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Feminist Theory And "The Awakening"

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Kate Chopin's "The Awakening", is a story about Edna Pontellier. A nineteenth century women looking for her self and discovering new and magnificent qualities in herself and the people she meets during her summer vacation with her husband and children on Grand Isle. This work was considered highly controversial at its time of publishing in 1899 because of its overtly feminist themes; because this is not a story about her marriage or her motherhood but instead a story about the woman herself and her thoughts about life. Thoughts which are sometimes radical, sensual and certainly autonomous and separate from her role as a wife or mother, an idea as yet unexplored in English literature and quite challenging of the Chopin's patriarchal society . This is an excellent piece of literature to explore through the lens of feminist criticism. Feminist criticism rejects the genderless mind, finding that the "imagination" cannot evade the conscious or unconscious structures of gender. {Lee, Elizabeth } At the time this novel was released in 1899 the idea of feminist theory of literature did not exist and therefore the application of the theory is recent. "The Awakening" deals with themes unique to Chopin's feminine perspective; amidst a male dominated literary world she was able to write against the andocentric French influence of the time. Kate Chopin wrote during the first wave of feminism and her writings greatly influenced the movement and gave an outlet to the voices of women. A specific theme throughout her book of the sea lends itself perfectly to feminist theory.

In order to understand the feminist themes and influences in "The Awakening" it is important to have a basic understanding of feminism and feminist criticism/theory. Feminist criticism/theory focuses on the patriarchal language and masculine ideology which comprises the majority of early European and American literature. This literary criticism also concerns itself with identifying stereotypical gender representations and uncovering the works written by forgotten female authors, hidden away by a patriarchal society.

Feminist literary theory/ criticism came as an offshoot from the feminist movement. The feminist movement can be separated in to two "waves". The first wave of feminism known as the suffrage movement, began in the mid-nineteenth- century and was a fight against injustices suffered by women. It is believed my most scholars that the first wave of feminism burst into full bloom during the Seneca Falls Convention in July 1848. This convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York, and more than 300 men and women assembled for the first women's rights convention. The convention was organized by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, two Quaker women whose concern for women's rights was aroused after Mott was denied a seat at an international antislavery meeting in London. It was at this Seneca Falls Convention where Stanton first read the "Declaration of Sentiments", a writing composed by Stanton and her friends which used the Declaration of Independence as its framework. The "Declaration" was intended to show the inequalities forced upon women and the unjustness of the government for the society in which they lived. The "Declaration" read;

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. {Seneca Falls Declaration (1848)}

The "Declaration" and the entire feminist movement brought out into the open the rights which women were denied including; women had no rights to vote, married women had no property rights, wives became the legal property of their husbands, the husband exercised legal power over their wives to the extent that they could imprison or beat their wives, women were not allowed to enter into most professions such as medicine or law, and no college or university would accept a woman as a student.

Kate Chopin was living and writing all throughout this first wave and just the fact that she was able to become a successful female author must have been a dramatic step forward for women's rights and a way for women's voices to be heard in society. The content of her writing pushed the boundaries of gender stereotyping. She wrote about women's private thoughts and everyday life, including their sexual desires and wants beyond children and a fine home.

There was a second wave of feminism over 100 years after the Seneca Falls convention. During the 1970's in the midst of the second wave of feminism, feminist criticism became a dominate force in Western literary studies. Feminist criticism was infused with inspiration after the publishing of Simone de Beauvior's Le Deuxeme Sexe. It was during this wave of feminism that feminist theory was created and brought into mainstream literary theory

"The Awakening" is an intriguing tale that explores relationships between men and women on a very intimate level. Chopin is able to undermine patriarchal society by bestowing on "the other" an individual identity, a sense of self. Mrs. Pontellier is such a powerful and strong character because of Chopin has given her a voice, an autonomous identity. Chopin uses straightforwardness as well as subtlety to infuse her work with ideas of feminism and woman's rights. Feminist theory is able to uncover the various themes in "The Awakening".

Chopin provides Edna with many friends; the lovely Madame Ratignolle and the young, charming Robert Lebrum acting as her two best friends throughout her summer visit to the Grand Isle. Chopin also provides Edna with another friend, the sea. The sea becomes the link between all three friends. Edna tends to view the sea the way she views wither friend. The sea appears different to her and brings about different sensations depending on which one she is spending her time with or upon whom her thought are focused The sea can be both friend and foe to Edna depending on her mood and quite possibly the mood of the sea.

One night after spending the day with Robert and after having just returned from an evening swim with him. This evening swim was unplanned and unexpected but she had gone anyway and when she returned she asked herself why she had been so willing to go with Robert when her initial thoughts had been to decline him offer. Yet, off she went to spend the evening with both Robert and the sea. It was after this swim that she began to notice a change in herself, in her character and the ways in which she viewed the world.




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