Imagine being trapped in your house, screaming at the people around you that you own the house as you shake the deed with your name on it in their faces. Now imagine those people laughing at you, taking the deed and ripping it up, then locking you in the innermost rooms where no one bothers to hear you. This is how women have felt on a daily basis for centuries, with little to no control over their bodies, their lives, their hopes, and their dreams.
Both “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Stetson and “The House on Mango Street” by Sandra Cisneros use flawless imagery and symbolism to represent the struggles that women go through daily, specifically the symbol of “house” or “home” that represents the key to women’s confinement and liberation. Just as it was one hundred, two hundred, three hundred years ago, women today have very minimal control over their lives.
To overcome oppression women must rise up and fight against their oppressors.
In the story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a woman suffering from mental illness descends into madness after being locked in a room for three months by her husband for her health. In the story, the unnamed young woman becomes obsessed with the darkroom she resides in, which has hideous yellow wallpaper with sporadic rips and tears throughout. The storyteller must do what her husband — also her doctor — demands, even though the treatment he describes directly contradicts what she really needs: mental stimulation and freedom to escape the monotony of the room she is confined to.
The lack of the things she needs plus the constant confinement, the inability to see people that she would like to, and being told that her feelings are silly and hysterical, finally drives her mad.
Despite the men in her life claiming they know better, the young woman clearly knew what was wrong with her. But instead of giving her the help she needed, the men forced her to remain in a room that was driving her mad. Stetson wrote the story to change the views of women in society, and illustrate how women’s lack of autonomy is damaging to their mental, emotional and physical well-being. In the late 1800s, when the story was written, women had little to no control over their bodies medically or otherwise; “women were the continual victims of social and economic discrimination”. If a woman told her doctor she believed she knew what was wrong with her medically, she would be dismissed as hysterical and sensitive and told that she should just leave the real diagnosis to the certified doctors.
Furthermore, in my view, the house the woman resides in is a metaphor for her body. The nursery her husband has confined her to is her mind, a place she has become trapped in and cannot escape, with the windows as her eyes to look out on the world without being able to be a part of it. The titular yellow wallpaper that the woman begins to rip through is her sanity, or perhaps it is the expectations and demands of women that she is tearing down. In the story, though she is stuck in the room, the yellow wallpaper begins to “stain” things, or in other words, her ideas begin to rub off onto others, which makes some of the characters very angry and nervous. After a certain period of time, the young woman requests to go downstairs, an allusion to her wanting to take control of her body, though her husband staunchly refuses.
Eventually, the young woman goes completely insane. She tears at the wallpaper and behaves so savagely that her husband faints after she declares “I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!”. Though this outcome could be seen as a bad thing, it can also be viewed as the young woman finally overcoming the oppression of her husband, tearing through the rest of her sanity as she descends into madness, finally freeing herself.
Comparatively, in “The House on Mango Street,” a young girl named Esperanza blooms into womanhood before she can scarcely understand what she is experiencing as she grows up. Throughout the story, Esperanza deals with feelings that are strange and frightening to her, horrible treatment from men, and a growing realization of her culture’s misogyny and how it has affected other women both in her life and in general. Over the course of the book, Esperanza slowly comes to terms with the fact she is becoming a woman and is seeing for the first time how it feels to be a woman in the world.
Quickly in the book it becomes clear that Esperanza is not yet ready to become a woman, but has no control over her growing body. She encounters different situations that cause her to stop and contemplate how women are treated, such as the chapter “The Family of Little Feet.” In this chapter Esperanza, her sister and her neighbors receive three beautiful pairs of heels from one of the neighborhood women. At first, the girls are ecstatic, and they try the shoes on while laughing and giggling and having fun together. But soon the language in the chapter changes, as Esperanza talks about how strange it is that they have long legs: “…it is scary to look down at your foot that is no longer yours and see attached a long long leg” (The House on Mango Street, page 40). This is Esperanza’s way of viewing her growing body as something strange and alien, and there is a certain note of fear in her tone that makes it appear as though she doesn’t quite like her new long legs.
What stands out to me in this chapter is how at first the girls are excited to have these grown-up shoes. They laugh off an old man’s concerns as they run down the street, enjoying the way men are looking at them. But quickly Esperanza and the others begin to feel uncomfortable with all the male attention they are receiving, and their fun comes to a screeching halt as a homeless man begins to harass them and they become scared and run home. Further in the chapter, after the girls encounter the bum man and run home, Esperanza says the girls “are tired of being beautiful” (The House on Mango Street, page 42). This stands out to me is because many women today feel emotionally tired after being catcalled and harassed on the street because they are attractive, or simply because they are a woman.
This reminds me of what is going on in today’s society, where women are finally taking a stand and saying they are tired of being harassed and intimidated by men with the Me Too movement. “The House on Mango Street” the “house” symbol used in the story is one of confinement and a feeling of being trapped. In one of the chapters, Esperanza explains the story of her great-grandmother, with whom Esperanza shares a name, and why she does not want to end up the way her great-grandmother did. As the story goes, the great-grandmother in her youth was so wild that she refused to marry, until one day Esperanza’s great-grandfather threw a sack over the woman’s head and just carried her off.
Esperanza’s great-grandmother never forgave him, and “looked out the window her whole life, the way so many women sit their sadness on an elbow” (The House on Mango Street, page 10). Esperanza says that though she has inherited her great-grandmother’s name, she doesn’t want to inherit her place by the window, meaning she does not want to just sit around and be dominated by a man. Ultimately Esperanza leaves her house on Mango Street, with the knowledge that she will always return for those she left behind. Over the course of the story, she grows into a strong woman with clear goals who has learned to hold her head high. Though what she experienced in her house and around her neighborhood was traumatizing, such as sexual assault, domestic violence, and racial intolerance, Esperanza comes out victorious.
As can be seen in both “The Yellow Wallpaper” and “The House on Mango Street,” the women are looked down upon and considered lower than their male counterparts, and only through their own actions do they escape their cages. In society, women are treated as lesser, only good for taking care of children and the home, yet for better or worse these two women come out on top. Whether it be a complete mental break to free herself from her oppressor, or a strong will to escape her designated path in life in order to better herself, both stories illustrate that women must stand up and fight against their oppressors if they want to thrive in this world.