“The Piano Next Door” is a short ghost story written by Elia Peattie in 1989. This paper utilizes the approaches of feminist criticism and historicism to examine the negative preconceptions about women in the late 19th century in America demonstrated by the short story.
The late 19th century was a period of many positive changes concerning the oppressed and the underprivileged in the USA. In 1865, slavery was abolished by the 13th Amendment. Since 1848, women’s suffrage started in America with the adoption of the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments, although the movement ultimately succeeded only in 1920. 1860-1901 was the historical period of the Industrial Age, which brought hardships and exploitation of working people, but also progress and many opportunities for the underprivileged. However, the late 19th century was also the period when traditional patriarchal beliefs and negative preconceptions about women were still very strong in the society. These views are demonstrated by the short story “The Piano Next Door” written by Elia Peattie who – although a politically active, outspoken, and intelligent person herself, a journalist and editor – must have been influenced by the beliefs and ideas of American society of that time.
The first fact that convinces the readers of patriarchal values expressed in “The Piano Next Door” is that all the active, positive, and sympathetic characters of the story are exclusively men. They are represented by the protagonist named John Boyce and the young men who played the piano. Little is known about the latter. He was an extraordinary talented but poor musician who died young, presumably starved to death. However, the readers sympathize with him because of the power of his music, which is capable of healing and elevating a person’s spirit. Boyce, who hears the music without seeing the musician, is sure that the one playing is a man, “[f]or he felt convinced that the exposition he had heard was that of a masculine mind” (Peattie). So, as in the ancient beliefs of yin and yang, the active, positive, and creative power is instantly associated with the masculine.
The character of the protagonist is explored in more detail in “The Piano Next Door”. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that John Boyce is contemplative, reflective, sensitive, and intelligent. He suffers because his beautiful young wife Babette he is madly in love with has left him for summer vacation. John Boyce also worries that he is poor and cannot provide Babette with the level of life she deserves. So now he is “at the city, working overhours to pay for Babette’s pretty follies down at the seaside” (Peattie). The story makes the readers believe that the protagonist’s wife does not care much for him as she does not even reply to his letters and that she just financially exploits him to pay for her entertainment. These facts and the elaborately described suffering of John Boyce caused by them propel the readers to sympathize with and pity the protagonist and to dislike his wife. However, his feelings towards Babette are of a very possessive and condescending nature: “He wanted her because she reminded him of birds, and flowers, and summer winds, and other exquisite things created for the delectation of mankind. He neither expected nor desired her to think” (Peattie). So Boyce only values his wife because of her appearance and because she amuses him, though he does realize it and suffers from it. As according to Arthur W. Biddle and Toby Fulwiler, historicism “finds significance in the ways a particular work resembles or differs from other works of its period and/or genre” (qtd. in Delahoyde), it may be reasonable to compare the attitude of Boyce towards his wife to the attitude of the protagonist of another Gothic short story of the 19th century, “The Birthmark,” 1843, by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The main character of this story, Aylmer, displays a very similar attitude. He also “persuaded a beautiful woman to become his wife” (Hawthorne). Aylmer values the young woman for her appearance and the entertainment she provides him: “I have sought you for the luxury of your voice. Sing to me dearest” (Hawthorne). So it may be concluded that such an attitude towards a woman is generally widespread in the 19th century American society.
Unlike the male characters of “The Piano Next Door,” all the female characters in this short story are extremely unlikable. They are represented by Babette, the old lady who rented a room to the young musician, and female neighbors of Boyce. The multiple unnamed women living next to the protagonist’s house are described less sympathetically than their male counterparts. While men are said to be pale, probably from hard work and poor living conditions, their wives are described as pretentious and having no taste. The old lady who rented the room to the musician is even more unlikable. Her description suggests the hospitality of a woman and even evokes disgust: she is called “the leering old hag” who “was smiling with ill-concealed exultation”; “said . . . with an accent more vicious than hospitable”; was “putting back a wisp of dirty gray hair behind her ear” (Peattie). Moreover, the old woman is indirectly accused of the death of the young musician. The neighbors thought she was guilty, probably because she lived in the same houses as the piano player and let him die from starvation without doing anything, although the old woman denies she is to blame. But the most unsympathetic character of the story is Babette. She is described as a very shallow, lightheaded, insensitive, and greedy person. The woman completely disregards her husband feelings and appears to enjoy the financial support he provides her with no second thought about the hardships he goes through to do it. The protagonist thinks that she could not understand his feelings even if he told her about them. The story even suggests that Babette “would laugh . . . merrily” reading her husband’s letter about the whole occurrence with the piano music and the young dead musician.
So “The Piano Next Door,” a short story by Elia Peattie, demonstrates the negative, condescending, and degrading views on women prevalent in the society of the late 19th century in America. These views and beliefs are expressed by making all the important characters possessing virtues and capable of bringing positive change to the world exclusively male, while all the vices and passive roles are reserved for females. Moreover, some patriarchal beliefs about female value are enhanced by the attitude of the otherwise sympathetic protagonist towards his wife. All in all, “The Piano Next Door” can be considered not only a literary work of value, but also a primary historical source on the American society of the 19th century and the gender issues prevalent in that period.