Women’s rights have evolved over time; beginning with being homemakers and evolving to obtaining professions, acquiring an education, and gaining the right to vote. The movement that created all these revolutionary changes was called the feminist movement. The feminist movement occurred in the twentieth century. Many people are not aware of the purpose of the feminist movement. The movement was political and social and it sought to set up equality for women. Women’s groups in the United States worked together to win women’s suffrage and later to create and support the Equal Rights Amendment. The economic boom between 1917 and the early 1960s brought many American women into the workplace. As women began to join the workplace they became progressively more aware of their unequal economic and social status. Homemakers, many of whom who had previously obtained college educations, began to voice their lack of personal fulfillment. They had an awakening, they realized their lives were not fulfilled and wanted more than what the restraints of society would offer them. Many literary works were born from the feminist movement; each enabling women to achieve more than what society expected of them and to push the societal limits. The Awakening is a prototype of the feminist movement.
Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening follows a common theme in literature. She uses the novel as a way to demonstrate the emancipation of women. Peggy Skaggs believes that Chopin’s life experiences have affected her writing: Her life and experiences as a woman apparently affirmed the truths she expressed first in Emancipation, and her development as a literary artist enabled her to transpose those truths into art with increasing skill until at last The Awakening, the fully artistic expression of her theme, became possible (Skaggs 54). During the feminist movement many female authors began to write novels about female emancipation. In these novels, the protagonist experiences enlightenment where she discovers that she is living an incomplete life that society has oppressed her into. Before the movement, society forced women into roles that were inferior to men and they were thought of as men’s property. Harold bloom states, The direction of The Awakening follows what is becoming a pattern in literature by and about womentoward greater self-knowledge that leads in turn to a revelation of the disparity between that self-knowledge and nature of the world (Bloom, Kate Chopin 43). Moreover, Chopin viewed women’s independence as a personal challenge more than a social struggle, which contradicts her literary works. According to Harold Bloom, Chopin’s novel was not intended to make a broad social statement but rather that it indicates that Chopin viewed women’s independence as a personal matter(Bloom, Bloom’s Notes 58). In the past, the novel was banned because of its connection to the feminist movement.
One of the main aspects of the feminist movement is breaking away from society’s limits and expectations. Before Edna could break free, she first had to experience an awakening. In her awakening, she had to realize the role of women in the universe, the role that society created for women, beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being (Chopin 17). After breaking free from her past life, Edna will have to slowly learn how to care for herself and be by herself; the process of starting her new life is almost like a rebirth. She must relearn how to do everything she has done so that she can succeed on her own: But that night she was like the little tottering, stumbling, clutching child, who all of a sudden realizes its power and walks for the first time (Chopin 23). In the novel, Edna is driven to learn how to swim. The entire time she is at the summer cottage she continuously attempts to learn to how to swim. Learning to swim symbolizes Edna gaining her freedom and learning how to care for herself. The idea of a woman leaving her husband and children to be on her own was very uncommon as Kate Chopin states in The Awakening, She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before (Chopin 37). There is also another aspect of Edna’s life that indicates feminism and that is her sketches: `I am beginning to sell my sketches’ for instance is a check on her emerging artistic commitment, which is explicitly associated with female dissent from the male world of commodity display and exchange(Bloom, Bloom’s Notes 66). Feminism concerns the empowerment of women; their ability to become free of the roles society has created for them and their ability to support themselves without the help of men. Edna achieves this goal by selling her sketches. She discovers that she can support herself without the help of her husband or any other man. Edna’s capability to walk and stand on her own draw attention to feminism within novel; without the feminist aspect in the novel Edna could not stand on her own.
Through Edna’s parenting it is apparent that she does not fit the mold of the stereotypical mother. The stereotype of a mother is a homemaker, one who cares for the children and dedicates her life to the life of her children. Although Edna loves her children, she does not wish to sacrifice her life for theirs: Edna clearly loves her children, but she does not confuse her own life with theirs (Skaggs 110). Chopin wanted Edna to differ from the stereotyped mother and break free from the mold society has created, which is all part of the feminist movement. Edna is not the type of woman who is willing to donate all of her time to her children; she wants her own life. As stated in the novel, In short, Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother-woman (Chopin 10). Because Chopin created Edna to differ from the stereotype, Edna does not view her life as being complete if it consists solely of being a wife and mother. The role of wife and mother is not sufficient for Edna; she desires a life beyond marriage and motherhood. Peggy Skaggs declares that Edna’s personality will not permit her to limit herself to being a wife and mother: Edna’s sense of herself as a complete person makes impossible her role of wife and mother as defined by her society (Skaggs 111). The desire to be the sole caretaker for the children and her husband is absent from Edna’s character. Furthermore, Mr. Pontellier is the stereotypical father; according to Mr. Pontellier it is not his responsibility to care for the children. Chopin uses Edna’s motherhood to bring forth feminism by making her role as a mother the opposite of the stereotypical role.
