It is a warm Sunday morning and the woman of the house asks, “What will you have for breakfast?” her son shouts from the top floor, “Mumma, Idli!” her husband from behind the newspaper says, “Dosa,” her father-in-law from the arm-chair adds, “Upma,” and finally, her daughter says, “Sambar wada.” Now this woman is standing at the kitchen counter, perplexed as to how she is supposed to fulfill such varied demands that, too, in such a short span. And to her rescue comes, “MTR Ready-to-eat Breakfast Menu,” and like Goddess Durga, she pops several hands, successfully delivers all the dishes her family members had asked for. What’s the moral of the story? That “MTR Ready-to-eat Breakfast Menu” is an excellent product and that you should also try it. While this is an example of brilliant advertising technique used by MNCs in the Indian market, it only reveals the surface meaning. The real idea at play is that a woman is expected to cater to each and every person’s needs, and wants at all points of time. A woman is merely an instrument used to expedite the process of achieving happiness.
Let us consider the supposed domestic bliss of a 19th century household, a perfect house, perfect family, perfect household, perfect husband, perfect children, i.e., an ultimate Utopia. It is similar to the first scenario that Margaret Atwood illustrates in her short story Happy Endings. The protagonists, John, and Mary, fall in love and get married to lead a stable, albeit monotonous, life. In Atwood’s words:
John and Mary fall in love and get married. They both have worthwhile and remunerative jobs which they find stimulating and challenging. They buy a charming house. Real estate values go up. Eventually, when they can afford live-in help, they have two children, to whom they are devoted. The children turn out well. John and Mary have a stimulating and challenging sex life and worthwhile friends. They go on fun vacations together. They retire. They both have hobbies which they find stimulating and challenging. Eventually they die. This is the end of the story. (Happy Endings, 1983, p.1)
It is an effective example of theoretical perfection. But, somehow, that’s where the tragedy lies.
Let’s consider another short story that explores a similar phenomenon. To Room Nineteen, first published in the collection of A Man & Two Women in 1963, pursues Doris Lessing’s intense interest in the consciousness of women under the stress of modern life. It takes place in 1960s London and in many ways addresses the historical context of women’s rights and their role in conservative London society of the time. To Room Nineteen starts with an interesting sentence,
This is a story about failure in intelligence: and Rawlings’ marriage was grounded in Intelligence. (To Room Nineteen, 1963, p.1)
Here, “Intelligence,” is for us to define. Susan, the protagonist, is an intelligent woman and she does everything in an intelligent manner. She is a middle-aged woman living in the mid-twentieth century London. And in accordance with the time period, Susan’s life revolves around her family, where she spends her time taking care of her husband, Matthew, and their four children, maintains their home. She adopts the role of the devoted wife and mother assigned to her by the society, which concerns itself only with outward appearances. With the picturesque house in the suburbs and happy family, it appears to everyone outside that Susan and Matthew are indeed, the ideal couple, who have made the best choices in life. In short, Susan has done everything in an “intelligent” way, including giving up her well paid job for the sake of her family, and going as far as forgiving her husband’s unfaithfulness just to avoid marital discord. In Lessing’s words:
They lived in their charming flat for two years, giving parties and going to them, being a popular young married couple, and then Susan became pregnant, she gave up her job, and they bought a house in Richmond. It was typical of this couple that they had a son first, then a daughter, then twins, son and daughter. Everything right, appropriate, and what everyone would wish for, if they could choose. But people did feel these two had chosen; this balanced and sensible family was no more than what was due to them because of their infallible sense for choosing fight. And so they lived with their four children in their gardened house in Richmond and were happy. They had everything they had wanted and had planned for. (To Room Nineteen, 1963, p.2)
This seeming Utopia of this family evaporates when the youngest children are sent off to school, i.e., “off Susan’s hands”, that Susan realizes the loss of purpose in her life. She starts questioning her life and life choices; wonders if the choices she and Matthew made are indeed the correct choices of the order everyone believes them to be. This rift in her life is furthered because of her discovery of Matthew’s extramarital affairs. She constantly goes back and forth to decide the extent to which this new development affects her. While she is convinced that the strength of the marriage is powerful enough to defeat the mistresses, it is obvious to the reader that is it her marriage that is, in fact, losing the battle of harmony. Susan’s situation reflects “Cult of Domesticity”. The concept appeared early in the nineteenth century and by the end of the century had developed into an essential and widely accepted notion concerning the female social role.
The defect in this utopia is that Susan loses her identity. Not only is her family dependent on her, but more than that, she’s dependent on them for the sake of a purpose in life. And when she realizes this herself, the veneer of her perfect family disappears. She now sets out on a journey of self- discovery which she associates with the need for a space where she can be an independent individual free from all the familial and social ties. Lessing’s description of this is full of thought provoking undertones:
It was now for the first time in this marriage that something happened that neither of them had foreseen.(To Room Nineteen, 1963, p.4)
Susan now comes out of the “cold storage” and starts delegating her motherly duties to the house maid, Mrs. Parkes and thus begins her withdrawal from the Rawlings household. She vocalizes her need for personal space and efforts like the “Mother’s room,” a walking holiday in Wales, etc. And eventually starts going to this “room nineteen” in Fred’s Hotel, to do nothing but just simply sit by herself and watch as life passes by in absolute peace. Susan wanted to break away from the bonds of supposed conjugal bliss and prescribed identity that were weighing her down and just be free. She even prefers death to her meaningless existence.
