In most modern cultures, marriage is ideally perceived as a union based on both mutual affection and the willingness of each partner to bring to the union their individual assets. Skills and behaviors going to earning income, providing a stable and comfortable home, and raising children are traditionally the expected contributions seen as necessary to create the good and mutually satisfying marriage. What this translates to in most Western cultures, however, is a kind of subjugation of the woman in the marriage, and simply because the cultures permit only the man to achieve in the society, tangibly support the family, and thus attain the higher status of the authority figure. As two short stories and an editorial representing diverse societies, and of different eras, reveal, marriage is typically not a union inherently equal, but reflective of conflict; the man is usually dominant by virtue of earning power, and the woman is then expected to surrender her being as an individual in order to maintain the domestic foundation.
Before any real idea of this conflict in marriage may be understood, it is first necessary to note that the stories and article cited go to extremes; these are expressions of a woman’s repression very strong, and reflective of the specific cultures of 19th century America, traditional Jamaican society, and the state of marriage in the U.S. prior to the impact of feminism. This in itself, however, supports how persistent the idea is in Western culture that a woman’s role in marriage requires a denial of the self. Moreover, this is a reality revealed by the many dimensions of how marriage exists as fundamentally, and often not blatantly, reinforcing the suppression. To begin with, Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” is by no means a harsh criticism of marriage as denying women opportunity. The fictional work makes it clear that the news of the husband’s death generates real sadness in Louise, the wife; she has been loved by her husband, just as she realizes that she was bound to him by strong ties of affection: “She knew that she would weep again when she saw the kind, tender hands folded in death; the face that had never looked save with love upon her” (Chopin).
Nonetheless, what overpowers Louise is an external understanding of a new freedom never before possible. Affection notwithstanding, it is clear that the construct of the marriage has denied her any possibility of living as an individual, and not focused on completely attending to another. Importantly, this emphasizes how the denial of a woman’s selfhood occurs as a force apart from a couple’s care for one another. That the shock of seeing her husband alive kills her all the more stresses the power of the idea of personal freedom; seen as suddenly real, its being withdrawn is too much to bear. Consequently, the surrender of the female being is seen as having created ongoing, if deeply suppressed, conflict.
With Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl,” the emphasis is far more direct on how social orders absolutely demand a woman’s conformity to a subjugated and supportive role in marriage. The story is actually a litany of requirements as an older woman instructs a girl in what is necessary to be a wife. Interestingly, and despite the literally dozens of commands, there is no actual reference to the man or husband, and this adds weight to the social pressure; that is, the behaviors listed are all the more critical because service to a man is unquestioned. The commands also go beyond duties and chores, in that they suggest how any deviation from them leads to ruin for a woman:
“This is how to behave in the presence of men who don’t know you very well, and this way they won’t recognize immediately the slut I have warned you against becoming” (Kincaid). This is then no social construction assuming that women will set aside their selves to cater to men; it carries with it the threat of something like exile, as the woman not conforming can have only one other identity, that of being disgraced. The implication is then that living for herself in any way renders a woman cheap and unfit to be respected in the society. That such a construct would create conflict is inevitable, a reality supported by the absolute force of the directions given to the girl; it is simply too dangerous to consider that a woman would object, which implies the likelihood that the social demands must generate deep resentment or resistance.
Lastly, Judy Brady’s article of 1971, “I Want a Wife,” echoes Kincaid’s directions in a converse way; this is a “masculine” perspective noting the many advantages to the man in being so completely supported. Here too is the emphasis on a totality of support which both allows for no deviation and confirms the social necessity of the woman’s denial of self as essential to the greater social order. The intimate is as important here as the trivial or routine: “I want a wife who understands that my sexual needs may entail more than strict adherence to monogamy. I must, after all, be able to relate to people as fully as possible” (Brady). In other words, as the man’s role is independent and powerful, the woman’s expectation of fidelity is meaningless because this would restrict his power in the external world. Submission is everything here, just as it is in Kincaid’s story and, ultimately, in Chopin’s. All three pieces reinforce that a certain order is necessary in the home, one in which the woman exists only to facilitate the man’s being. Equally importantly, the fact that the stories and the article exist themselves is clear evidence of the conflict such circumstances must create. The denial of a woman’s self is, ultimately, the denial of a human self, and this must bring with it some degrees of resentment and/or resistance.
If gender roles and relationships are changing, it is nonetheless the reality that a basic inequality marks the state of marriage in traditional Western culture. As the man is dominant in the society, so too is the woman fully expected to provide whatever support he and the society deems correct, and this inevitably translates to the woman’s surrender of selfhood and suppressed conflict. As Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour,” Kincaid’s “Girl,” and Brady’s “I Want a Wife” make very clear, marriage is typically not a union of equality, but is more reflective of conflict; the man is usually dominant by virtue of earning power and subsequent social status, and the woman is then expected to surrender her actual being as an individual in order to maintain the domestic foundation.