In short stories, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Gilman, “The Birthmark” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and poem, “I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud” by William Wordsworth, narrators demonstrate how society acts as a burden and represses freedom of thought in one’s mind. The ancient art of Zen meditation also stresses openness to thoughts and practices freeing the mind. In “The Yellow Wallpaper” the narrator suffers from anxiety and depression, diagnosed by her husband who attempts to cure her “illness” by restricting her freedom of thinking. In “The Birthmark” a mark on Georgiana’s face makes her stand out in society and be whoever she wants to be; however her husband attempts to remove this imperfection, ultimately leading to her death. In “I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud” the speaker glorifies solitude, and the capability to think freely. These three texts and Zen meditation all illuminate how society acts to repress thoughts, and exemplifies how liberating it is to have free thoughts.
In “The Yellow Wallpaper” the narrator is greatly oppressed by her husband. She is told she has severe anxiety and depression, and the only way to get better is to do nothing, and thinking will worsen her condition. The narrator yearns for a free mind, she feels restricted by her husband and society around her. The narrator states, “Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good…I did write for a while in spite of them…” (Gilman 388). Being a female, those around her did not take her ideas seriously, and she was expected to repress any forward thoughts she had. The only time she could free her mind was in her writing, which she was forced to do in secrecy. Keeping everything to herself in her mind began to drive her mad. The only time she was liberated was when she was able to express herself, even if it was just to a journal in solidarity. Through her short story, Gilman reveals societies detrimental effects one experiences when their mind is constrained and shows how powerful freedom of thought and expression is.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s, “The Birthmark” portrays a similar message to society; that being different from the rest of society is not always a bad thing. Aylmer, a main character, is taken back by the birthmark his gorgeous wife, Georgiana, has on her face, even though others compliment her on the unique mark. He is unable to look past this imperfection and gasps whenever he sees it. Although Georgiana used to take pride in her birthmark and have her own thoughts about her appearance, she becomes indoctrinated by Aylmer’s thoughts and is ashamed of it. At one point in the story she is no longer able to think for herself and says, “ ‘Pray do not look at it again. I never can forget that convulsive shudder’…to release her mind from the burden of actual things…” (Hawthorne 471). Her mind is constantly going back to her husband’s reaction of her mark, and she is unable to be confident and think what she wants. Her husband now dictates her thoughts and actions. The mark showed her uniqueness and ability to think freely and have an open mind, which she was proud of. After the surgery, this was taken from her with the removal of her mark, and is symbolic of her conforming to society and giving up her freedom, leading to her death.
The poem, “I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud” exemplifies how liberating it is to have freedom of thought and expression, and not be detained by society around you. Throughout the poem, the speaker does not come into contact with anyone in his society, only nature. He compares himself to a cloud floating by, and marvels at the beauty nature possesses. He states, “In vacant or in pensive mood, / They flash upon that inward eye / Which is the bliss of solitude / And then my heart with pleasure fills” (Wordsworth 20-23). He is saying when he is bored, he thinks back to the memories of the daffodils, and his heart warms with pleasure. Being a free spirit and mind, his thoughts are not restricted by the society around him, and he is at peace because of that. This poem can serve as a foil to the two short stories, which show how mentally destructive society can be on the mind, and the poem which proves when one is not in contact with society they are able to think freely, without critical minds around them.
When one hears of Zen meditation they think it will be laying in a room for an hour and a half without a care in the world; but in reality it is all about freeing your mind, which is a lot harder than it may sound. The whole purpose is to not think about anything in your life or society, and focus on breathing; counting slowly to ten, over, and over again, forgetting about your daily worries. This is extremely challenging to fully free your mind. Living in the twenty-first century we are always connected to our friends and thinking about our next task of the day, we never take time and live in the present. During Zen meditation one is encouraged to do this, and forgetting about all the worries, allows one to have a free spirit. It is very liberating when achieved, but an extremely difficult task to accomplish. Connecting deeply with oneself and not focusing on societal pressures around you, allows your mind to be free, like the speaker in the poem, and what the characters in the short stories strive for.
Not all in society are able to free their mind and be fully liberated; it is something many take for granted. Whether you mentally try and do this, through Zen meditation, or find mental freedom and are able to express thoughts when in the presence of nature, it is inspiring when you do, which was the case in Wordsworth’s poem. However, in many cases society puts pressures on individuals and restricts their ability to think for themselves. In Hawthorne’s short story, Georgiana was submissive to her husband when she gave up her birthmark, she gave up her free mind and thoughts. Similarly, in Gilman’s story, the main character is repressed by her husband who has unjustly diagnosed her with depression and forces her to stop thinking, and writing. Unable to express herself, she goes crazy, demonstrating the need for free thought. The universal message these texts, and Zen meditation share, is the detrimental mental effects on societal repression, and glorification of free thought.