Mrs. Dalloway and “The Yellow Wallpaper”: Public Freedom Denied

After delivering a rousing speech praising Athens and calling on its citizens not to let their fallen soldiers die in vain, Pericles ends his Funeral Oration with a jarring footnote to the women in the audience. “To you who are now widows: your glory is great… if you have as little fame among men as is possible, whether for virtue or by way of reproach” (Woodruff 46). Pericles is reminding the women of their proper place in society: by the customs of the ancient Greeks, they have no business in the public sphere. Whereas Greek men were encouraged to partake in the discussion of the polis and aspire to great deeds, women were told to shun fame.

Pericles’ Funeral Oration reminds us that, throughout history, marginalized groups of people—notably women– have been denied participation in the public arena.  The German philosopher Hannah Arendt argues in her essay “What is Freedom?” that freedom comes from an active engagement in the public sphere; it “develops fully only when action has created its own worldly space where it can come out of hiding, as it were, and make its appearance” (167). Arendt’s concept suggests an unfortunate truth, that true freedom is not accessible to all. For the women in Pericles’ Athens, “freedom” as Arendt meant it was largely out of reach.

This idea of Arendtian freedom denied resonates strongly with two works of literature, Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Both novels feature women who, like the widows of Athens, are not allowed a place in the public sphere. Upon first analysis, Mrs. Dalloway and “The Yellow Wallpaper” might seem to run contrary to Arendt’s ideas, as both show their female protagonists retreating into and even cherishing an “inner freedom” that the philosopher denounces. However, both works ultimately affirm a highly Arendtian view of freedom, by demonstrating that “inner freedom” is no freedom at all and that denying an individual a public role denies fulfilment of their highest potential as a human being.

Arendt’s Argument

Fig. 1: Portrait of Hannah Arendt from Berkowitz, Roger. “Hannah Arendt, 1906-1975.” The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College. Bard College, n.d. Web. 7 Dec 2015.

Hannah Arendt advocates an outward-looking concept of freedom that emphasizes one’s ability to act in the public realm, rather than an inward-looking notion of freedom that emphasizes one’s ability to avoid outside influence and control (see fig. 1). She describes “inner freedom” as “the inward space into which men may escape from external coercion and feel free”—feel but not actually be free, because “the inward space” is inherently limiting (Arendt 145). In the privacy of our own minds, we can think and feel how we please, but in retreating to “a place to which no other has access” we severely limit the scope of our lives (Arendt 145).   For Arendt, such a narrow concept of freedom inhibits man’s role as a creative force interacting with the world. Thus, she urges what I will refer to as “public freedom” instead. Public freedom draws on Greek ideas of arête, or excellence through action: Arendt likens it to a performing art, something fleeting that can only be realized in the presence of others– “in words which can be heard, in deeds which can be seen, and in events which are talked about, remembered” (153). Her emphasis on action recalls the existentialist philosopher Sartre, who wrote in his Existentialism is a Humanism that we are defined by our actions rather than by “dreams, expectations, and hopes” never translated into worldly reality (38). Finally, Arendt suggests that without public freedom, we give up some integral part of our humanity. “To be human and to be free are one and the same,” she writes (Arendt 166).

The Allure of Inner Freedom

In some ways, Mrs. Dalloway and “The Yellow Wallpaper” might seem to advocate the inner freedom that Arendt criticizes. The texts’ main characters embrace inner freedom as a way to preserve their authentic selves from external tyranny; in order to achieve inner freedom, the women cultivate a sharp divide between the interior of their mind and the face they present to the world.  Mrs. Dalloway follows a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a high-society woman living in post-World War I London who outwardly conforms to societal expectations while hiding her more rebellious self (see fig. 2). The Clarissa who interacts in public is a calculated cover-up, who does things “not simply; not for themselves; but to make people think this or that” (Woolf 10). Clarissa marries a traditionally-minded man and, in public, subdues her intellect in favor “seeing things through his eyes” as is demanded of a wife (Woolf 75). Meanwhile, Clarissa’s authentic thoughts and feelings—her discontents– stay deeply buried, in a way that frees her from others’ judgments or disapproval. Clarissa places great value on the privacy of her mind, saying, “There is a dignity in people, a solitude; even between husband and wife a gulf… one would not part with it… without losing one’s independence, one’s self-respect—something, after all, priceless” (Woolf 117). This indicates that her route to “independence” lies in what Arendt calls the inward space. Clarissa feels that, by keeping her true self private and unreachable to the rest of the world, she can attain freedom from the molding influences of society.

Fig. 2: A Mrs. Dalloway cover depicting Clarissa in high-society mode from Amaya, Damaris et al. “Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf (I).” This is a Literary Blog. This is a Literary Blog, 19 Jan 2011. Web. 7 Dec 2015.

Fig. 2: A Mrs. Dalloway cover depicting Clarissa in high-society mode from Amaya, Damaris et al. “Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf (I).” This is a Literary Blog. This is a Literary Blog, 19 Jan 2011. Web. 7 Dec 2015.

The narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” also pursues inner freedom, carefully guarding her authentic self with a split identity. She spends the entire story confined to a single room, on a “rest cure” regimen for hysterical patients that cuts her off physically and mentally from the outside world (see fig. 3).  As her resentment of this arrangement grows, she hides her rebellious desires behind the façade of a docile, obedient wife. At first, she attempts to conform her inner self to outer pressures, admitting that “I sometimes fancy that in my condition if I had less opposition and more society and stimulus–” only to interrupt herself mid-thought: “but John says the very worst thing I can do is to think about my condition, and I confess it always makes me feel bad” (Gilman 649). However, seeking to free her mind from the imposing will of others, she begins to hide her true thoughts with small deceptions. For example, she lies down for an hour after each meal as prescribed but only pretends to sleep. “It is a very bad habit I am convinced,” she asserts of the sleep regimen (Gilman 653). As her private identity pulls away from her public one, she grows bolder and more authentic in her own thoughts, which are less and less intruded upon by the opinions of her husband.

Fig. 3: Drawing of the narrator in her room from Carr, Glynis, ed. "The Yellow Wall-Paper." The Online Archive of Nineteenth-Century U.S. Women's Writings. Bucknell College, 1999. Web. 6 Dec 2015.