The Awakening: Sexuality in Nineteenth Century Literature Essay

The Awakening: Sexuality in Nineteenth Century Literature Essay

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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 followe...


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...ery caused tremendous controversy when the book was published in 1899. Whatever the moralistic tone of The Awakening, it is definitely a powerful novel about female sexuality and the first in American fiction to criticize the presumption that sex and marriage were associated. Chopin was ahead of her time and many critics considered the novel dangerous because it challenged the nineteenth century ideas of femininity. Perhaps Chopin would have been accepted better in our society.

Works Cited

Armstrong, Nancy; Tennenhouse, Leonard.

The Ideology of Conduct: Essays in Literature and the History of Sexuality.

New York: Methuen & Co., 1987

Chopin, Kate. The Awakening and Selected Stories. New York: Random House, Inc., 1981

Chopin, Kate. The Awakening: An Authoritative Text, Context, Criticism.

Ed. Margaret Culley. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1976

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