The importance of challenging societal norms for a more just future
In some ways we are all trapped within our own reality. This reality is subject to our own socio-economic and political context. Where we are born and what time period we were born into we have no choice over but we do we do have the choice to challenge our contextual bonds. Today I will be comparing a poem by a prolific 20th century writer, Maya Angelou called Caged Bird to Yellow Wallpaper, a short story written by Charolotte Perkins Gilman, who was an American novelist, humanist and feminist in the late 1800s. Both texts discuss the theme of entrapment through their own personal experiences. Angelou discusses emancipation of African-Americans from a primarily white dominant culture, and Gilman discusses the personal entrapment of a woman driven mad by the patriarchal society of the early 20th Century. Angelou lived during the height of the civil rights movement and was an activist for change. She wrote ‘Caged Bird’ to represent the oppressive nature of America society in the 50s and 60s. Gilman was an advocate during the Feminist Movement in America and published a book called ‘Women and Economics’ in 1898. This was not well received during a time where women had very few rights and no systemic power. Life is a constant struggle between the boundaries that society places upon us and our own free will, and the importance of challenging these expectations for a more just society is the universal theme that will be discussed during this presentation. These two texts are examples of society placing unjust boundaries around individuals, and they also demonstrate that societal norms should constantly be challenged to improve society. People of any age and background can relate to both of these points, which makes the overall theme of these texts timeless and relevant in today’s society.
Being an advocate for change reverberates through time. It is like the butterfly effect; a small change can have a large impact on the future. Angelou writes, “his tune is heard on the distant hill”, which is demonstrates that idea by saying that even though your voice might not be heard now, it will impact the future in some way. Angelou uses the literary device called repetition throughout the poem. “His wings are clipped and his feet are tied, so he opens his throat to sing” is repeated many times throughout the poem. Even though the African-Americans were placed under pressure from society and felt imprisoned and powerless within their lives, they still spoke up and tried to demand change, and that is what that line in the poem is highlighting. The use of repetition is important in Caged Bird, since it brings forward and emphasizes the important messages that Angelou wants the reader to gather from the text. Angelou also uses metaphors throughout Caged Bird. This allows the reader to make direct comparisons between the objects used in the poem and the meanings behind them. Angelou uses the metaphor “but a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams, his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream”, which is representing the African-Americans not giving up on their dream of liberation and justice.
Your actions being able to impact the future is a message that is also seen within the short story, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper”. The story speaks of a man who restricts his wife to the confinements of her own home. The decisions he made had a large impact on her mental health and wellbeing over time, and he didn’t expect that his actions would turn her insane. He was in absolute shock when she ripped off all of the yellow wallpaper in their bedroom to release the woman she saw trapped behind it, and this shows that he couldn’t comprehend what choices had resulted in. Women in the late 1800’s had no power and were seen as second-class citizens. Husbands ruled their wives and the fact that the men earned all the money meant that women were economically trapped as well as physically trapped. They were looked down upon and seen as hysterical and over-emotional, and this can be seen in the quote where John, Jane’s husband addresses her by saying “what is it, little girl?” (page 23), which is belittling as he is asserting his authority in addressing her this way. Degrading women is a recurrent theme throughout the short story and can be seen when John diagnoses her with “temporary nervous depression-a slight hysterical tendency” (Page 3) instead of believing she’s physically sick. Gilman uses metaphors within her short story to represent oppressed women. The wallpaper is a metaphor for feeling trapped in domesticity, within a powerless gender. Gilman also uses repetition, much like Angelou, is to highlight how the main character is feeling. “What can one do?” (page 1) is used three times on the first page, which is a device used to cause the reader to immediately think that the protagonist has given up hope, that she feels helpless and under her husband’s control. Every action has a consequence, whether it happens in the moment or years later, it will have an impact and people should always try and push past the boundaries society places around them.
Society places unfair boundaries around individuals, which makes this theme timeless and relevant in today’s society. It is timeless because expectations and pressure from society has been around forever and will continue to be for as long as human kind exists. The Caged Bird is the main metaphor found in the poem Caged Bird. The caged bird represents the oppressed African-Americans and the cage represents the White-Americans (or society) that are causing them to feel entrapped within their own society. This can be seen in the line “the caged bird sings of freedom”. This represents the African-Americans holding onto the hope that one day they would be viewed as equal members of society. Angelou also uses tone to help the readers get a better sense of how the American-Americans were feeling during the civil rights movement. She does this through the use of imagery in the line “the caged bird sings with a fearful trill of things unknown”. In our mind we imagine a fearful bird singing out, which is representing the African-Americans speaking up so that they may achieve change, even though they were in fear of the dominant culture and how they would react.
The societal boundaries of the late 1800’s are seen very clearly in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’. Women were discriminated against and seen as less than men for centuries, and in some countries still are. Gilman uses metaphors to represent how the women being dominated by men were feeling during this time. The woman who is trapped behind the yellow wallpaper is a metaphor for all those women who were trapped within their own domesticity, where their free will was taken away from them and their only purpose was to “dress and entertain, and order things” (page 9). Women were classified as lightheaded and hysterical, unable to function socially. Gilman uses personification to set the dark atmosphere that Jane’s husband, John, creates in their home by trapping her in it. In the story Jane speaks of the wallpaper as if its alive in the line “I find it hovering in the dining room lying in wait for me on the stairs. It gets into my hair” (page 7). This brings attention to the wallpaper, the barrier stopping the woman from escaping, which is also a metaphor for the social boundaries that were placed around women of that era. This timeless story shows us how detrimental societies expectations can be on individuals who are not part of the ruling class.
Literature helps us to better understand the human condition. Both these tests were subversive when they were written, both attempting to influence and/or change society. The struggle that humankind battles between the need for structure and power, by a few and the indelible right of free will, of the many is a time old problem. The Caged Bird and The Yellow Wallpaper are both examples of individuals challenging the status quo for a more just future for minorities.