Category: Review

Symbolism of Feminism: The Awakening and The Yellow Wallpaper

Feminism is a widespread topic for numerous discussions in books, articles and media resources. The reason of this fact is that both men and women want to determine social and family roles. Some individuals do not understand at all why gender equality is the focus of public attention, because they are satisfied with the distribution of male and female duties and responsibilities. A significant contribution to developing the topic of feminism in literature was made by talented female authors who managed to express their fears and uncertainty through their writings. This paper analyzes the feminist symbols in The Awakening by Chopin and in The Yellow Wallpaper by Gilman and strives to prove that both stories describe significant changes in social understanding of gender roles.

The Awakening

At the beginning of the discussion of feministic symbols in the considered works, it is worth noting that both of them were created by the female authors, for whom the topic of feminism was very close. Sharma proves that Chopin was considered to be a controversial writer of the 19th century and her The Awakening was heavily criticized (882). However, after the authorВ’s death, this work was reconsidered, reanalyzed and recognized as classical (Sharma 882). Therefore, ChopinВ’s ideas were closer to the society of the 20th century than to people who lived in the 19th.

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The Awakening is a long story of a feminist struggle of the main character, whose name is Edna Pontellier. The woman is married and has two children. However, she does not exist in harmony with the surrounding world and its patriarchal principles: В“Edna was dominated by her husband, Leonce Pontellier, who always imposed authority upon herВ” (Sharma 883). The mood of the story is determined by Chopin at the very beginning, when the author cites the words of EdnaВ’s husband: В“'You are burnt beyond recognition,' he added, looking at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal propertyВ” (5). At this moment, the reader understands that the name of the story В“the awakeningВ” refers to some deep change, which may happen in the consciousness of the oppressed lady.

It is better to separately consider each topic of feminism revealed in The Awakening, and some symbols chosen by the author with the purpose to convey her ideas.

Domestic labor

EdnaВ’s husband is a classical male representative of the 19th century. His views are conditioned by the social norms and ideas, which, at that time, dictated that domestic labor was a direct obligation of a woman. A woman had to keep house and be engaged in educating her children. It was not typical for a man to assume the responsibility for caring for his children. However, this fact did not mean that the males were bad fathers (Chopin 883). At the same time, to be a good mother, a woman had to devote maximum attention to her children.

However, Edna does not accept the described approach to her duties as a woman. Besides her indifference to usual duties, which females performed at home at that time, Chopin indicates that Edna does not miss her children when they are away and she is not close to them: В“In short. Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother womanВ” (Chopin 5). To support the description of this part of EdnaВ’s personality, Chopin uses the image of Adele Ratignolle, a good acquaintance of Edna. Adele is a wonderful mother who is proud of her children and of her ability to be pregnant every two years (Chopin 13). Edna once confesses to her that she would never sacrifice everything for her children (Chopin 124). Therefore, EdnaВ’s understanding of family relations is revolutionary for her time.

Search for the identity in the patriarchic society

EdnaВ’s thoughts about womenВ’s predestination and identity are not limited to some original understanding of family roles. Chopin numerously repeats in the text that Edna thinks about her destiny and cries without understanding the reason of her emotions (Chopin 10). Edna admits her role as a wife and a mother at the very beginning of a novel, but she does not feel calm performing these functions, and she stays in a hidden conflict with her husband and the surrounding people who do not share her views. Edna likes Adele and enjoys their communication, but she can laugh at Madame RatrignolleВ’s statements about relying on Bible in building her family ties (Chopin 53). Edna analyzes why so many regulations and ethical norms have become laws for womenВ’s existence.

Chopin tells the story of Edna since her early childhood. The author states that even as a child Edna lived her own small life, which was secret for everybody, and she was not close to her family (Chopin 18). Even at an early age, Edna saw some serious contradictions in the surrounding world, and thus, two images of Edna are described by Chopin: В“Kate Chopin portrayed Edna as autonomous, self-centered and ambitious being who desires a life that is free from restriction, the limitations imposed on her by the family and the societyВ” (Sharma 886). EdnaВ’s protest is not revealed only in her attitude to Leonce and their children. She does not want to go to her sisterВ’s wedding as she considers weddings to be trite ceremonies (Chopin 78). EdnaВ’s attempts to determine her identity are obvious through the entire story.

