It is a regular thing of the reader to contrast and compares the literary works he or she has read. I believe that this helps one better understand the works. It reveals the hidden meanings that the texts are full of, encourages one to think of the writer’s style in comparison with other writers’ styles thus singling out peculiar and prominent features of this or that literary trend. In the current paper, I will contrast and compare the two works: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s best work of short fiction, The Yellow Wallpaper (first published in 1892) and A Raisin in the Sun (produced in 1959), the first Broadway play written by a black woman Lorraine Hansberry. The investigation of similarities and differences of the two works will be made through the following perspectives:
- The works as a reflection of the author’s biography and life principles;
- Similarities and differences in the themes of the two works;
- Similarities and differences in the writing styles of the authors as revealed in the works under analysis.
In the long run, I expect to see what the works have more in common: similarities or differences and what makes the books so appealing to me.
The Works as a Reflection of the Author’s Biography and Life Principles
It is always easier to understand the literary work having at least basic knowledge of the author’s biography. It often happens that a writer’s life in some sense predetermines the plot and the main ideas of his/her works. This is especially true when it comes to Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. I would like to consider the events from the writer’s life that encouraged her to write the story of the kind. From her adulthood, the writer was constantly attacked by the periodic bouts of melancholy.
Mental disorders that Gilman suffered from fluctuated from “manic-depressive illness” to nervous breakdowns that resulted in suicidal attempts to short-term hospitalizations. The diseases came either from the inbreeding or from the high intellectual capacity of the family. Gilman’s aunt, Harriet Beecher Stowe, also suffered from the same illness: “My mind is exhausted and seems to be sinking into deadness” (Lane, 1980, p. 111). Only writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a relief from her constant breakdowns.
When Gilman’s daughter Katharine was born she was beset by depression. In 1886 Gilman became a patient of Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell who recommended her to “live as domestic a life as possible” and “never touch a pen, brush or pencil as long as you live”(Charlotte (Anna) Perkins Gilman, 2003). More broadly the treatment can be defined in the following way: “1) extended and total bed rest; 2) isolation from family and familiar surroundings; 3) overfeeding, especially with cream, on the assumption that increased body volume created new energy; 4) massage and often the use of electricity for ‘muscular excitation”(Lane, 1980, p. 116).
Her reflections on this treatment appeared in the author’s work The Yellow Wallpaper that revealed the author’s discussions on the problem. The Yellow Wallpaper was the same relief for Gilman as Uncle Tom’s Cabin was for Stowe.
The Yellow Wallpaper is a story based on the author’s experiences: a young mother suffers from temporary nervous depression. Her husband does not think that supernatural things exist and does not consider depression to be a disease. He is a supporter of the “rest cure” which presupposes that the patient should lie in bed only. The house that the husband rent for the narrator’s cure turns out to be a prison for her. The secret diary that the narrator keeps records her real feelings and emotions. The yellow wallpaper in her room starts to haunt her. She constantly sees a woman that seems to creep around the room in an attempt to get out. Finally, the narrator locks the woman inside the room to creep around as she pleases.
The story may be considered a hymn to a free-thinking woman that rejects society. Emotional and psychological feelings that the writer depicted were not rare among women of late 1880. The women wanted to have freedom in career choice but were only expected to take care of their families.
The author of the story’s views and life principles were significantly influenced by different works of fighters for women’s rights. The work under consideration was important for the author as she wanted to get personal satisfaction from the fact that the doctor who cured her could have changed his treatment after reading the story. The author’s intention is revealed in her phrase: “It was not intended to drive people crazy but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked” (Lane, 1980, p. 20).
Thus, remaining a piece of fiction literature the short story reflects much of the writer’s real feelings and emotions that she experienced at a difficult stage of her life. Lane suggests that The Yellow Wallpaper is “the best crafted of her fiction: a genuine literary piece… the most directly, obviously, self-consciously autobiographical of all her stories” (Lane, 1980, xvi). I believe that only a person who himself/herself experienced something of the kind could have described it so masterfully as Gilman did.
