We are a society that loves to peek in on the spectacle of other people’s private lives. We are the voyeurs who made reality television more popular than traditional scripted entertainment. And though we cheer when lovers find happiness, we like intrigue, deception, betrayal, and anger even more. It is thrilling when relationships unravel, but nobody wants to be unhappy in love. Stories about troubled marriages pull us in because they show us our own fears. Our attention is captured when our fears are addressed. Kate Chopin and Marge Piercy give us two attention-grabbing examples of writing that deals with marital unhappiness—specifically, unhappy wives. Though the two pieces deal with the same theme, their contrasting diction, historical context, and treatments of self-awareness give them drastically different effects.

Chopin’s short story, Story of an Hour, is the tragic tale of Mrs. Mallard, a well-to-do Victorian wife. The story opens as she learns that her husband has died in a railroad accident. She cries and retreats to the privacy of her bedroom, where a joyful realization hits her: She is free. She can now make decisions for herself and do as she pleases. Her pulse races while she thinks of the limitless possibilities open to her now that her husband is dead. Literary critic Jennifer Hicks says Mrs. Mallard “looked at her widowhood as a rebirth” (329). Mrs. Mallard emerges from her bedroom as her husband, walks in the front door. He never boarded the train! She sees him and ironically drops dead from “joy that kills” (863).

Marge Piercy’s poem, “What’s That Smell in the Kitchen?” does not focus on a specific unsatisfactory relationship. Instead, Piercy talks about wives “all over America” (185) who burn their husbands’ dinners out of hatred for their husbands and dissatisfaction with their role as housewife. The husbands used to pay attention to the wives and make them feel loved, but now the wives are ignored and unappreciated, which makes them angry. The wives also are dissatisfied with their lives because they are strictly confined to the domestic realm. They are fed up with the tedium of endless household tasks. Burning dinner is an act of aggression against both the husbands they loathe and the monotonous task of cooking dinner.

Literary critic Sarah Gamble says, “Piercy’s politics—feminist and left-wing—are always clearly articulated through her art” (246). Piercy frequently writes from a collective point of view, and this serves her political purposes well. Gamble says, “Piercy’s preference for multi-voiced narration, sharing out the narrative point of view among several main characters, allows her to weave together a variety of different views in order to allow for intricate… shadings of opinion and experience” (246). This is good because it helps the reader understand that the issue described is pervasive and important, and it must be addressed. Gamble quotes Piercy: “I want to change consciousness. If you don’t support alternate ways of imagining things, people aren’t going to be able to imagine a better world” (248). Piercy wants to stimulate the imagination and encourage people to support her political causes. This makes sense when we look at Piercy’s life and the historical context in which she writes.

The feminist movement was in full swing in 1976, when this poem was written, and politically charged works like this reflect the climate of that era. The poem also indicates Piercy’s personal politics. Piercy has been politically active since the 1960s. She is especially supportive of feminist causes such as the pro-choice movement. She says, “I went to countless demonstrations. I was a foot soldier… Politics to me is the art of coalitions… Most of my work is on the grassroots level” (Godwin, 42). Piercy believes the best way to get political work done is through activism, the way young people did in the 1960s. Piercy uses her literary works to marshal activists. She convinces the reader that the problem she writes about is widespread, and then expects the reader to take up the cause.

It is easy to see that Chopin’s work was written in a very different context. In 1894, when Story of an Hour was published, women did not have the right to vote, marriage was regarded as a sacred institution that was never to be questioned, and few divorces were granted. In this era, a woman writing about female independence would not be well-received, and indeed, Chopin’s short stories were frequently rejected for publication because they were deemed immoral. Hicks says, “Editors perceived in them an unseemly interest in female self-assertion and sexual liberation” (330). Chopin probably didn’t expect to change the world through her work—much of it went unpublished until after her death. Chopin’s work is personal rather than political. Chopin was raised by her mother and her grandmother, and Hicks suggests that her female-dominated upbringing may be the reason that she does not conform to Victorian norms. Chopin was also widowed at a young age, and she took over her husband’s business after he died (332). This illustrates Chopin’s personal strength and her willingness to do things that were not normally done by women in those times.

Because Chopin wrote during the repressive Victorian era about taboo subjects, she frequently veils her ideas to make them more palatable. Chopin does not directly attack the institution of marriage; she only alludes to Mrs. Mallard’s marital unhappiness and focuses instead on the desire for freedom. Also, more than one of Chopin’s female protagonists dies at the end of the story—the character Edna Pontellier dies at the end of The Awakening. It is as if the characters must pay a penance for the perceived immorality in Chopin’s stories. But Hicks says of Mrs. Mallard, “The fact that she pays for her elation with her life at the end of the story is not enough to redeem either the character or the author” (330). Indeed, Chopin and her body of work were practically forgotten for over fifty years. It wasn’t until the 1960s—when feminism and female self-awareness was being frankly explored by writers like Piercy—that Chopin came into vogue.