Love and cheating

The topic of EdnaВ’s true love and cheating on her husband is the most symbolic in The Awakening. One may conclude that Edna immediately recognizes her interest in a young man named Robert, who spends summer in the company of Edna and her friends. She wants to swim, communicate and spend as much time as possible with the young man. Her attitude to Robert is noticed by Adele and she warns the man of the fact that his politeness and courtesy can be seriously taken by Edna (Chopin 24). However, Robert rejects this option because he also feels some connection with the married woman. Edna and RobertВ’s friendship is the beginning of her awakening.

However, EdnaВ’s process of awakening is not immediate and has a few stages. Each of these stages is described by Chopin in details. Edna starts to understand that her marriage is accidental and that she is not obliged to do the things that she does not want to do either with her husband or with her friends. After Robert leaves for Brazil, EdnaВ’s protests become especially obvious. She expresses a desire to live separately from her husband for some time; she does not support LeonceВ’s ideas to make their home more comfortable, and she is generally glad when he leaves for a long period of time. At the end of the novel, during an anticipated meeting with Robert, Edna states: В“It was you, who awoke me last summer out of a life-long stupid dreamВ” (Chopin 117). Edna is thankful to Robert for her determined identity.

Symbolism of The Awakening

There is no doubt that EdnaВ’s affair with Robert can be criticized nowadays by the wives and husbands who are faithful to their partners. It is worth noting that before Robert returns, Edna has another romantic affair with Arobin when her husband is away. This affair is not so emotionally intense for Edna as her relationship with Robert. Robert initiates an important process in EdnaВ’s head. The lady starts to listen to her feelings and emotions and behave in a way she wants to.

The affair between Edna and Robert is a symbol of the ruining of trite ideals of gender roles that prevailed in the 19th century. It is unreasonable to state that EdnaВ’s husband is oppressive and this fact makes Edna cheat on him. Leonce behaves as all other males of his time. Some of their wives do not feel the necessity to search for their identity as Edna does. Both Edna and her husband become the victims of their time and conditions created in the society, which do not give females any right to be free and develop independently. In her final conversation with Robert, Edna states: В“IВ’m no longer one of Mr. PontellierВ’s possessions to dispose of or notВ” (Chopin 117). Edna symbolizes all women of the 19th century with a rebellious temperament.

The Yellow Wallpaper

The second story chosen for analysis is much shorter than The Awakening, but it is not less interesting in the aspect of feministic symbols used in it. The common feature between two works is that they are written by women from a female perspective. The first person singular is used by Gilman in The Yellow Wallpaper with the purpose to deliver the emotions and sufferings of the main character named Jane. However, the readers understand that the name of the main character is not at all important. She symbolizes the core ideas of feminism, and the description of her understanding of gender ideals is the basis of the plot.

The notion of В“homeВ” for women of the 19th century

It is important to start a discussion of the main themes of The Yellow Wallpaper with the notion of В“home.В” Gonz?lez M?nguez compares the understanding of home of the English writers with that of the American authors. She states that for the English writers of the 19th century, their home was something private, almost sacral. Women could stay at their husbandsВ’ homes and feel protected and have some rest from the pressure put on them by their parents (Gonz?lez M?nguez 52). However, to analyze the concept of the story, Gonz?lez M?nguez wonders: В“But what happens when a house is a space of confinement and oppression, as it is for the young woman in Charlotte Perkins GilmanВ’s autobiographical short story The Yellow Wallpaper? (52). The image of Jane perfectly answers this question.

Jane does not consider her house to be her home. She calls it В“hauntedВ” from the very beginning (Gilman 648). She stays at home all the time under the supervision of her husband, who is a high-ranking doctor. Jane has a nervous depression, but John states that there is nothing to worry about and prescribes her some drugs. JaneВ’s brother supports his opinion. Another person who takes the part of John is his sister. Her image is opposed to the image of Jane in the same way, in which the image of Adele is opposed to that of Edna. Characterizing JohnВ’s sister, Jane explains that В“She is a perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper, and hopes for no better profession. I verily believe she thinks it is the writing which made me sick!В” (Gilman 650). Though Jennie is good to Jane, she is a classical anti-feminist woman of the 19th century.

However, the readers feel that there is something wrong with this situation. Jane states that her husband is loving and caring, and she is unthankful because she thinks that he is oppressive and prioritizes his opinion over hers. When Jane wants to tell John that there is something strange about the house, which bothers her, he just says В“that what I felt was a draught and shut the windowВ” (Gilman 648). Thus, John is not ready even to listen to his wife.