Biographical facts from the life of the author of the second work under consideration are also helpful for understanding the message of the play. Hansberry was born to a successful black family which fought racial discrimination. When a child Hansberry lived in a black neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. Legal segregation prospered at that time. Chicago in particular was a city sharply divided into black and white neighborhoods. The would-be playwright’s family was the first to move into the white area (Lorraine was eight at that time), but the children continued to attend public school for blacks. Living in the white neighborhood caused much trouble to the Hansberry. Once it happened that neighbors seriously threatened them and the family defended itself in court.
The cases of the type inspired the author to record her experiences. Therefore, her writing and A Raisin in the Sun, in particular, is autobiographical to a large extent. In this play, Hansberry offers one of the first realistic depictions of a black family on an American stage. The story based on the incident that occurred in the writer’s own family was the first Broadway show written by a black woman.
Thus, it is clear that though the two authors lived different lives, the crucial events are reflected in the story and the play under analysis. With equal magnetism, the works attract the readers’/viewers’ attention due to the realism of the depiction.
Similarities and Differences in the Themes of the Two Works
The main issue that The Yellow Wallpaper brings about is the problem of women’s freedom. The story can be considered as a treasury of feministic ideas. The narrator’s example shows how dependent on their husband’s women were in the XIX century. The story shows that the woman was not allowed to make her own decisions. That was her husband that chose “rest cure” for her and not a member of the narrator’s family ever tried to learn what she needed. I do believe that John loved the narrator; this was some special love, his own one that did not inspire him to consider her wife’s moral and physical problems.
“There is nothing so dangerous, so fascinating, to a temperament like yours. It is a false and foolish fancy” (Gilman, 1997, p. 24). How could she possibly get better if none believed that she was ill? The narrator’s attempts to write symbolize her moral powers and rejection of blind obedience. Unfortunately, John’s unwillingness to change the wallpaper ruined her achievements. One can only guess whether the new wallpaper would have relieved the narrator’s pain, but I am convinced of the fact that changing the wallpaper would have meant the husband’s understanding of his wife. And this understanding would have given her powers to fight the disease.
This way or another, The Yellow Wallpaper is a hymn to the power that women may possess. No one knows the reserves of this power but if supported accordingly all women become even stronger.
One of the main issues A Raisin in the Sun is concerned with is the problem of racism. Apart from the things mentioned above this theme is revealed in the following episodes. The family is too much concerned with moving into the white neighborhood without striving to decrease the separation between the two races. Karl Lindner makes the family understand that they are not wanted in the white area because of their race. In general, every act that the member of the Younger family performs is affected by the color of their skin: for instance, because they are black, Ruth and Walter work as servants of white people.
Another important theme of the play is the theme of money. The author realizes the importance of money for black people but manages to show how poisonous the thirst for money might be. The insurance check that Lena expects from her husband’s death, on the one hand, gives the family hope for a better future, on the other, drives the members of the family apart. Everyone has their plans concerning the money and the plans do not presuppose the interest of another. When it comes out that the money is never made it to the bank, the family is torn apart because of the different reactions that appear.
The theme of money helps the author to consider one more problem, the importance of family. After the money failure, Water Lee decides to resort to Mr. Lindner’s help but understands what outcomes for his family and race as a whole it will have and gives up his idea. In the end, the family unites to realize their dream to buy a house. Throughout the play, Lena tries to keep the family together and functioning. The buying of the new house became possible because the members of the family managed to put the family and the family’s struggles before their own.
Thus, three main themes may be singled out in A Raisin in the Sun: racism, money, and family. The author managed to reveal them in a comprehensive whole with each other: one theme is disclosed through the perspective of another. Though the problem of racial discrimination was the most burning one at the time the play was created money and family issues never lose their importance in one’s life.