During the time that The Awakening was written women were their husbands’ possessions; they were not independent and were not their own person. They belonged to their husbands. To Mr. Pontellier, his wife is his property. An example of him viewing his wife as property is stated in The Awakening as, looking at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage (Chopin 3). Mr. Pontellier becomes enraged with his wife when he sees that she is not caring for their children. In, He reproached his wife with her inattentionif it was not a mother’s place to look after children, whose is it? (Chopin 7) his aggravation is brought to the forefront. After Edna’s awakening, she discovers that she wants to be independent and not be anyone’s property: she had resolved never again to belong to another than herself (Chopin 106). This move would be against society; society doubts that women can be on their own, unsupported by a man.
The feminist movement began with an awakening much like Edna experienced. An awakening is a coming into awareness; in this case it is a coming into awareness of women’s roles in society that they have been oppressed into. Women become aware that their life is incomplete because it only consists of being a wife and mother, nothing more. The statement, Quietly, Edna’s awakening begins merely with a growing awareness of the inadequacy of her existence (Skaggs 96), describes Edna’s awakening. It is brought to Edna’s attention that her life is not fulfilled and she begins to yearn for more. Her desires will make her deviate from the majority of women: (Edna) desires to stray from norm, and to become her own person (Mercedes 1). Once Edna discovers the life she is living is not what she wants, she begins to slowly abandon aspects of her life. Chopin describes Edna’s liberation as, She began to do as she liked and to feel as she liked. She abandoned her Tuesdays at home, and did not return visits (Chopin 76). The abandonment of her responsibilities is the foundation to Edna abandoning her life. In the end she deserts her husband and children. The feminist movement is what made it possible for women to leave their husbands and to be self-sufficient.
During the feminist movement authors created protagonist that lived the life that was possible because of the movement. The protagonist becomes independent and discovers who she is apart from her husband. Skaggs alludes to the unhappiness the protagonists face as a failure to know who they are, She creates one tragic heroine who refuses to settle for less than a full and satisfying answer to Lear’s question: `Who am I?’ (Skaggs 88). The emptiness of Edna’s life and her unhappiness is revealed, but the enjoyment she receives from creating sketches is also revealed. Skaggs states that, In each case the protagonist discovers something about his or her own identity (Skaggs 69). Chopin broke boundaries previously made and fought against the tide known as the social order: Chopin defied societal assumptions of her time period and wrote the novelusing attitudes of characters in regard to gender, changes in main character, imagery and Edna’s suicide to illustrate her feminist position (Phenix 1). Edna’s character and her life both fit into the feminist movement. Edna ventures away from her life to have a life of her own where she is utterly independent. In order for Chopin to demonstrate the role that women were placed into she had to prove how society viewed women. Then, Chopin had to use how society viewed women to differentiate it with the life that Edna desired. Chopin demonstrates the attitudes of society through Edna by showing the life that Edna is displeased with. Edna is a complex character that experiences distress with the life she is living; as described by Jonathan Musere, The author Chopin hence paints a picture of a soul plagued by a mixture of feminist and psychological issues (Musere 1). Edna is plagued by feminist issues because she struggles to make the change to become economically independent and experience equality with the men in her life. At the start of the novel, Edna plays the role of an oppressed woman; she is forced into the life of a wife and mother. Bloom describes Edna’s position in Kate Chopin, Edna becomes the victim of a society that allows her only the roles and values it assigns to women, not to fully human beings (Bloom, Kate Chopin vii). In order for Edna to become part of the feminist movement she first had to play the role that society placed women in. Edna was oppressed by her environment just as real women were by their environment.
The example of feminism in The Awakening is made through the character Edna and her struggle to deviate from the position society has created for her. She experienced all the struggles that women involved in this actual movement in history did. She worked to have the same life that actual women worked to have. All Edna wanted was to have the same opportunities in life that men had. She did not want to be a mother or a wife and had no desire to be anyone’s property. Women in the feminist movement yearned for the business opportunities that men had and the ability to live on their own. Edna is used to model a woman who would have been involved in the feminist movement.
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