Death to Escape Marriage in the 1800's to early 1900s
The Story of an Hour and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty portray marriage as a prison for either the woman or the man in the relationship. In The Story of an Hour, the woman is the one who feels she is imprisoned. In The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the man is the one who is imprisoned by his wife. In both stories, the only escape from the prison of marriage is death which both characters are willing to face in order to feel free.
The Story of and Hour and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty do not mention divorce as a way out of marriage. Divorce was not common in the time periods these stories were written in and extremely inconvenient. The two stories take the vow “until death do us part” to heart and use it as the sole escape clause in a marriage. In the time period, this is a plausible sentiment and viewed as the norm (State of New Jersey, 2011).
The Story of an Hour is about a woman, Mrs. Mallard, who has been told her husband, Mr. Mallard has been killed in a rail road accident. Kate Chopin uses a third person omniscient point of view to express the feelings of the people telling Mrs. Mallard that has husband has been killed as well as Mrs. Mallard's reaction to the news. The third person omniscient point of view is a point of view which allows the author to tell the reader all the internal thoughts of all the characters in the story. The story is told by an outside narrator that is all knowing (Clugston, 2010). By using the point of view, Kate Chopin is able to show how Mr. and Mrs. Mallard react to each other, how her sister and husband's friend, Mr. Richard, expected her to react to her husband.
The story opens with an explanation of how the news had to be given to Mrs. Mallard: “Knowing that Mrs. Mallard was afflicted with heart trouble, great care was taken to break to her as gently as possible the news of her husband's death (Clugston, 2010).” This statement implies that the sister and Mr. Richard assume that Mrs. Mallard will react poorly to the news and that it could potentially upset her to the point that she could have a heart attack.
Mrs. Mallard's first reaction follows what the sister and Mr. Richard expected:
“She did not hear the story as many women have heard the same, with a paralyzed inability to accept its significance. She wept at once, with
sudden, wild abandonment, in her sister's arms. When the storm of grief had spent itself she went away to her room alone. She would have no one follow (Clugston, 2010).”
This statement shows the normal reaction a loving spouse has when he or she is told that his or her husband or wife has died. As soon as the news is out, the spouse hears nothing else, does not remember the way the husband or wife died or for what purpose. His or her mind is consumed by the grief of the moment and he or she can hear and feel nothing else until that moment passes. Once it has passed, the spouse would want to go away from other people to try to process the information and what it means to their life.
Once Mrs. Mallard is alone, the tone of the story begins to change. At first she sits in a chair with an expression that shows she is not thinking at all, just staring out the window, still sobbing, but as if she does not even know she is sobbing. Instead of thinking, she is waiting for the thoughts to come to her. Kate Chopin is using the description of Mrs. Mallard alone in the room to show how long slow time seemed to be going by. She also uses the description of Mrs. Mallard in the chair to show the weight of the news on her.
As the time passes and thoughts come to her, Mrs. Mallard begins to view the death of her husband in a different way. Where first she felt abandonment, she begins to feel freedom. All the negative feelings she had felt about her husband's death begin to turn into positive feelings. She still knows she will cry when she sees her husband's body at the funeral, but beyond that she feels she is going to be free and able to control her own destiny.
These new feelings Mrs. Mallard is experiencing show that she viewed marriage as a prison. She felt she constantly had to be bending her will to match another person's will. She used to dread living a long life, but now that she is free from marriage, the idea of a long life elates her.
Using this opposing attitude paints a stark image of how marriage can effect a woman, especially a woman living in the late 1800's. In the late 1800's, women were still mostly a man's property. Marriage guaranteed the man “rights” the woman's body which often meant pregnancies which could be fatal for the woman. Women were not allowed to be passionate about any area of study because it was considered detrimental to the family and it was also believed that if a woman became too educated, her uterus would become dysfunctional (Radek, 2008). Being married put these constraints on a woman and the death of the husband in The Story of an Hour removes these constraints from Mrs. Mallard. To Mrs Mallard, her husband's death was her way out of jail and allowed her the freedom to follow her own dreams, possible become educated, and work.
In the end of the story, it is found that Mr. Mallard was not at the railway when the accident occurred when he walked through the front door. The sister is afraid that Mrs. Mallard will go into shock when she sees her husband, from feeling too much joy because he is alive. Mr. Richard tries to shield Mrs. Mallard from seeing her husband before they tell her there was a mix up, but fails to do so. Mrs. Mallard lets out a scream, that the other characters perceive as joy, and then dies from her heart troubles.
