Gender Roles and Marriage
The Domestic Prison: James Thurber’s “Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour”
James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (1939) and “The Story of an Hour” (1894) by Kate Chopin depict marriage as a prison for both men and women from which the main characters fantasize about escaping. Louise Mallard is similar to the unnamed narrator in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” is that they are literally imprisoned in a domestic world from which there is no escape but death or insanity. As in all of this early feminist fiction, the women characters are defined as ‘sick’, either physically or mentally, for even imaging a situation on which they might be free, for they are allowed no lives of their own. Louise Mallard was overjoyed when she heard that her husband was killed in an accident, and began to hope and dream again for the first time about what the world might be like as a free human being. She no more regretted his death than Walter Mitty would have been upset over the sudden passing of Mrs. Mitty, but drops dead of a heart attack only when he ends up coming home after all. In fact, this story was based on the actual death of Kate Chopin’s own father in a railroad accident and the feeling of sudden freedom and liberation that it gave to her mother. Walter Mitty is an ironic and satirical reversal of this type of feminist writing, since in Thurber’s story the husband is the ‘feminine’ character who is trapped by marriage and social convention when he would really rather be off alone having some type of male adventures. Only on the surface is Walter Mitty a charming or humorous character because the reality under the surface is that he lacks any identity of his own, and is trapped in a routine, modern life of domestic tasks. Mrs. Mitty is like radio static or background noise that he tries to tune out, since she is a control freak and authoritarian, who not only tries to ‘mother’ him but control his every thought and move. Whenever he shows the slightest sign of independence, imagination or personality, she suggests that he is must be ‘sick’ and should see a doctor or have his temperature taken. Both of these stories present an extremely bleak and hopeless picture of marriage, gender relations and domestic life in which the main characters would truly rather be just about anywhere else.
In the classic 1939 short story by James Thurber, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” Mrs. Mitty, lacks even a first name and is nagging, thoroughly unpleasant wife,. Walter simply tries to escape from her into a fantasy life of a great surgeon or war hero, anything but dull normality of his life. Many of Thurber’s stories featured wives who were “the stereotypical nagging, niggling partners (which was objectionable to modern feminists) who browbeat their husbands” (Greenberg and Watts, 2009, p. 252). In satirical and humorous American fiction, from Rip van Winkle on into the 20th Century, wives like Mrs. Mitty are conservative and “unimaginative upholders of the status quo, who serve as foils to the boyish imaginations of men; their stern common sense makes them dull and unimaginative” (Walker, 1988, p. 43).
Mrs. Mitty has a large number of unpleasant characteristics which come out whenever she intrudes on Walter’s fantasies and daydreams, which never involve her. She is a backseat driver who complains that she does not like him to go more than forty miles per hour, and suggests that he should see a doctor. As usual, Walter hardly listens to her at all and she appears to be “grossly unfamiliar, like a strange woman who had yelled at him in a crowd” (Thurber, 1979, p. 203). She tells him how to dress, cautioning that “you’re not a young man any longer,” complains when he sits in an old chair at the hotel, and when he does not wear his overshoes. When he asks “does it ever occur to you that I am sometimes thinking,” she responds that she is going to take his temperature when they get home. In short, Mrs. Mitty has a talent for making even those ordinary domestic chores thoroughly unpleasant, which is why he “he hated these weekly trips to town — he was always getting something wrong. Kleenex, he thought, Squibb’s, razor blades? No. Tooth paste, toothbrush, bicarbonate, Carborundum, initiative and referendum?” (Thurber, p. 205).
