19th Century American Women's Literature- Symbolic Meanings in Kate Chopin's The Awakening
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When Kate Chopin wrote The Awakening in 1899, the book was instantly attacked for its blatant depiction of a woman's desire for independence and sexual freedom. It challenged the idea that a woman would be satisfied only in the domestic sphere. A woman’s presumed satisfaction with domesticity, which constitutes the social norm, is challenged and questioned by this novel, which explores the consequences of a woman who attempts to attain greater self-awareness. For the time, these ideas were so foreign to the normalized and often idealized way of life, that it was considered an insult to the way people were ‘taught’ to behave. The story of a young wife and mother who challenges the norms of 1850 American society becomes the subject of this novel. Like a bird that is learning to fly and enjoying the newfound freedoms of flight only to find there are dangers of falling, Edna discovers that there are also hidden dangers in exploring such forbidden freedoms. What are the costs for challenging the patriarchal society of the 1850s? This paper analyzes the theme of solitude and symbolic representation found within Chopin’s text in an attempt to highlight the growing dissatisfaction that many women had with the restrictions placed on the gendered expectations of American women at the turn of 19th century. Using Semiotics and Feminist Literary Theory reveals how symbols such as birds and wings, water and sea develop a theme of solitude to show how Chopin highlighted the effects of these issues for women in a way that was socially acceptable at the time. This imagery critiques what has been called the Cult of True Womanhood in a subtle way. The research design of my thesis and the methodologies that are utilized create a truly a multi-faceted approach to analyzing literature. Through a close reading, I provide a detailed literary analysis of the novel The Awakening. Using a feminist lens and Elaine Showalter’s New Feminist Literary Criticism, I provide an interpretative analysis of the key themes and symbols within this novel and their importance as a cultural critique of the dominant ideologies of American society of the 1850s. My research is a qualitative endeavor with a social constructivist flair. I call on Wolfgang Iser’s Reader Response Theory to show the role of the reader as an interpretive strategy that is socio-historically centered. Finally I use the study of semiotics and signs and symbols to highlight any repeating motifs and their meanings as a tool that has often been used in conducting a deep literary analysis of any novel.