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Chris Larham’s essay examining whether or not there are distinct characteristics in women’s writing [70%, 2006] can be opened in a print-friendly text document format here.
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When submitted, this second year English degree essay did not contain endnotes/footnotes: this omission has been preserved here to give an accurate picture of the level of complexity required for a 70% grading in year two of a three-year English degree. The correct employment of extensive referencing is demonstrated elsewhere in this website, notably in the works entitled ‘Writing Selves: Understanding Autobiography ~ 2,500-3,000 Word Essay [70%, 2007]’ (43 endnotes, 19 bibliographic sources) and ‘Writing Selves: Understanding Autobiography ~ Journal [65%, 2007]’ (103 endnotes, 19 bibliographic sources).
“Choose two (or more if you like) from the women writers we have studied so far and compare and contrast their texts (any similarity, difference, commonality?) in order to consider whether or not there are distinct characteristics in women’s writing.”
In this essay I will compare and contrast Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper in order to consider whether or not there are distinct characteristics in women’s writing. Through a close analysis of each text I will offer an interpretation of both stories that highlights the common underlying concerns of the two authors; concerns embedded in the text which might not be evident from a superficial, literal reading of the stories. With reference to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, I also hope to illustrate the use of emotionally-rich language that is characteristic in women’s writing.[^]
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is narrated to us by a series of letters sent by the sea-exploring R. Walton to his sister, Margaret, in England. Within this epistolary form we also hear the narrative voices of Victor Frankenstein and “the miserable monster” which Victor created. In its simplest form, Victor’s story in Frankenstein relays his obsessive pursuit of scientific knowledge, his acquisition of creative power, and his unwitting production of a “monster”. The monster, despite its best efforts, is totally rejected by society, revenges itself upon Victor, and outlives its ‘Creator’.[^]
Victor’s story could be interpreted as an extended conceit employed by Shelley to make a statement about society at the time of the novel’s production: Victor can be seen as a symbol for Shelley’s male contemporaries, men with an obsessive interest in literature and an abhorrence at the perceived “monster” of female writers and female literary texts – a “monster” that her male contemporaries have unwittingly helped to create. Victor creates his monster using disparate body parts – “having spent some months in successfully collecting and arranging my materials” – and the early attempts of the female writer would necessarily draw on disparate literary elements of her male predecessors, producing texts which, like the monster, were considered “hideous” but, again like the monster, could be refined. The monster learns to successfully communicate with human beings through observing the conversational exchanges between members of the De Lacy family, and especially during Felix’s tutoring of Safie. Given time and tutoring, women could learn to produce literature worthy of equally high merit as that produced by their male contemporaries. Shelley also hints that women’s writing has the potential to exceed that of men’s, by making Victor’s monster vastly superior to humans in terms of physical ability, “as he fled with more than mortal speed”.[^]
In contrast to Mary Shelley’s use of male narrative voices, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper is narrated to us by a female apparently suffering from a “temporary nervous depression”, in the form of a first person narrative. In its simplest form, the plot related to us by the unnamed female narrator consists of a husband and wife moving into “ancestral halls for the summer” while “repairs are…done at home”, during which time the wife is forbidden to “work” and “write”. The wife is forced by her husband to occupy a room which she doesn’t “like…a bit”, and throughout the summer she becomes increasingly obsessed with the “horrid” wallpaper in their room which the husband refuses to repaper. Convinced that she can see either “a great many women” or “sometimes only one” woman behind the “bars” of the wallpaper, the wife peels off the vast majority of the wallpaper on the final day of their holiday lease in order to free the ‘trapped’ woman “behind” the wallpaper. With the wallpaper peeled off, she then ‘becomes’ the hitherto trapped woman and begins “creeping” round the room – a move which absolutely astonishes her husband, causing him to faint.[^]
The unnamed narrator’s story could be interpreted as an extended conceit used by Gilman to comment on the problems faced by women who wanted to write in her society, and their sex-determined inability to be completely accepted into the male-dominated literary world. The wife cannot write without “having to be…sly about it, or meet with heavy opposition” – problems experienced by women writers of Gilman’s society. It is not stated explicitly, but there is a hint that the wife might be a writer by profession – Gilman’s own use of quotation marks around the word “work” in the sentence, “So I…am absolutely forbidden to “work” until I am well again”, when considered together with the fact that the wife continues to “write for a while in spite of them”, suggests that the wife is a writer, and women writing as a profession is regarded with such patronizing contempt by the wife’s husband that he doesn’t consider it a ‘proper’ job; the quotation marks signifying the scorn in his voice as he reluctantly dignifies it with the term “work”.[^]
The husband can be viewed as representing the male-generated barriers barring female entry into the literary world in the wife’s (and, by extension, Gilman’s) society, in terms of both his attitude to his wife’s writing and his unwillingness to repaper the room: the fact he won’t change the wallpaper can be interpreted as reluctance on male society’s part to change the ‘rules’ of literature to admit women. The sentence – “He said that after the wallpaper was changed it would be the heavy bedstead, and then the barred windows, and then that gate at the head of the stairs, and so on” – could be interpreted as representing Gilman’s belief that men will not open the doors for women into literature because next it would be politics that women would be allowed to pursue, then acting, and so on, videlicet the patriarchal society refuses to allow any change in power relations between the sexes. Finally, the female narrator’s “creeping” at the conclusion of the novel can be interpreted as a statement that women who refuse to comply with society’s expectations of them nevertheless have to pursue their own artistic interests in secret, covertly producing literary texts which (like the female narrator’s act of ‘creeping’) astonish men.[^]
In both Frankenstein and The Yellow Wallpaper, male characters are empowered at the outset of the texts: Walton is portrayed as a character who is independent and free to follow his dreams of naval adventure: “the commencement of an enterprise which…fills me with delight”; Victor Frankenstein is given free rein to pursue his obsessive quest for scientific knowledge: “summer months passed while I was thus engaged, heart and soul, in one pursuit”; John is “a physician of high standing” and thus a powerful figure in society, a man who has all the control in his marriage, able to dictate to his wife that she is “absolutely forbidden” to “work”, and empowered to express strong opposition to his wife’s writing.[^]
