Zora Neale Hurston’s short story “Sweat” and Charlotte Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” both feature complex relationships between spouses – particularly, that the women are victimized by their husbands to both subtle and overt extents. While Gilman’s narrator is a frustrated, confused individual who is locked up by her husband while failing to blame him, Delia in “Sweat” is a more determined, sane and vengeful individual, her constant victimization leading her to dramatic action (or inaction) that leads to disastrous consequences for her husband Sykes. What’s more, in “Sweat” we hear from Sykes’ perspective as well, learning both sides of the story in this failing marriage.
In “Sweat,” we follow Delia, a poor black woman who washes clothes in order to feed herself and her overbearing, violent husband Sykes. He is an abusive man who beats her regularly, and merely does what he wants despite what is good for their marriage. Delia merely sits back and takes it, as it seems nearly impossible to stop him. While she takes up arms against him occasionally, and stands up to him, it only rarely abates him and stops him from beating her again. In the end, Delia gets her revenge and freedom after neglecting to help her husband after a snakebite, letting him die.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” is told entirely from the perspective of an unnamed narrator, a woman presumably suffering from post-partum depression who is told to take a “rest cure” by her physician husband in their summer home. This involves basically locking her up in a small room for days on end with no company or way to occupy oneself. Eventually, due to her already precarious mental condition, and the ignorance of her husband, she starts to go insane, believing that there are womanly figures in the hideous yellow wallpaper that adorns the room. She begins to feel as though she has to free the women, ripping at the paper and losing her grip on reality. Eventually, John busts in after she locks herself in, but faints at the display of her completely insane wife ripping at the wallpaper. She is then so inexorably tied to the room that she will not leave, instead repeatedly walking over his unconscious body (Gilman, 1973).
The storytelling devices used in both stories are quite different, and yet are very fitting for the type of marriage the primary couple is seen to have. In “Sweat,” we get a standard third-person perspective; there is an omniscient and omnipresent narrator giving us the straight story on what is occurring, with little to no obfuscation on his part. We hear from both Delia’s and Sykes’ points of view, as well as a few others. This type of distance with which the reader sees their marriage is not unlike the townsfolk, who see all and yet cannot interfere with what occurs between Delia and Sykes. It allows us to see the impartial, clear destruction and dissolution of their marriage. There is no room for murky justifications of Sykes’ behavior; we see everything they go through, and as such we can make an honest assertion that Sykes is a monster and Delia needs to escape him.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” is told through a first-person perspective, an unreliable narrator who recounts the story in the form of a journal she writes in during her rest cure. By revealing her own sense of truth and reality, the reader sees into the mind of someone going slowly insane. Interactions with John are only told through her perspective, and so the reader is not sure what the real story is. However, given the slow descent into madness the narrator endures, it is clear the environment is not good for her, and if John were any sort of caring husband, he would see that and remove her from the situation.
A large component of “The Yellow Wallpaper” is the narrator’s own, insular thought processes, as well as the fact that, despite what John does to her, she still adores him. This could be due to her growing insanity, or it could be a kind of surreal forgiveness that she offers to John; it is left ambiguous. However, from what can be inferred from the text, John is a cruel and careless man, removing all sense of power and dignity from her and treating her like a patient more than a wife. While the narrator, being a proper lady, would never think to express her own dissatisfaction at his treatment of her, it can be inferred that much of her hostility towards the room and the wallpaper is latent animosity towards him. She recognizes how poorly he treats her, but instead takes it out on the wallpaper, believing that hatred radiates from the room – it then becomes a metaphor for their marriage. The room “looks as if it had been through the wars…But I don’t mind it a bit,” indicating the narrator believing that their marriage is a tumultuous one, but she is willing to bear it (Gilman, 1973).
Delia is extremely afraid of the beatings she endures as a result of her marriage to Sykes, an extremely volatile and angry man. When she notices that her husband is behind her with the bullwhip in the beginning of the story, “A great terror took hold of her. It softened her knees and dried her mouth so that it was a full minute before she could cry out or move” (Hurston, p. 25). Unlike the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Delia carries active dislike for her husband, and is quick to defend herself against his angry outbursts. Despite this, Sykes still beats her severely; it is only when she so violently defends herself (like picking up a skillet) that he backs down, to Delia’s surprise.
Sykes is unapologetic about his violence or his philandering; when Delia sees him with the whip, he is “bent over with laughter at her fright” (Hurston, p. 25). Unlike Gilman’s story, we also see the story from his perspective – it is no one sided argument. However, it is not as though we gain a greater sympathy for him; Sykes is most certainly a disgusting character, being abusive, a drunk and an adulterer. The affair he carries on is quite public, showing once more his total lack of respect for Delia; he likely understands that they will not get a divorce, so he can get away with it. This is good, too, because Delia is the primary breadwinner of the family – despite Sykes’ desire to have Delia stop washing clothes for white people, she retorts that it is the thing that puts food on their table, and so she cannot and will not stop.
