Female protagonists are not often presented with a great deal of angst or flaws, especially in 19th century literature. However, the following short stories are a notable exception. The protagonist of “The Yellow Wallpaper” gradually grows psychotic from isolation and confinement to a small wallpapered room; Calixta in “The Storm” falls into a passionate one-night affair with a former lover on the evening of a thunderstorm; and the titular “Eveline” is solemn and contemplative, not really knowing what direction to take in her life. In this paper, we will examine the similarities and differences between these three women, and how the circumstances in their lives lead them to the drastic decisions they make.
In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the nameless protagonist is thought to be ill by her husband, a physician, and sequestered in a room in her summer home for an extended period of time in order to recover. However, the fact that she is confined without seeing anyone, in such a small space, begins to get to her. She starts to become increasingly fascinated by the wallpaper in her room, as it starts to come to life before her eyes.
At first, she is just enamored with the specific color yellow of the wallpaper, as well as the interesting pattern. She is disgusted by the “repellent” color, as it is “a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.” As her psychosis intensifies through extended periods of isolation, though, she starts to see women in the patterns, seeing herself through them. All throughout the short story, she succumbs to her madness, becoming increasingly distrustful of herself, the women in the wallpaper, and her husband John. She does not want to be diagnosed again, as she wants to get out, but she cannot stand the wallpaper anymore. She feels as though the children who used to occupy the room filled it with their hatred, and the wallpaper carries that hatred through to the room.
The narrative is told from her perspective, in the form of journal entries that she writes as she occupies herself in this room. Her thoughts become more and more disjointed as she becomes used to her psychosis, taking the strange happenings that she is hallucinating as normal.
In “The Storm,” Calixta is not the strict main character, though she is the female protagonist. Calixta constantly wrestles with her purity, especially as she participates in a very hollow, unexciting relationship with her husband Bobinot. When Alcee arrives on her doorstep, many suppressed feelings come to the surface, and the tension raises throughout the story until it consummates in a night of passion between Calixta and Alcee.
The moral ambiguity normally encountered in stories of adultery is not present in “The Storm”; the ending line of the story is ‘So the storm passed and everyone was happy.’ This indicates that there is no regret or remorse over the betrayal. In fact, she feels as though it was a beneficial thing for her marriage, as Bodinot is none the wiser, and it allowed her to release her pent-up frustrations regarding her comparatively loveless husband.
In “Eveline,” the protagonist this time is a 19-year-old girl of the same name, getting ready to run away from home. She does not want to get beaten by her father, like her brothers were, her mother had died long ago, and she wants to get away from her dead-end job and her life. Her salvation, it seems, is in the form of a sailor she had met and fallen for, Frank, and a new life in Buenos Aires. Everything is set to go, and she is about ready to leave, but she is swayed by the sound of a street organ. The song it is playing reminds her “of the promise to her mother, her promise to keep the home together as long as she could.” This reminds her of the dilemma that she has; she wants to live her own life with Frank, but she cannot abandon her family and the promises she made. This makes her change her mind, as her loyalty to the household overrides whatever personal desires she may have for her own sake. At the same time, while she makes the choice to stay, she does so begrudgingly. She sends “a cry of anguish” as she makes the decision to not go with Frank, as she knows that the choice she is making is done out of responsibility and not desire. She feels “passive, like a helpless animal.” The choice makes her feel empty inside, but she makes it anyway.
These three protagonists make very feminist choices, to an extent. The woman with the yellow wallpaper is seen to escape from her domineering husband’s clutches, even though it is merely in the hands of madness and psychosis. Calixta manages to have a wild night of passion with a former lover, rekindling a sense of life that was missing from her life in her marriage with Bobinot, making the choice as an independent woman to seek her own desires apart from her husband. Unlike the other two women, however, Eveline ultimately makes the decision to remain miserable out of a sense of responsibility to her family. She will likely be beaten by her father, and she will have to stay at her terrible sales job, but she will honor what her mother asked her to do. In a sense, she is the least feminist of the three women, though she is the most open about her desires. She runs away from home, while Calixta engages in a secret, one-night affair that she uses to bolster her marriage.
The woman in “The Yellow Wallpaper” breaks out of her domestic stereotypes by setting herself apart, although it is done through madness. The women she sees in the wallpaper can be perceived as trapped, just as she feels, both in the room and in her marriage with her husband. The diagnosis and quarantine that her husband puts her through is indicative of the trappings that women experience within a marriage. She is perceived as irrational and without the proper knowledge to diagnose herself, due to John’s occupation as a doctor. The room represents domesticity, and she is slowly driven mad and suffocated by the walls of this room (as well as a woman’s role as caretaker). She complains about the wallpaper (and domesticity): “You think you have mastered it, but just as you get well underway in following, it…slaps you in the face, knocks you down, and tramples upon you.”
In all three stories, we witness unhappy women attempting to make choices to change their circumstances. “The Yellow Wallpaper”’s protagonist falls into madness in order to escape the trappings of domesticity. Calixta in “The Storm” escapes her loveless marriage through a wonderful night with Alcee, taking control of her life and using her own act of independence to better her own life. Eveline makes an attempt to run away from the terrible circumstances of her life, and the future that awaits her, but turns back out of obligation. All three of these offer different solutions to the problem of sexism and gender roles in the 19th century. Either a woman can go mad to escape her own problems, she can take her life in her own hands regardless of the consequences, or she can suffer for the sake of others.