The characters in the story, including the husband, perceive her screams and consequential death as Mrs. Mallard becoming so over joyed that her husband is alive that she cannot handle the feeling and it kills her. Kate Chopin offers a different explanation when she goes inside Mrs. Mallard's mind for the rest of the story. There is no actual feeling described when Mrs. Mallard sees her husband, she simply dies. Instead of dying from the instant and sudden joy that she should feel; however, it is implied that Mrs. Mallard died from heart break, at the thought of losing her new found freedom from her husband. Everyone else in the story believes that she died from the joy because that would be a normal response to seeing a spouse that has been presumed dead, is in fact alive. In the time period, it meant she did not have to worry about taking care of herself. She could continue to be a housewife. She did not have to try to do things that were meant for men, like becoming scholarly. In the 1800's, it was not believed that women should have an interest in these things (Radek, 2008), so other people would view it as a relief that she did not have to take on these tasks.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was written in 1939. The role of women in a marital situation had changed dramatically from the late 1800's. Women had now been faced with wartime and had taken on many of the man's responsibilities. The percentage of women that worked went from 3% in the 1800's (Radek, 2008) to 97% by 1939 (Clare, 2011). Women now had a voice and were more equal to men than they previously had been.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty shows marriage from the man's perspective during this time period. Again, marriage is addressed as a form of prison, but this time, it is the woman who is making the man's world into a jail cell. The story is only concerned with the internal thoughts of Mr. Mitty.
Mr. Mitty lives an entire life in his head and adding in the thoughts of other characters would most likely pollute the work and make it impossible to follow. The thoughts in Mr. Mitty's head allow Mr. Mitty to feel like a hero or a person who is living life to the very fullest. Some the internal thoughts compare his marriage to a war and other times make fun of how his wife treats him. Though James Thurber does not include much about how Mrs. Mitty treats her husband, the reader can pick up on her constantly nagging Mr. Mitty about doing one thing or another and trying to make Mr. Mitty into the type of person she wants him to be.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty opens with one of his daydreams in which Mr. Mitty is on a Navy hydroplane that is headed directly into a hurricane. There are many symbols in the daydream that lead the reader to believe that he is at a turbulent part of his life and that he is not very happy. Even in his daydream, he is not the one in control, but rather second in command. This might relate to how he feels in his marriage, that he has some say, but for the most part is just following the orders that his wife is laying for him. The daydream is interrupted by his wife telling him that he is driving too fast. She gives him the order to slow down and Mr. Mitty obeys her command.
Mrs. Mitty quickly catches on to the fact that Mr. Mitty has been in his own world and tells him that he needs to get checked out by a Dr. Renshaw. Her advice sparks the next daydream Mr. Mitty has. Mr. Mitty finds himself called in to consult on a case that Dr. Renshaw is working on. This time Mr. Mitty is picturing himself as a hero in the operating room. Not only do the Doctors want his “expert” opinion but he is also able to fix the newest, most complicated piece of machinery in the room, which no one else knows how to work. This daydream demonstrates Mr, Mitty's desire to feel important and to have a skill that few other people have. This indicates that in his real life, he most likely feels obsolete and unnecessary. Given the rapid change of women during this time period, these feelings make sense.
At one point in time, women completely relied on and obeyed their husbands, but since the war, women have become capable of taking care of themselves and often voice their opinions instead of following their husband's lead. Mr. Mitty is most likely having a hard time adjusting to this shift and is trying to work out his place in the relationship. During the time he was growing up, his mother most likely still followed the role that women played in the late 1800's. Now Mr. Mitty is experiencing “modern” women for the first time.
Mr. Mitty is again awakened from him daydream when he goes to park his car. The young parking attendant ends up parking the car for Mr. Mitty which makes Mr. Mitty feel outdated and old again. Mr. Mitty goes about doing the errands his wife sent him on while she is getting her hair done, but knows he is going to forget something and she will be angry with him. This leads him into a daydream where he is an accused witness on the witness stand. The lawyer is saying that he could not have fired the gun because his arm was in a sling and Mr. Mitty pictures himself taking control of the situation by saying he could have fired that shot.