Walter is continually lost in a dream world, when makes him oblivious to everyday realities, like noticing when the light turns green or using the correct lane to enter the parking lot. When not fantasizing, he is simply empty and aimless, with very little going on in his mind at all. People passing him on the street laugh when he talks to himself and mechanics make fun of him for being unable to handle simple mechanical tasks, like removing the chains from his tires. Only in his daydreams can be a fearless pilot and navigator, a world-famous surgeon with nerves of steel and millionaire patients, or a murderer on trial for his life with expert knowledge of firearms and deadly accuracy. Neither Walter Mitty nor Mrs. Mitty seem to have any real job or profession, at least none that is mentioned in the story. Mrs. Mitty goes shopping and gets her hair done once a week, but she seems to be basically a domestic character rather than an independent feminist woman, although she also rules the household. No children are mentioned, and if Walter has a job at all it is most likely a very dull and routine one. In every respect, he is the opposite of the “erect and motionless, proud and disdainful” character in his masculine adventure-story fantasies (Thurber, p. 207). In fact, all of his fantasies appear to have originated from movies, newspapers, adventure stories and other forms of popular culture, nut in real life Walter Mitty is not very much of anything, and the story does not even give any clues about what his job is, although it was very probably a dull one. At the end of the story, he picks up a magazine called Liberty and glances at an article called “Can Germany Conquer the World through the Air?” As he “looked at the pictures of bombing planes and of ruined streets,” he imagined himself in the war, flying a bomber on a dangerous mission over Germany, although it sounds more like the First World War than the Second. This dream does not last very long, and although Mrs. Mitty always ‘wins’ in the end, the “reader’s sympathy is supposed to remain with the dreaming, downtrodden husband,” while she seems to be more like a humorous plot device than a full-fledged character (Walker, p. 44).
Walter Mitty as in effect reversed roles with the passive domestic Louise Mallard of the Victorian Era and become passive and ‘feminized’. In the forty years that elapsed between the writing of these stories, that status of women had indeed improved in the U.S. since they received the vote in 1920 and had more educational and professional opportunities, although even in 1939 it was still very much a male-dominated world in politics, culture and economic life. Walter Mitty was obviously not in any position of real power, of course, either inside or outside the domestic sphere, and far from being a great surgeon, aviator, sailor or other stereotypical masculine hero, was an ordinary middle class man who had trouble operating simple machinery. In every respect, he was more like the trapped and depressed domestic servants portrayed in the Chopin and Gilman stories, lacking any real life of his own or even the will to make one.
After the Civil War and continuing through the beginning of the 20th Century, many new female authors emerged in American literature. Some, such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Louisa May Alcott, articulated explicitly feminist points-of-view, while others, such as Kate Chopin, were less obviously revolutionary in their intentions but still brought new perspectives in to American literature. Even so, the women characters in her fictional work also shared a strong desire to escape from the constraints of Victorian marriage and family life. She was born into a French Catholic Creole family in St. Louis, and later lived in Louisiana with her husband until she became a widow, and most of her fiction work takes place in these locations. Unlike Louisa May Alcott and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, she never explicitly described herself as a feminist or reformer, although the female heroines in her short stories and novels were highly unconventional by 19th Century standards. Her family also supported the Confederacy during the Civil War, though, and Chopin’s attitudes toward blacks were hardly sympathetic. In short stories like “Neg Creol,” for example, even the freed slaves were always shown as loyal to their former masters, and this is what most white Southerners of the 19th Century would have expected, but not Third Wave feminists of the late-20th and early-21st Centuries (Toth, 1992, p. 19). Most of her early biographers also failed to realize that her work was heavily based on family and personal experiences, including the lives of her mother and grandmother. One of these ancestor stories, “Athenaise” was based on her grandmother’s unhappy marriage to a man who deserted her and left her in poverty to raise seven children on her own. The fictional story features one of Gilman’s ironic reversals, however, and has the wife desert her husband and striking out on her own to live with the Cherokees in Indian Territory.
