Trace How the World Changes Term Paper

Pages: 5 (1711 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: ≈ 4  ·  File: .docx  ·  Topic: Sports - Women

¶ … trace how the world changes during the course of the 19th century, especially in the role of women in fiction. Edna Pontellier, the heroine of "The Awakening," is a modern woman of the late 19th century - searching for her freedom and meaning in her life. She represents how society and women developed throughout the 19th century, and how differently they were represented in fiction. However, while women were changing, they still lived lives essentially controlled by the men around them.

Edna Pontellier is a new type of heroine in 19th century fiction. She is truly "awakening" and realizing there is more to life than the roles assigned to women of the time. Chopin writes, "In short, Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her" (Chopin 16). She illustrates how women all over the country were looking at life differently, and how they had evolved during the 19th century, from little more than domestic servants to educated women who were seeking meaning and fulfillment to their lives, even if it meant leaving the home to find them.

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Hester Prynne, the heroine of "The Scarlet Letter" illustrates women at the beginning of the 19th century, who enjoyed few freedoms and accepted punishment as part of their lot in life. Author Hawthorne writes, "Hester Prynne, nevertheless, the loving mother of this one child, ran little risk of erring on the side of undue severity. Mindful, however, of her own errors and misfortunes, she early sought to impose a tender but strict control over the infant immortality that was committed to her charge" (Hawthorne 134). She allows the community to dictate her punishment and behavior, and rather than leave, she chooses to stay and live with their scorn and hatred.

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In "The Yellow Wall-Paper," a short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the narrator slowly goes mad as her husband overprotects and controls her so much, that she cannot even leave the house without his approval. Gilman writes, "Dear John! He loves me very dearly, and hates to have me sick. I tried to have a real earnest reasonable talk with him the other day, and tell him how I wish he would let me go and make a visit to Cousin Henry and Julia. But he said I wasn't able to go" (Gilman). Gilman's character represents the "perfect" wife of the 19th century, one who is constantly molded, shaped, and controlled by her husband. Edna is that kind of wife at the beginning of "The Awakening," but by the end, she has liberated herself (literally), and she can no longer succumb to the whims and control of her husband. The narrator in "The Yellow Wall-Paper" liberates herself, as well, but she goes mad, and neither the drowning of Edna or the narrator's madness are appropriate solutions to the need for freedom and independence.

Written by women, many of these stories indicate the subjugation of women by the men around them, and their attempts to finally break free of that subjugation. Chopin writes, "A feeling of exultation overtook her, as if some power of significant import had been given her to control the working of her body and her soul. She grew daring and reckless, overestimating her strength" (Chopin 31). In contrast, Gilman's character never finds that strength, because her husband, when he is around, often makes fun of her worries and "illness." She writes, "John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage" (Gilman). These women authors know how they would like to see society treat women, and they allude to this in their novels, but their works show that society did not approve of strong women, and that women like Edna were seen as "selfish," "poor mothers," and altogether unforgivable. It was more acceptable to go mad than to demand your freedom from the Victorian female stereotype.

Another female author who wrote earlier in the century is Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, and her book "Frankenstein" has become an enduring classic in the world of horror fiction. While Shelley herself was a successful author who survived great tragedy in her life, she presents many of her female characters as the stereotypical "weak" and insignificant females in "Frankenstein." All of the major female characters die by the end of the novel, and they actually add very little to the overall plot or outcome of the work. By omitting strong female characters from this work, Shelley writes as many men of the time did, and she allows the stereotypes of weak, ineffectual women to infuse her work and take away from its overall impact. She wrote the story when she was only 18, so that may be one reason her female characters are so one-dimensional, but her book represents female characters at their worst, while Chopin's attempts to show them at their best, at least for a while.

Just as the protagonists in these different works change as the century progresses, so do the lives of women. By the turn of the century, society was becoming more progressive, and women like Chopin could live alone and create a career, such as writing, for themselves. Women could travel alone, something unheard of at the beginning of the century, and women even had their own careers (often out of economic necessity). Women were beginning to have choices, but society still wanted them to remain at home, taking care of the home and raising the children. Women like Edna were considered odd and even abnormal by most of society, although many women understood her need for freedom and independence. Edna shows that many women wanted more than a family and a husband who was not interested in them, but she also shows that society was still restrictive enough that these women were frowned upon and seen as somehow deficient. Women like Chopin were working hard to change that view, however, and that is something that would not have taken place even a century before. One hundred years earlier, women were far less outspoken about their needs for freedom and independence, but by the end of the 19th century, they were certainly more vocal about their needs and wants.

Of course, male authors, who tended to make their roles even more restrictive and "female," depicted the roles of these fictional women in much of 19th century fiction. For example, Nathanial Hawthorne set his "Scarlet Letter" in the 17th century, but wrote it in 1850, and his view of women and their place in society clearly shows through in the novel. Hester Prynne is a strong woman, but she lives in a male-oriented society that dictates her behavior and punishment, and she allows this to occur. Edna, on the other hand, certainly would not have stood for such treatment, and her author would not allow her to be so controlled by men, either inside the family or outside.

That the works by women often echo the works of men and their treatment of women indicates just how strong the morals and values of a society are. Shelly does not break tradition when she creates her weak and ineffectual characters, and Hawthorne, although he creates a strong and sympathetic character, does not give her enough spunk to stand up against her accusers and leave the community on her own. All of these female characters echo the stereotypes of the time - that women were weak individuals who did not need an advanced education, instead, they needed to be treated delicately and left in charge of the home front. If they strayed from this set of rules, they were branded as everything from selfish to adulteress, depending on the infraction. In reality, it was a bleak time for most women, including those who were subjugated in slavery in the American South, especially when compared with how most women live their lives today. It was a restrictive society, based on men's priorities and controls, and women were certainly not empowered to choose their own lives and loves.

These works all indicate how difficult life was for women. Hester finally disappears after the man she loves dies, all the women in "Frankenstein" perish before the end of the story, Edna drowns in the ocean, presumably a suicide, and "The Yellow Wall-Paper's" narrator allows her husbands controls to drive her mad. None of these women have a successful conclusion to their lives, which is relevant to the time in which they were created. In the 19th century, a successful woman had a home, family, and there was little else for her to aspire to or need. Some, like American slaves, could not even take comfort in a home and family, since they could be ripped apart from either at a moment's notice. Today, women have much fuller and fulfilling lives, and women's fiction illustrates this. A heroine like one of these could not exist today, because women have made… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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Trace How the World Changes.  (2008, May 9).  Retrieved September 24, 2020, from

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"Trace How the World Changes."  May 9, 2008.  Accessed September 24, 2020.