Self-awareness is handled very differently in these two pieces. Mrs. Mallard is not self-aware during her marriage—in fact, we are told that she is suffering from “a heart problem” (862) because she does not understand why she feels bad. Mrs. Mallard fears the realization that she is unhappy in her marriage, and she fights it. It is possible that she is afraid of feeling guilty. Wishing to be free of one’s spouse is no small offense, especially when the spouse is described as gentle and kind. Literary critic Lawrence Berkove deeply sympathizes with Mr. Mallard. Berkove says, “It is obvious that there is quite a discrepancy between the way Louise and Brently Mallard feel about each other, but all the mystery of the difference is on Louise’s side” (154). Berkove even suggests that Mrs. Mallard’s feelings about her husband’s death are caused by insanity (156). Mrs. Mallard doesn’t think she should feel the way she does, so she fearfully waits for the guilt-laden realization. As she comes closer and closer to the comprehension of her true feelings, she “strives to beat it back with her will” (862). Mrs. Mallard does not confront her feelings until death forces her to face them, and even then she is reluctant to do so.

In contrast, the wives in Piercy’s poem have a keen understanding of their feelings. The wives feel unappreciated, which is explained in this passage: “Look, she says, once I was roast duck / on your platter with parsley but now I am Spam” (186). Roast duck is a gourmet dish that takes careful preparation, and is appreciated when it is served. Serving it with a garnish makes it even more special. But Spam is a cheap canned meat that takes no special preparation and isn’t liked by many people. The wives does not feel valued by their husbands anymore, and they are the ones who are saying so—not a narrator. This shows that the women are aware of their own feelings.

Chopin and Piercy achieve two very different effects through their use of language. Chopin uses mild, moderate language when discussing marriage and Mr. Mallard, and she uses ecstatic language when describing freedom. She steers away from negative emotions such as anger or hate. Mrs. Mallard refers to Mr. Mallard’s “kind, tender hands” and “his face that had never looked save with love upon her” (863). Chopin’s diction is gentle; she wants the reader to understand that Mr. Mallard has not been abusive or neglectful. The narrator even acknowledges that when Mr. Mallard imposed his will on Mrs. Mallard, his intention was kind (863). Even though the imposition of one’s will on another human being is “a crime” (863), at least Mr. Mallard’s crime was not a malevolent one.

Piercy, on the other hand, uses words that convey intense, violent, even militant anger. She refers to war, missiles, and bombs. Her carefully-chosen diction is powerful and a little frightening. She lobs her harshest words directly at husbands, not the institution of marriage. Her speaker says, “If a wife wants to grill anything, it’s / her husband spitted over a slow fire” (185). Piercy’s speaker blames the husbands’ neglect for the wives’ unhappiness, but no specific examples of wrongdoing are cited. Piercy indicates that the wives feel undervalued, but she leaves it up to the reader to decide what kind of specific offenses would incite such brutal anger and cause the narrator to describe such violent revenge. Piercy also uses language to show the reader that women become unhappy when they are strictly confined to the domestic realm. All of the language—with the exception of the angry language—is related to cooking, a domestic task. Piercy talks about various entrees, barbequing, grilling, shiny platters, serving the husband, digestion, and storing leftovers (185-86). This gives the reader the distinct impression that the wives do not live outside of the kitchen. Since they seem so unhappy performing these culinary tasks, they probably need to stop cooking and start finding out what pleases them—just like what Mrs. Mallard looked forward to when she was told that her husband died.

Both of these pieces show us that individual self-actualization can make a marriage stronger. Happy individuals make happy partners. Piercy elaborates on this and emphasizes that partners must show each other appreciation in order for a marriage to work—otherwise, our fears about being part of an unhappy relationship could become a reality!

Works Cited
Berkove, Lawrence. “Fatal Self-Assertion in Kate Chopin’s ‘The Story of an Hour.’” American Literary Realism 32, no. 2 (Winter 2000): 152-58.
Chopin, Kate. “The Story of an Hour.” Making Literature Matter: An Anthology for Readers and Writers. Ed. John Schlib and John Clifford. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003. 862-63.
Gamble, Sarah. “Marge Piercy: Overview.” Feminist Writers. Ed. Pamela Kester-Shelton. St. James Press, 1996. 246-48.
Godwin, Michelle Gerise. “Marge Piercy.” The Progressive. November 1999: 42
Hicks, Jennifer. “An Overview of ‘The Story of an Hour.’” Short Stories for Students. Gale Research, 1997. 329-32.
Piercy, Marge. “What’s that Smell in the Kitchen?” Making Literature Matter: An Anthology for Readers and Writers. Ed. John Schlib and John Clifford. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s. 185-86. Node your homework!

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