American realism and naturalism were at their high point during the three decades after the Civil War, and among its leading luminaries were Mark Twain, Stephen Crane and Henry James. Chopin certainly fits within this literary tradition, with its rejection of myth, idealism and romanticism in favor of a grim and often ironic or cynical description of real life. The period of time in which Kate wrote was dominated by the realism literary movement. Even the dialogue used by characters was supposed to reflect common, everyday speech and regional dialects rather than flowery or ‘poetic’ literary language. Chopin wrote five novels and over 100 short stories, and none of the characters and settings could be even remotely considered romanticized or idealized. She dealt openly with questions of marriage, sex, and women’s emancipation from home, husbands and children which were considered unusually frank and realistic by 19th Century standards. Her stories reflected an “unconventional attitude of the heroine toward marriage as a reflection of her unconventional attitude toward herself” (Davis 1982).
In both Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour,” the main characters are ‘sickly’, depressed, middle-aged housewives who feel trapped by loveless marriages and rigid Victorian restrictions on the lives of women. In Gilman’s story, the nameless narrator is literally kept imprisoned by her physician husband, who threatens to send her to an asylum if she does not get well, while Chopin’s character Louise Mallard only feels healthy, free and happy when she hears a report that her husband has died in a train accident. Both writers based these ‘sick’ and alienated characters on their own life experience as wives and mothers, and shared their strong desires to escape from the constraints of Victorian marriage and family life. Both also suffered from the common fate of being ignored by male academics and reviewers for decades, and only in recent years has the full range of their work been rediscovered. Louise Mallard and the nameless wife in “The Yellow Wallpaper” are only symbolically ‘ill’, and their sicknesses reflect the family and society that has them trapped in empty and unfulfilling lives, to which even death would be preferable.
Today, the fictional work for which Chopin is best remembered, and probably the only one that is widely read is “The Story of an Hour.” Like the trapped wife in Charlotte Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Louise Mallard is imprisoned in a repressed “stultifying marriage” to a man she does not love, and feels “monstrous joy” and “body and soul free” when she hears of his demise in a railroad accident (Toth, p. 22). She is also considered ‘ill’, with heart disease, and the story opens with the observation that Mrs. Mallard “was afflicted with a heart trouble,” so her sister Josephine was very careful about how she told her about the death of Brently Mallard. When she cried with joy when she heard of his demise, Josephine wrongly assumed it was with grief, but only Louise will ever know the truth. As she sat alone in an armchair in her room, she was conscious of “a physical exhaustion that haunted her body and seemed to reach into her soul.” Finally, she realized that she was “free, free, free!,” and she felt happy and alive. Louise was free of him, and he would no longer control her life. Josephine watched her through the keyhole and thought that she was making herself ill, but Louise told her to go away. Far from being sick “she was drinking in a very elixir of life” and had “a feverish triumph in her eyes” (Chopin 158). Only when she saw that Brently was alive and well did she scream and fall over dead, and when the doctors came the offered the ironic misdiagnosis that “she had died of heart disease — of the joy that kills” (Chopin, p. 159). Of course, the story ends on an ironic note when Louise drops dead of a heart attack when she sees him, but not from the sheer surprise and happiness of seeing him, as the male characters assume.
Louise Mallard was not really ‘ill’ in the physical or mental sense, but rather imprisoned in a society and culture that was sick, and denied her any identity as whole and independent persons. Indeed, she was ‘sick’ to the point of death or self-destruction in a life that seemed like a kind of slavery. Chopin and Gilman can certainly be placed in the category of feminists and women’s rights supporters, at least within their historical context, because that is how they described themselves. Gilman actively campaigned for equal social, political and economic rights for women, carrying on the tradition of New England reform that they inherited from their families. Both of them also understood the extreme economic and social insecurity of women and the fact that many of them were trapped in unhappy domestic lives or low-paying jobs like teaching, nursing and domestic service that were just another extension of women’s work. Chopin had personal experience of women’s poverty and lack of social and economic opportunities, as well as the widespread feeling of being imprisoned in family and marriage situations over which they had no control. All the characters in her stories hope to escape from these, and sometimes they succeed.