The daydream shows Mr. Mitty fighting with a desperate need to be in control of something. In the court room, Mr. Mitty was not in control of his situation. He was being controlled by what lawyers were saying, what the judge wanted, and what the jury believed. He took control by breaking the sequence of events even though he knew he doing so would make it so that he would be found guilty of the crime. Mr. Mitty is willing to take on the consequences on the crime just to have that moment of control where he is able shock the courts and make everyone play by his rules.
Mr. Mitty wakes from that daydream while he is buying biscuits for the dog. When his mind wonders again, he is a fighter pilot. The only one left who is able to fly on a dangerous mission that should require two pilots, but he is g0ing to have to fly alone and is looking forward to the challenge. He is now in control of his own fate. He has decided to take his life into his own hands and fly solo on a mission that should take two people. Now, his mind is not only risking jail time for control, but certain death. To him, a few brief moments where is in control of his own destiny and not answering to his wife, is worth trading the years he might have left to live in his current situation. In this case, he is dying doing something he loves in his mind.
The final daydream Mr. Mitty experiences in the story is after he has met up with his wife and she has to run into a store for a moment. She leaves him in the car with instructions to stay put. Mr. Mitty leaves the car and leans up against the wall of the building to smoke while he is waiting. In his mind, he is courageously walking in front of a fire squad ready to meet his fate.
The last two daydreams in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty have a similar view of marriage as The Story of an Hour. Both portray marriage as an inescapable jail cell unless one of the two people dies. In The Story of and Hour, the wife has escaped marriage when her husband dies whereas in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the husband mentally puts himself in front of a firing squad to escape the bonds of marriage. In The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, it takes the entire story for Mr. Mitty to decide death is the way out of his situation where in The Story of an Hour, Mrs. Mallard realizes it almost as soon as she processes that her husband is dead. Both characters view death as their gate to freedom and do not look at it with the fear that death is usually met with.
The major difference in the stories is that there is a role reversal. In The Story of an Hour, Mr. Mallard is the one that has been pushing his will on his wife, as the time period indicates he should. She is not allowed to pursue her own dreams because her dreams are supposed to have been met the day she got married. She should want to stay home and raise children. For The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the wife is the constraining force on the husband. He was struggling to fit into the picture she had painted for him and was giving up his visions of what he should be to meet hers. Neither story views marriage as a mutually positive thing for both the man and the woman.
The view of marriage in The Story of an Hour and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty differs greatly from today's view of marriage because of the difficult process of divorce and consequential lower divorce rates. In the late 1800's, the divorce rate was around .2 per thousand people in a typical American state (State of New Jersey, 2011). In 1939 the divorce rate had risen in America to 1.8 per 1000 people in a typical American state (Stewart, 2010).
Though these numbers may show that divorce was possible, people in the time period faced difficulties when obtaining a divorce. There was a six month waiting period and there had to be good cause to dissolve a marriage (Classic Encyclopedia, 2006). The Great depression made divorce more difficult on families as well. Couples could not afford the legal fees to obtain a marriage and stayed together just to avoid these fees (Stewart, 2010). These obstacles made it so that the characters in The Story of an Hour and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty looked at death as the only real escape from the bonds of marriage.
Clare, J. (2011). Women in the War, retrieved May 9, 2011 fromhttp://www.johndclare.net/wwii13.htm
Classic Encyclopedia. (2006). Divorce. Retrieved May 23, 2011 from http://www.1911encyclopedia.org/Divorce
Clugston, R. (2010) Journey into Literature, Bridgepoint Education Inc.
Radek, K. (2008). Women in Literature, retrieved May 07, 2011 fromhttp://www2.ivcc.edu/gen2002/Women_in_the_Nineteenth_Century.htm
State of New Jersey. (2011) Vital Events, Counts, and Rates, New Jersey, 1879-2007, retrieved May 23, 2011 from http://www4.state.nj.us/dhss-shad/publications/vesince1879.html
Stewart, S. (2010) The Great Recession: Marriage, Birth Rates and Divorce—Grim and Bear It, Arizona Family Law Team, retrieved may 23, 2011 from http://www.azdivorceattorneyblog.com/2010/09/the-great-recession-marriage-birth-rates-and-divorce--grim-and-bear-it.shtml
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