Themes in The Diamond Necklace and The Yellow Wallpaper
The Domestic and Feminism
The domestic spheres of the two short stories: “The Diamond Necklace” by Guy De Maupassant, and “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman are largely focused on female protagonists. In the former, Mathilde seems to have control over the household as her husband goes through great lengths to please her. Conversely, in the latter story the unnamed protagonist is in a constant struggle for freedom from the very masculine domestic power of her husband. At the beginning of both stories, the female protagonists are at opposite ends in terms of control of their domestic household. However, as the stories progress, a role reversal takes place and each of them end up having opposite sides of power.
Mathilde is a very powerful, yet insecure woman. She’s beautiful and leads a relatively decent lifestyle, perhaps even middle-class. Her only wish is to be a rich and powerful woman that is admired by all. Through her obsession she is blinded and doesn’t realize that the relationship she has with her husband is probably the most envious thing any other woman would really want. He supports her demands at a whim and does everything he can to make her happy. He even sacrifices his own desires, such as when Mathilde asks him for four hundred francs for a dress and he generously gives them up even though “…he was laying aside just that amount to buy a gun and treat himself to a little shooting next summer…” (Maupassant) Mathilde also uses guilt as a form of observing power over her husband, as she dramatically “…[conquers] her grief and [replies] in a calm voice, while she [wipes] her wet cheeks…” (Maupassant) She doesn’t really seem to respect him either as she often speaks rudely or impatiently, and isn’t ever grateful for anything he does.
On the other end of the spectrum, the protagonist of “The Yellow Wallpaper” yearns to please her husband, John. She constantly tries to prove her sanity to him, and to gain his approval in allowing her to be free from the confines of the bedroom, as she mentions in her first journal, “so I take pains to control myself—before him, at least, and that makes me very tired.” (Gilman) Unlike Mathilde though, the protagonist of this story is still secure about herself. She is confident that she is fine, but no one else seems to believe her. The story shows two other females, Jennie and Mary, who further enhance the role of women in the household for the reader. They both look after the house and do things that are perceived as feminine whereas John is a doctor, as is his brother-in-law. The protagonist exclaims on several occasions that she really can’t do anything against the will of her husband. Her husband however, doesn’t really come off as too bad of a person. He seems gentle, and treats her like a child. His way controlling her is by making her think that everything he does is a favor for her. In contrast to Mathilde, the protagonist of “The Yellow Wallpaper” seems guilty not to appreciate her husband and writes in her journal that “…he takes all care from me, and so I feel basely ungrateful not to value it more.” (Gilman)
The role reversal begins for Mathilde when she loses the diamond necklace that her friend lent her. The once powerful and demanding woman is now fearful and in a state of remorse. She undoubtedly even starts to feel that worrying about something as petty as looking rich and powerful really wasn’t as important as she had once thought. She now stops questioning her husband and listens to everything he tells her to do in trying to make the situation better. Clearly, at this point, the husband has gained control over the domestic space, as Mathilde is helpless. He instructs her to write a letter to her friend explaining an excuse, because “that will give [them] time to turn round." (Maupassant) She follows as he says without question or attitude. After incurring numerous debts to pay off the necklace, the couple has to live a life much worse off than they had before. Mathilde “…came to know what heavy housework meant and the odious cares of the kitchen.” (Maupassant) She is no longer the strong woman in control of her household that she used to be. Obviously, over the duration of the ten years of hard living, Mathilde doesn’t have any real concern over fulfilling her former desires anymore. It can even be assumed that she’s probably grateful that her husband came through for her, and ashamed as to what her actions have caused for them.
While Mathilde goes towards a downward spiral, the protagonist of “The Yellow Wallpaper” is constantly trying to free herself. She starts by disobeying small things that her husband has forbidden her to do; namely, that is writing in her journal or sneaking off outside to the garden when John or Jennie aren’t around. Eventually she starts to get more and more liberal with her misdemeanors, and starts to rip off the wallpaper that she is convinced is hiding a woman beneath it. She notes, “I have locked the door and thrown the key down into the front path.” (Gilman) By locking the door, she is showing that she now willfully chooses to be in the room and doesn’t want to let anyone else in. She wants to rip off the wallpaper and free what is hiding underneath. What she is freeing, figuratively, is herself. When John enters the room, he faints, and she continues going around the room in circles, “[creeping] over him every time.” (Gilman) This signifies her victory over him, and that he is no longer in control of her.
The protagonist of “The Yellow Wallpaper” has, in her own mind, succeeded in overcoming the domestic powers that oppressed her. On the other hand, Mathilde from “The Diamond Necklace” has completely lost control of her life. In a sense, Mathilde did not appreciate her freedom when she had it, and has ultimately lost it. The other female protagonist is satisfied with whatever form of freedom she has attained. In a sense, both have essentially switched places.