Chopin’s mother Eliza O’Flarity was also called “Elieeza” by her family and close friends, and like the Louise of the story also had a sister named Josephine. Her real father, Thomas O’Flaherty, did die in a railroad accident in 1855, and other characters in the story have similar names or initials to others who died in the same accident — or were at least initially reported to have died. Like Louise, Eliza had married an older man for money and security, not love, in order to help her mother and siblings in their impoverished situation. Unlike Louise, she was left a widow with a large estate; she was free of her husband and never remarried (Toth, p. 23). Chopin therefore grew up in a household with no adult male relatives, and she returned to live with her mother in St. Louis after her husband died. Simply by luck, and the high death rate from disease and accidents in the 19th Century, Kate and Eliza Chopin “had through widowhood evaded in some ways the claims of family, community, and husbands” (Toth, p. 25). She never remarried after she became a widow, and considered herself liberated to become a serious writer. In Chopin’s novel Awakenings, which was set in Louisiana and so widely attacked by male critics and reviewers that she gave up fiction writing completely, the women also favor solitude and rooms of their own over domestic duties and ties to husbands and families, or an escape from Victorian family life. Compared to the unfortunate Louise Mallard, who “dies in the world of her family where she has always sacrificed for others,” Chopin found a small niche that freed her from traditional marriage and family values (Toth, p. 24).
Neither of these short stories offers any real hope for marriage, domestic life or gender relations, either for the repressed and depressed Victorian housewife Louise Mallard or the neurotic Walter Mitty. Just the opposite, Mrs. Mallard’s only escape was through her own death or that of her husband, while Walter Mitty ends up daydreaming about his own imaginary execution before a firing squad. They are both imprisoned in marriage and domesticity by social conventions and lack of opportunities for escape, but neither of them wants to be there. Walter Mitty in fact appears to be a neutered and ’emasculated’ character controlled by the domineering Mrs. Mitty, although she should hardly be considered a feminist character in any respect. Marriage works for her only in the sense that she controls it and gets enough out of it to suit her needs, particularly her desire for power over others. She has taken over the role of ‘husband’ in the household, although she has no need or desire to look for opportunities in life independent of marriage and the domestic sphere, while Walter lacks the will to do so, except in his imagination. Louise Mallard also lacked the means and opportunity for escape, unless of course her husband had really died and left his/her money. In that case, she could have lived independently as a widow, which is what the real Kate Chopin and her mother did. Apart from that, he was trapped in a social conventions and gender roles which seemed like a kind of living death, and to which physical death was actually preferable.
Allen, J.A. (2004) The Feminism of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Sexuality, Histories, Progressivism. University of Chicago Press, 2004.
Chopin, K. (1997). “The Story of an Hour” in A. Charters and S. Charters (eds). Literature and Its Writers: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. Boston: Bedford Books, pp. 158-159.
Davis, S. (1982). “Katherine Chopin.” American Realists and Naturalists. D. Pizer and E.N. Harbert (eds). Detroit: Gale Research, 1982. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 12.
Gilman, C. (1997).”The Yellow Wallpaper” in A. Charters and S. Charters (eds). Literature and Its Writers: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. Boston: Bedford Books, 1997, pp. 230-242.
Greenberg B. And S. Watts (2009). Social History of the United States, Vol. 1. ABC-CLIO.
Thurber, J. (1979). “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” in E.S. Rabken (ed). Fantastic Worlds: Myths, Tales, and Stories. Oxford University Press, pp. 202-07.
Toth, E. (1992). “Kate Chopin Thinks Back through Her Mothers: Three Stories by Kate Chopin” in L.S. Boren and S. de Saussure (eds). Kate Chopin Reconsidered: Beyond the Bayou. Louisiana State University Press, pp. 15-25.
Walker, N.A. (1988). A Very Serious Thing: Women’s Humor and American Culture. University of Minnesota Press.
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