Not only do we get a perspective of Delia’s and Sykes’ opinions on their marriage, Hurston gives us a unique look at the townspeople looking into this very public display. One muses on the nature of marriage, and why Sykes and other men do what they do to their women: “There’s plenty men dat takes a wife lak dey do a joint uh sugarcane. It’s round, juicy an’ sweet when dey gets it. But dey squeeze an’ grind, squeeze an’ grind an’ wring tell day wring every drop uh pleasure day’s in’em out. When dey’s satisfied dat dey is wrung dry, dey treats em jes lak dey do a cane chew. Dey throws em away” (Hurston, p. 31). This Greek chorus allows a greater sense of sympathy for Delia, as they all wish to end Syke’s life for being overbearing, “too biggety to live,” etc.; however, as this is a small town with conservative values, no one actually steps up to the plate (Hurston, p. 31). It is up to Delia to end things.
Both Delia and the narrator become paranoid at the opinions of others – Delia eavesdrops on the aforementioned townsfolk to get their take on her situation, while the narrator is constantly afraid of other people seeing her writing, including John’s sister. They both feel victimized, and are looking for either support or isolation – Delia wants to know that others sympathize with her, while the narrator is distrustful and believes only in herself. “John says if I don’t pick up faster he shall send me to Weir Mitchell in the fall. But I don’t want to go there at all. I had a friend who was in his hands once, and she says he is just like John and my brother, only more so!” (Gilman, 1973). At this point in the story, she has fully recognized that John is not to be trusted, and fully commits herself to the wallpapered room, really taking to its color and the women she imagines inhabit the wallpaper.
Both of the men in these stories end up in precarious positions – John in “The Yellow Wallpaper” faints due to the stressful situation the narrator puts him in, and Sykes ends up dead through a snakebite caused by Delia’s deliberate inaction. The abstract, Gothic nature of Gilman’s story leads us to no clear reason why John may have fainted when he finally busts down the door of the room; it is not important. The narrator is the sole focal point of the story, John being an afterthought – it is left ambiguous whether he simply could not handle the stress, or that the narrator knocked him out without realizing or comprehending that she did it, or something else. Both women are nonplussed by this occurrence; the narrator treats it as an inconvenience, distancing herself further from him by calling him “the man” instead of “John” (Gilman, 1973). Delia, on the other hand, is completely cognizant of what she has done, and she fails to act to save Sykes. What’s more, she realizes that Sykes, at the end, looking at her, “must know by now that she knew” what she was doing – leaving him to die.
The underlying issues behind the dissolution or flaws in each marriage are different, but still quite evident. Sykes is the typical aggressive, macho man who feels like he has the right and sexual talent to just do whatever he wants and push his woman around. It makes him feel like a man to beat his wife and have a very public affair on the side; it enhances his sense of virility and manhood. No matter what he does, he still feels he has the right to give his wife a smack over the head if she doesn’t do exactly what he wants. At the same time, he doesn’t really want her – he feels stuck in this loveless marriage as he spends all of their money on the woman he is sleeping with.
John, on the other hand, still seeks control over his wife, but instead does it through the mask of medical science and academics – his control is related to intelligence and cunning, both of which he feels he has in greater quantities than the narrator. This is due to his status as a 19th century doctor, whose sense of medical science still skews toward the homeopathic and the old wife’s tale. He sees women as hysterical and fragile, feeling as though his wife needs to be kept away from the world, as she simply cannot handle it in her rough state. Both husbands feel they have the upper hand over their spouses, subjecting them to varying types of abuse – sexual, emotional, and so on.
In conclusion, both women in each couple take action to gain the upper hand (or revenge) on their husbands, who have mistreated them. One goes insane and distances herself entirely from the increasingly frustrated and maddened husband, and the other allows fate to take his life without interference. Both of these are evidence of a very troubled and tumultuous marriage in both stories. One is more overt than the other; Delia and Sykes are an actively argumentative, violent and destroyed partnership, whereas John plays doctor with a naïve, gradually demented girl who eventually grows to not understand her surroundings at all. Each husband drives their wife to madness in some way in these stories – with Delia it is more malicious, and the narrator possesses a more childlike, carefree insanity that causes incredible distress in John.
These stories tell the tale of broken marriages and the ways in which the women take their power back from their male overlords. Delia fights back and takes control of her situation as best she can, but takes advantage of the opportunity to see him die due to a snakebite she has every means of treating. The narrator reinvents her own sense of reality in order to escape John; she turns her cell into her own world, giving herself a sense of purpose (freeing the women from the wallpaper) and removing herself from the world that her overbearing husband has trapped her in.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The yellow wallpaper . [1st ed. New York: Feminist Press, 1973. Print.
Hurston, Zora Neale, and Cheryl A. Wall. Sweat . New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1997. Print.