Awakened By Chapter 16

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"Such a study of literature is valuable because it promotes the realizations that ideas and ways of seeing the universe change with time and place.  Too often it is easy to read texts as though they were all written last week and to attribute to writers ideas that they never had.  Shakespeare, for example, had a number of political ideas, but he had no experience with representative government as we know it today.  Therefore, in considering works of his that tough the subject of politics, such as Henry IV plays, Richard II, and Henry V, you should understand why he dramatizes the importance of a just and strong monarch or the necessity of a moral aristocracy.  We can enthusiastically accept his idea that wise rulers and moral people are necessary in the creation of successful government, even though we today apply the principle not to monarchy - the form that Shakespeare knew - but to democracy" (234).
                Edgar V. Roberts, Writing About Literature

I know that is a much longer quote than I typically use, but I felt like the whole thing was essential to fully understanding the importance of reading something in the mindset of someone from the time in which it was written and applying the ideals of those notions to today's time.

In my junior year of high school, we read Kate Chopin's The Awakening.  Spoilers to follow.  The protagonist, Edna Pontellier, is married and has two children but feels like a prisoner because of the circumstances in her life.  She falls in love with two men (her husband is not one of them) and eventually kills herself because she has no freedom or control over her life in any other way.

No matter what the historical and cultural context, abandoning one's children and committing suicide are things that people have always looked down upon (unless it was some sort of ritualistic thing... but I have no knowledge of that).  However, to fully understand the significance of the theme in this book, you have to look deeper.  One of my classmates continuously said that she hated Edna because of the above reasons, and she hated the book because of her hate for Edna.  I tried to explain to her that Edna's actions meant so much more than what she was understanding.  

The Awakening was published at the turn of the twentieth century, a time in which it was normal for a man to repress a woman.  While I wouldn't approve of Edna's decisions if I knew her in real life, looking at them in the work's historical and cultural context makes them so much more impacting.  In today's society, while the majority of people would disapprove of her actions, it wouldn't be shocking to hear about them on the evening news.  Edna's character serves as an allegory for women's freedom because she made such extreme choices at a time in which they were almost unheard of.

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2 Comments

Brooke Kuehn said:

I also remember my classmates in high school hating Edna for what she did to her husband. i also disagree with her actions, but the time frame of the story helped me to sympathize with Edna. im sure divorce was frowned upon at the time; therefore, if Edna really was not in love with her husband she probably felt that she had no escape from a loveless marriage except to take love into her own hands, cheating on her husband and committing suicide. If this happened in today's society, she would be looked down upon for not divorcing her husband before dating someone else.

Kayla Lesko said:

Never read the story, but with a summary like that, I think I'll check it out.

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Kayla Lesko on Awakened By Chapter 16: Never read the story, but with
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