes from a helpless suppressive tone to an optimistic tone, when she receives news Brently is dead as a result of an accident while on travel. 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 required to be a mere product of her husband’s desires. She approaches the front door filled with the thrill of finally experiencing life for her. 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 the strength of endurance and she accomplishes her escape only through death.

In Trifles, Susan Glaspell uses a rebellious tone to describe Mrs. Wright’s escape. Because she is 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 the evidence and ultimately eliminate it. The two women sum up the situation because incidents in their lives are quite similar. Mrs. Hale perceives John as a selfish man who wants things his way. It doesn’t matter what his wife wants only what he wants. And “all he wanted was peace and quiet.” The men laugh at Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters for dwelling on the trifles such as the spoiled preserves or whether Mrs. Wright is going to quilt or knot her quilt. In their estimation there are more serious things to worry about.

The women could not bring themselves to judge or condemn Mrs. Wright. Instead, they find themselves defending her when the men start criticizing the appearance of her kitchen. Her table is only half clean. Mrs. Hale remarks, “It’s wiped to here” in expressive recognition that an interruption prevents Minnie from completing her work. As she speaks, she completes 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” irritates Mrs. Hale so she pulls it out. They reason: “We all go through the same things.” In essence, they dismiss that the crime is not the death of John. After all, he got what he wanted: “peace and quiet”. The crime is their absence from the scene during a time when Mrs. Wright needs a friend. When it is decided “Mrs. Peters didn’t need any supervising because she was married to the law,” the women quickly maneuver the last piece of evidence, representing the motive (the little box containing the dead canary with the wrung neck), out of sight. When a motive cannot 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,” replies 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 demands she be a slave to his whims and demands she understand his predominance. For example, he is to come and go as he pleases; she is not to question his actions or authority; she is to be attentive to his desires at all times, regardless of the time of day or night. In short, he looks upon Edna as his property.

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

The identity of a creole wife is not what Edna wants because a creole wife has no identity. A Creole wife worships her husband and relinquishes her individuality. Edna doesn’t want to be identified as a mother who is treated like an invalid. She wants to be free as a bird. She wants to flee her husband’s control and her controlled existence, but she is not strong enough to endure. Her needs are secondary to her husband. Edna’s need to experience life with a passion is out of the question.  He will not consider divorce.  And there is this honor among men that her love, Robert, will not betray. Consequently, Edna exercises her own choice of death as a means of escape from her misery.

This is an edited reposting of an analysis posted 02/22/2011 at the following link:https://gramatrudy.wordpress.com/2011/02/22/a-brief-analysis-of-woman-as-an-object-in-turn-of-the-century-literature/