Comparing the themes of the two works I observe that only family issues are common for both of them other themes are different. Still, what unites the works is the topicality of the topics and the skill with which they are revealed.
Similarities and Differences in the Writing Styles of the Authors as Revealed in the Two Works
Coming to the writing style of the author of The Yellow Wallpaper I would like to single out the following peculiarities:
Internalizing the problem. The narrator is shown mostly in her bedroom. Staying alone in the room the narrator is surrounded by the yellow wallpaper that has a “recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down” (Gilman, 1997, p. 16). Further, we read “This paper looks to me as if it knew what a vicious influence it had!” and “[T]hose absurd, unblinking eyes are everywhere” (Gilman, 1997, p. 16). The author depicts the room and the wallpaper in the gothic style that contributes to the mysticism of the narrator’s disease.
The use of symbols.
- The diary that the narrator keeps. This is a symbol of her life that still continued. This is a symbol of her powers not to fall victim to passive silence.
- The yellow wallpaper. To my mind, it symbolizes the narrator’s despair. The depressive yellow only reminded the woman of her sorrow and the husband resisted listening to his wife and getting rid of the wallpaper.
- Gaze. The narrator constantly sees the gaze of the woman in her room. This is a symbol of supervision that comes from her husband and other people around her. I believe it to be a sort of rules she always had to follow and a set of conventional ideas that she did not have an opportunity to run away from.
- The house. It is a mechanism of confinement – ancestral places situated within a legacy of control and supervision (Snyder, 1999).
As for Hansberry’s style, to disclose the themes stated above the playwright resorted to the following techniques:
- The use of symbols. Most of all I was impressed by the way Mama’s plant is introduced into the text. Lena constantly takes care of her small window plant. Her family knows about her interest and buys her different things that are needed for foliage. The plant can be considered as a symbol of the mother’s belief in something good to happen. To approach the coming of a better future Lena takes care of the plant. One more instance of symbol use is the Nigerian robes that Benetha’s African boyfriend presents her with. By accepting the gift the girl assumes the role of a Nigerian princess. The dresses symbolize the true Negro roots of the Youngers in Africa.
- The use of dreams. The whole play appears to be essentially about dreams. Each member of the Youngers family has his or her own dream, Walter wants to become wealthy, Beneatha wants to get the doctoral diploma. Throughout the play, the characters either fail or succeed in the realization of their dreams. But by the end of the play, they understand that their happiness depends on the realization of one dream only, the dream of their family. The dream of buying a house is the most important as it unites the whole family.
- Setting. The author chooses the Youngers’ apartment as the only setting throughout the play. Their apartment is a castle for their family. The home is the symbol of family unity. The lighting in the apartment changes as the mood of the characters changes. Only two times the author depicts the characters outside the apartment: Travis plays with the rat (that could have never happened in a wealthy family) and Walter drinks (that again stresses the problems within the family).
Of course, these are not all features of Hansberry’s style that one can single out from the play. But, to my mind, these are the most important and the most effective ones to help the author sound convincing.
Everything stated above considered I conclude that the two works have more differences than similarities: different themes are depicted and different tools are used. Common features that unite the story and the play are the autobiographical elements of the works, the urgency of the topics described, and the use of symbols to reveal the themes. To my mind, the mixture of writing techniques, the authors’ abilities to see what needs to be changed I the society, and offering possible solutions (though not directly) make the works really unfading.
(2003). Charlotte (Anna) Perkins Gilman (1860-1935). Web.
Gilman, C. (1997). The yellow wallpaper. Dover Publications.
Hansberry, L. (2004). A raisin in the sun. Vintage.
Lane, A. (1980). Introduction. The fictional world of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. In A. J. Lane (Ed.) The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader. (X-xviii). New York: Pantheon Books, 1980.
Snyder, B. (1999). Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”: A poetics of the inside. Web.