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The Awakening: Sexuality In Nineteenth Century Literature

1499 words - 6 pages

Pleasure's a sin, and sometimes sin's a pleasure.

George Gordon Noel Byron (The Daily Muse)

Everyday the North American media sends millions of sexually provocative images through the airwaves and onto television screens. According to a recent study, an overwhelming 56% of all television programs contain sexual content (Vieth, 2). Our society has become so immune to the representation of sex that, for the most part, it goes unnoticed. Although concerns regarding sexuality still remain, society's tolerance level has changed dramatically over time. The history of attitudes toward sex and sexuality is a cultural process that can be seen through the literature of an era. The Awakening was the first piece of American fiction to blatantly attack the nineteenth century notion that marriage, emotional intimacy and sexual intimacy were inextricably bound together. Chopin's novel was advanced in theme over other nineteenth century works. Her piece more closely reflects the modern novel. Chopin gives her readers the story of a married woman, Edna Pontellier, as she explores her sexuality and need for emotional intimacy outside her marriage. Edna's need for extramarital relationships challenged the nineteenth century ideas of femininity and propriety.

In the past, literature for women strove to reinforce the culturally approved ideas of femininity. Tremendous volumes of literature were written to reinforce appropriate female behaviour. By the mid-eighteenth century, the ideological division of women into two classes, the virtuous and the fallen, was well developed (Armstrong, 18). Literature often portrayed both of these women, with the virtuous triumphing at the end and the fallen receiving her appropriate punishment. Chopin followed this formula with a slight twist that brought about tremendous controversy in her time. Like other characters that have fallen, Edna Pontellier receives her appropriate punishment - death. However, she shows no trace of remorse for her sinful actions. Adele Ratignolle, the virtuous woman, is still alive at the end, thus seeming to triumph over Edna. However, Adele is last seen giving birth and the narrator describes her as being in torture. Edna, on the other hand, wades out to her end peacefully as the narrator describes the beautiful scenery around her. Although Chopin rewards Adele with continued life and punishes Edna by ending hers, Adele's reward is not necessarily good and Edna's punishment is not necessarily bad. Chopin rewards Adele with a life of painful childrearing and punishes Edna with a blissful death. As a result, Chopin blurs the line between reward and punishment. This unconventional twist caused immense controversy at the end of the nineteenth century.

Chopin's reputation as a writer, in the eyes of most critics, had been destroyed with the publication of such a `racy' novel. In 1899, a critic for the Chicago Times-Herald claimed that "it was not necessary for a writer of so great refinement and...

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