Susan is one of the most interesting case studies in literature to be diagnosed as a figure who dissociates herself from the collective one, of the social demand and patriarchal order. In many ways, through Susan, Lessing illustrates Laing’s version of schizophrenia. He sees it as an alienation from self, which leads to an alienation from others as well which eventually leads to Susan’s suicide in the very same room nineteen.
She was quite content lying there, listening to the faint soft hiss of the gas that poured into the room, into her lungs, into her brain, as she drifted off into the dark river.(To Room Nineteen, 1963, p.34)
Elaine Showalter’s “Women, Madness and the Family”(1985) sets the primary roots for this analysis, once she argues that
… female schizophrenia is interpreted as the product of women’s repression and oppression within the family. Madness itself became intelligible as a strategy, a form of communication in response to the contradictory messages and demands about femininity women faced in patriarchal society. (p. 222)
It is this trait of mental illness that Susan shares with the nameless narrator, and the protagonist of Charlotte Gilman’s short story The Yellow Wallpaper published in The New England Magazine in 1892. The Yellow Wallpaper is a haunting short story of 6000 words and a feminist master piece that deals with an unequal marriage and a woman destroyed by her unfulfilled desire for self expression.
The short story is written as a series of diary entries from the perspective of a woman suffering from Post-Partum Depression. And the remedy suggested by the Doctor Weir Mitchell, and her husband, who is a doctor himself, is of the “rest cure” which is a forced state of isolation. The story is actually based on Gilman’s own personal experience. She got married in her 20s and gave birth to a daughter a year. And soon after that she suffered a severe case of Post-Partum Depression. The cure suggested by the real life Dr. Weir Mitchell was the very same “rest cure” and it included not just extreme isolation but also compulsive restricting of activities of all kinds. In those times it was believed that Post-Partum Depression came from too much unnecessary activity.
This in direct contrast with the opinion of the narrator in The Yellow Wallpaper; she feels that working would actually distract her and make her feel better. She says:
So I take phosphates or phosphites whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise, and am absolutely forbidden to “work” until I am well again. Personally, I disagree with their ideas. Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.(The New England Magazine, 1892, p.648)
In reality, Gilman improved only after she stopped listening to her husband, and her doctor. She left her husband eventually and began her literary career. While Gilman was able to come out of plight, the narrator in the story is not. In an interview Gilman put her agony into words:
The post-partum experience, the traumatic course of action, and the lack of insight into the emotional state have left scars that I will feel for the rest of my life.(Gilman, 1895)
Gilman objects to the system where the domestic sphere becomes a prison and women were kept in a position that prevented them from existing beyond the sphere of their home, effectively hindering any kind of intellectual or creative growth. She wanted women to work, to grow, and to make connections outside of the home.
When the woman in the story is forcefully confined to her room, she at first sees patterns in the wallpaper, and later a woman behind bars. This is symbolic of not just herself, but descent into madness. She tries to peel the wallpaper to free the woman behind bars, but by doing so, the nameless narrator ensures that her mind stays entrapped in a prison of insanity.
The irony here is apparent in the fact that in The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), the narrator is given her space of refuge that Susan in To Room Nineteen (1963) so desperately desires and yet she is unhappy. This is symbolic of the fact that there can be no real happiness for women in marriages of such kind. Also, it is seen what a domestic prison cam do to a person.
This Dystopia becomes evident in the fact that madness becomes a viable end if one is not given the freedom to grow, to think, and to act as an individual. Considering the production and dominion of space, Henri Lefebvre (1974) pointed out:
… the dominion over time constitutes a fundamental and omnipresent source of social power over daily life. Then it is necessary to investigate more deeply how that form of social power articulates with the control over time, money and other forms of social power. (p.235)
Along similar lines, Gilman’s If I were a man (1914) explores a domesticated woman’s experience of the man’s world. The protagonist, Mollie, enters the body of her husband Gerald and starts experiencing the world through him, and it’s a totally new world. The experience of working, managing money, engaging with the public, and providing for her family empowers, and liberates her. Mollie not only gets a better understanding of her own sex but ends up educating others too. Mollie, through Gerald says,
..If Mother-Eve brought evil into the world, we men, have the lion’s share of keeping it going ever since. (Gilman, 1914)
It is a criticism of the patriarchal institution that marriage becomes under such circumstances. The circumstances like the loss of identity of the female, mental degeneration, the disintegration of the female personality, and a disregard towards the dignity of the feminine experience. Mental illnesses, often seen as a woman’s own fault, are actually a result of this domestic utopia that conceals the dystopian reality of female subjugation and suppression. Often, a female figure revolting against her traditional role is labeled as “insane” even before seeking an explanation for such a revolt which, in fact, is a gender specific reaction towards inadequate environments and oppressive structures. Through Susan, Mollie, and the nameless narrator, this paper attempts to depict the depression of traditional housewives hidden in the phallogocentric, and malist patriarchal society and their quest for a no man’s land to enjoy an unrestricted and carefree life. From the princesses of the fairytales to the modern heroines, women collectively have faced the dystopian truth of our world’s male-centric utopia.