Millay's poem, I, being born a woman and distressed and Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper
Two Works Cited In the early nineteenth century, the issue of whether women should be granted certain privileges, such as voting, arose in America. Two female writers during this time are Edna St. Vincent Millay and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Both women were living in a period of history where women's writings created an impact on literature. Most women were supposed to stay at home and take care of the children and many women were not highly educated; therefore, there were few women writers. Therefore, these writers caught people's attention and made them think about women's issues. Millay's poem, "I, being born a woman and distressed" and Gilman's short story, "The Yellow Wallpaper" share more than their time in history. Both pieces of literature have the common theme of closeness and distance. Women during this time were pushed out by society. They could not have a part in the rest of societal roles and became distant. The women wanted to be close with the rest of society, in order to feel equal, and spoke out for their needs.
The poem, "I, being born a woman and distressed" was written in 1923 by Edna St. Vincent Millay. This was only three years after the Nineteenth Amendment, granting women's voting rights, was adopted. Millay was best known for her lyrical poetry. In this poem she speaks of her feelings toward her lover and how they make her feel. She characterizes herself for her audience as ". . .being born a woman and distressed By all the needs and notions of my kind. . ." By using the words "woman" and "my kind" the reader gets the feeling as if she needed to express her gender. This time in history may have influenced Millay to explain this. Today men and women are more equal, whereas in the 1920s they were discriminated against.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, another twentieth century American writer, lived during this period of radical reform for women. She was a very independent woman of their time who supported herself until she married at the age of twenty-four. After she had her first child, she became clinically depressed and this experience inspired "The Yellow Wallpaper" ,written in 1913. This story describes a woman who is forced to remain in bed without thinking or writing. She becomes dysfunctional and believes she sees a woman living behind the wallpaper, trapped. Perkins may have been characterizing the women of her time being trapped from the rest of society at home by writing about herself trapped in bed and the woman trapped behind the paper as well.
These two women, Millay and Perkins, share common backgrounds. Raised by only the mother, both authors lacked a father figure in their lives. This may have influenced them to strive for female rights, and notice the hardships inflicted upon women in that time. Children in dual-parent homes may not have seen the same hardships in the same light. These two women lived in a time in history where women were subordinate to men. Both authors wrote many pieces of literature that created an impact on female writers.
Altough both women influenced female writers, they have differences, also. Millay was a bisexual woman who wrote much poetry "that described free, guiltless sexuality. . ."(1996), while Gilman was a heterosexual woman who believed "her marriage threatened her sanity" (1570). Millay was, as we know it, happily married. Millay's mother encouraged her to do all of the things she wanted to do in life, while Gilman's childhood is described as "painful and lonely" (1570). Gilman was very involved in feminist movements, which includes her writings. Millay was involved with other protests such as writing anti-fascist works. Gilman had one daughter, with her husband, and after she was born Gilman became depressed. This inspired "The Yellow Wallpaper" . Millay, on the other hand, had no children.
"I, being born a woman and distressed" has a thorough theme of closeness and distance. In the first five lines of the poem, Millay conveys a woman who wants to be with her lover. "Am urged by your propinquity. . . To bear your body's weight upon my breast. . ." But in the last nine lines, the poem signifies distance between the two characters. "I shall remember you. . . when we meet again." After the narrator and her lover had a sexual relationship, she realizes that they can only have a relationship on that level. This is where the sense of closeness becomes distant.
The same theme of closeness and distance occurs in "The Yellow Wallpaper" . The woman sick in bed can not bear to look at the wallpaper in the beginning of the story. She characterizes it as "irritation" (1574). She becomes so enveloped in thinking of how much she hates the wallpaper that she begins to tear it down. She believes she sees a woman behind the wallpaper that is trapped. "The faint figure behind seemed to shake the pattern, just as if she wanted to get out." (1577) But by the end of the story the woman in bed becomes the woman behind the paper. "I've got out at last. . . And I've pulled off most of the paper, so you can't put me back!" (1582)
These two pieces of literature both create the same theme for the reader of closeness and distance. In Millay's poem, the narrator is in a "frenzy", a troubled state of chaos. This "frenzy" is also characteristic of the woman in, "The Yellow Wallpaper" . She believes she sees a woman living behind the wallpaper. "If that woman does get out, and tries to get away, I can tie her. . . --there are so many of those creeping women, and they creep so fast" (1581). Edna St. Vincent's character also is "distressed" as characterized in line one. She has mental discomfort "by all the needs and notions of my kind." (line 2) This mental discomfort is also seen on page 1571 of "The Yellow Wallpaper" . The main character is "forbidden to work" until she is well.
Both pieces of literature share the same theme, but what the theme is referring to is different in both. Millay's poem describes a couple that has been intimate and in the end are very distant. She had a physical, sexual closeness with her lover. While Gilman's story tells us of a woman who is looking for anything to be close to during the time that she is stuck in the same room. She finds this closeness with a fictitious character hidden behind the wallpaper, not with a lover. In lines four, five, eleven and twelve, the poem speaks of a woman who felt a certain "zest To bear your body's weight upon my breast" and ends up "seasoning her scorn with pity." Her lover was only a lover and played no other roles in her life. Although Gilman's character does not have a physical relationship in this story, she has an emotional relationship within her own mind. "The paper looks to me as if it knew what a vicious influence it had!" (1574)
Twentieth-century authors such as Edna St. Vincent Millay and Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote many pieces of literature that had an impact on feminine history. They were writing during a time of women's suffrage, and they wrote to fight. They fought out against the social norms of society to prove that men and women are equal. "I, being born a woman and distressed" and "The Yellow Wallpaper" both give the reader a feeling of closeness and distance. Whether it be close with society, lover, or fictitous character, the themes are the same in both works and leave an impact on the reader, as their works did in history.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman. "The Yellow Wallpaper." Ed. Nina Baym. The Norton Anthology American Literature (New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company. 1979) p. 1569-1582.
Edna St. Vincent Millay. Ed. Nina Baym. The Norton Anthology American Literature (New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company. 1979) p. 1995-1996
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