Madness and female writing

One may say that a woman who constantly stays at home and is oppressed by her husband may easily go crazy. This fact was absolutely valid for female writers of the 19th century. At that time, women were forced to write their stories about madness because such ideas were in their heads (Gonz?lez M?nguez 53). Gonz?lez M?nguez states that В“the fact that women were particularly drawn to write about madness is to be seen as one of the most revealing symptoms of rebellion against entrapmentВ” (73). Therefore, madness was a method of becoming free and escaping from male oppression for the women of the 19th century.

Jane is not encouraged to think about her state of health by her husband. Moreover, John thinks that writing is not good for her either. The readers learn than Jane has just had a baby, but she stays away from her because John thinks that some pause in babysitting and housekeeping are good for JaneВ’s health (Gilman 650). Any modern woman would say that Jane may suffer from a postpartum depression, and this state definitely requires more attention from the side of her husband.

Feministic symbols

The Yellow Wallpaper contains an obvious and a very bright image of a feminist thought В– the yellow wallpaper. The symbolism in The Awakening is simpler and more primitive as the meaning of each event and the feelings of Edna are described in details. However, JaneВ’s madness will never be fully depicted by Gilman without using some images. The readers start to notice that JaneВ’s mental state is not a simple depression when the girl begins to describe her observations. She can lie on the bed and look at different objects around her for a long time and describe them. She thinks that her husband is wise, but she realizes that he will never understand her sufferings in the haunted house (Gilman 654). John is not sensitive enough to see his mistakes of keeping Jane inside all the time earlier.

One important element of the interior catches JaneВ’s attention and promotes her madness. It is the yellow wallpaper. She thinks this color is strange. She is glad that her baby is not with them and is not surrounded by the smell of this awful wallpaper (Gilman 648). At the same time, Jane feels that she is surrounded by that color and she sees the image of a woman behind the bars, which can be distinguished on the wallpaper (Gilman 654). Jane understands that it is difficult for a woman to break the bars, but she sees В“her on that long road under the trees, creeping along, and when a carriage comes she hides under the blackberry vinesВ” (Gilman 254). Jane feels that she has to fight for her freedom in the same way in which that yellow woman does it.

The image of the yellow lady from the wallpaper symbolizes JaneВ’s madness. Her full attention is captured by that lady. She makes her husband faint at the end of the story when she starts to creep in the same manner the yellow lady does and John observes it. The scene is the culmination of the story. Gilman depicts JaneВ’s emotional release and the process of catharsis (Gonz?lez M?nguez 56). The Yellow Wallpaper В“shows a lot about the value Gilman places on creative freedom and intellectual stimulation over the domestic sphereВ” (Gonz?lez M?nguez 56). The main feministic idea of the story is the importance of giving a woman a chance to intellectually develop.

Modern interpretation of feministic symbols

The plot and ideas of The Yellow Wallpaper are not trite for modern times. Gonz?lez M?nguez suggests that Gilman did not have an intention to demonstrate that home atmosphere is harmful for women and is oppressive in nature. The author supports the idea that secure and warm home develops the feelings of kindness and affection in females (Gonz?lez M?nguez 57). However, in the times when the story was written, the social traditions and patriarchy made men behave oppressively towards their wives. Nowadays, the economic revolution and women fighting for their rights change the views on gender inequality. Modern women will not go mad. However, the fact that their husbands are oppressive may lead to numerous conflicts at home and even domestic violence.

Yellow, as a symbolic color of the story, also gains an additional interpretation in the modern world. People often discuss racial discrimination and feminist groups of different nationalities, which fight for their equal rights. The yellow Mongolian race can also be symbolized by the color of the wallpaper in the story. The representatives of this race worldwide fight for their equality and independence whenever they face discrimination in foreign countries. Therefore, feministic symbols of The Yellow Wallpaper are complex and well-developed.


To conclude, it is important to note that both analyzed stories are true literary masterpieces. They reveal the feministic moods of the 19th century. They depict the emotions and sufferings of the females of that period, when male oppression and domination were usual phenomena. Edna and Jane prove to be outstanding and rebellious females. Edna expresses her desire to be free by starting a sincere affair with Robert, which becomes a symbol of her independence. JaneВ’s madness becomes a good lesson to her husband. Oppressed and neglected females cannot be good wives and household keepers. It is important that the views of modern society have significantly changed and, hopefully, men will never commit the same errors again.


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