As each text progresses, however, there is a shift in power between the sexes, and at the conclusion of both stories the female characters – the female narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper and the symbolically feminine “monster” of Frankenstein – are empowered. This empowerment of the female character doesn’t result in an entirely happy ending in either text: the “monster”, having outlived Frankenstein, is condemned to “bitter and loathing despair” and bemoans his great suffering to the shocked Walton: “do you think that I was then dead to agony and remorse? He…suffered not…the ten-thousandth portion of the anguish that was mine during the lingering detail of its execution…”; the female narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper, having rebelled against her husband by peeling off the wallpaper he refused to repaper – “A strip about as high as my head and half around the room…Then I peeled off all the paper I could reach standing on the floor…” – and, through this symbolic act of removing the vast majority of the woman-trapping wallpaper – thus freeing herself from most of the shackles of patriarchal society – is still only able to “creep”. The connotation of this verb is that she still is not able to express herself freely, she is still reduced to acts of stealth in following her interests. Neither Frankenstein’s “monster” nor the female narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper happily and satisfactorily free themselves from the prejudiced society they each inhabit.[^]
Following the interpretations I have offered for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, it can be seen that both texts represent the authors’ anxieties that women will never be fully and freely admitted to the prejudiced, masculine literary world – they will forever be perceived as ‘monstrous’, condemned to write in secret. Indeed, many of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s other short stories can be interpreted as conveying her anxieties about women’s place in society. The Cottagette describes Malda’s decision to compromise her artistic work in order to win the heart of Ford Matthews by displaying her domestic housekeeping skills to their fullest extent, believing that “…if he married me – I should have to do it always, and might as well get used to it.” Malda’s quietly-despairing resignation to this perceived fact is turned on its head by Ford, who recognizes that her artistic work has suffered as a result of her increasing dedication to domestic ‘duties’, and offers to cook for Malda throughout the entirety of their planned married life, unless she absolutely insists on performing the task. Through her words and thoughts as the story reaches its conclusion, Malda seems to be a vehicle that Gilman uses to put forward her own desires, and to speak on behalf of many like-minded females, “‘O I don’t insist!…I don’t want to cook – I want to draw! But I thought – Lois said – How she has misunderstood you!’… Was there ever a man like this?”[^]
Daring to write from their downtrodden position in society, Shelley, Gilman, and their female contemporaries would have experienced tumultuous emotions during the course of the writing process. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar have suggested that women writers had to defy society’s expectations of them in order to write, and a female writer would undergo an internal struggle over the validity of her womanhood if she was successful – Gilbert and Gubar’s ‘Anxiety of Authorship’ paradigm. From this emotionally-charged background it is perhaps not surprising that emotionally-rich language is a feature of women’s writing.[^]
To complement the already-quoted passages of both Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, in which the use of emotionally-rich language can be plainly seen, I intend to elaborate on a section of text from an author who explicitly deals with the issues faced by women writers throughout the ages – Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. In this text we follow “call me Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael or by any name you please – it is not a matter of any importance” along her knowledge-acquiring journey on the subject of “WOMEN AND FICTION” [original typography]. She is outraged to find a book entitled “The Mental, Moral, and Physical Inferiority of the Female Sex” by “Professor von X” in the library of the British Museum, a dismissal of her femininity which leads to the following narration:
Anger had snatched my pencil while I dreamt. But what was anger doing there? Interest, confusion, amusement, boredom – all these emotions I could trace and name as they succeeded each other throughout the morning. Had anger, the black snake, been lurking among them? … My heart had leapt. My cheek had burnt. I had flushed with anger.
Woolf’s refusal to attribute a precise name to her narrative’s protagonist reiterates an important point subtly made by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in her omission of a name for the female narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper. Both authors recognize that women aren’t considered as important as men in society, and thus leave their female characters without an exact name as a textual reflection of this societal fact.[^]
In conclusion, through a close analysis of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, with reference to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and a brief examination of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Cottagette, I believe I have highlighted several distinct characteristics in women’s writing. Through my interpretations of Frankenstein and The Yellow Wallpaper as extended conceits employed by both authors to make statements on the difficulties faced by women in the sex-prejudiced literary realm, together with my analysis of The Cottagette‘s Malda being a vehicle for Gilman’s own voice, it is apparent that women’s writing abounds with symbolic references to – and text-sublimated desires concerning – the difficulties faced by female authors: both Shelley and Gilman depict prejudiced societies in their texts, with a shift in the power relation between the sexes – the female characters being ultimately empowered. In quoting relevant passages of all the aforementioned texts I have illustrated the use of emotionally-rich language that is a common feature in women’s writing; a feature that is understandable, given – and, indeed, reflecting – the turbulent emotions that necessarily affect a woman who decides to write, given her expected position within a sex-biased society.[^]
A paper seeking to extend the arguments put forth in this essay could closely analyze further short stories by Charlotte Perkins Gilman – particularly Three Thanksgivings, Turned, Making a Change, and If I Were a Man – in order to highlight the emotionally-rich language used in these stories, through which Gilman comments on many aspects of society and its treatment of women in particular, and individuals in general.[^]
Gilbert, Sandra., and Gubar, Susan. The Mad Woman In The Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories. New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1997
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. London: Penguin Classics, 1985
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. London: Penguin Books, 1945