19th Century Literature Term Paper

Excerpt from Term Paper :

Madame Bovary's entire experience is by way of approaching her own obscurity, and indeed her own demise, and her death as an individual. The essay by Elisabeth Fronfen is, for the most part, very perceptive and the analysis she offers is razor sharp; when she asserts (411) that Madame Bovary's reading "consumes the life of the reader, who reads instead of living," she hits the literary mark with thorough accuracy. Further, when Fronfen writes that "From the very beginning Emma's imagination connects unfulfilled romantic desires with death," she is cutting to the heart of the sadness and pathos that surrounds Emma.

In short, in my essay, I will show that the depiction of Madame Emma Bovary's adulterous behavior - beyond the racy fascination readers dipped into as Emma's desire for "self-obliteration" was carried out - was totally unacceptable for the 19th Century, and along with her other foibles, indicates a serious dance with transgressions. But transgression is also applied to the novel itself, as Flaubert was put on trial in 1857; what he attempted, through his novel, was in reality a smooth transformation from the fact of very little literature about adultery to a realistic approach to those romantic twists and turns in life.

As for The Awakening, this also is a novel which was considered a transgression by the reading public and by critics. Kate Chopin's career was all but ruined, ironically, because of the literary transgression she was accused of, notwithstanding the brilliance of her work. I will show - tapping into Bert Bender's lively essay - that Chopin used Darwin's work, and the Walt Whitman poem, Song of Myself, to help her characters come to life. And beyond Darwin, my essay will approach the idea that the Edna character certainly transforms the image of the stereotypical female of the 19th Century from a modest, obedient wife and mother into a woman having an affair and breaking all the rules.

Definitions of Transformation and Transgression

Transformation: according to Merriam-Webster Online, Transform is "to change in composition or structure"; "to change the outward form or appearance"; "to change in character or condition...transform implies a major change in form, nature, or function..."

Transgression: Merriam-Webster Online defines Transgress as "to step beyond or across...to go beyond limits set or prescribed by..."

Kate Chopin's The Awakening - Viewpoints and Critical Positions

Bert Bender's essay ("The Awakening and The Descent of Man") in the Stephen Regan book asserts that Chopin read Charles Darwin's The Descent of Man "much more closely than her many interpreters have realized" (486). And furthermore, she was, Bender writes, enamored with Darwin's theory of "sexual selection" - since it offered "a profoundly liberating sense of animal innocence in the realm of human courtship, especially for the Victorian woman," Bender explains.

The "liberating sense of animal innocence" is a transformation from what was expected in 19th Century society, to what was possible, from a literary point-of-view. The woman in Chopin's book could step out of the stereotype of a "good mother" and "loyal wife" and explore her sexual feelings through transgression ("stepping beyond or across...limits") of her marriage vows.

Darwin is quoted by Bender (487): "The sexual struggle is of two kinds...one between the individuals of...generally the male sex, in order to drive away or kill their rivals, the females remaining passive; whilst in the other the struggle is likewise between the individuals of the same sex, in order to excite or charm...generally the females, which no longer remain passive, but select the more agreeable partners."]

It is interesting, and puts some of the pieces of Chopin's puzzle together, to take Bender's point-of-view and initially reach an understanding that Chopin "...resisted [Darwin's] corollaries concerning the female's passive and modest role in sexual relations and the male's physical and mental superiority to the female."

With that as a premise, readers see Chopin's rebellion against Darwin (and, through 19th Century society's morals and values) through Chopin's character, Edna Pontellier. Indeed, Edna selects love on her own terms, based on her own sexual needs and desires, rather than for the reasons put forward by Darwin (which was because "civilized women" are "largely influenced by the social position and wealth of the men").

The theme of transformation is strong and clear when one looks at the Edna's awakening to her sexual feelings and her own ability to express those feelings through actions - notably, her affair with Robert. The woman of the 19th Century is no longer the timid wife and mother who obeys her husband's directions and demands, lock-step with his perception of what is right for her.

Before examining further Edna's breaking away from Darwin's ideas, it is worthy to point out that Darwin saw civilization as evolving largely because "a woman's modesty curbs the male's eagerness to couple," Bender continues (488). But Bender also quotes Ruth Bernard Yeazell as saying, as a critique of Darwin, that "...females are at once less lustful and more discriminating than males... [and] the satisfying conclusion to Darwin's story preserves the ideals of motherhood and the modest woman who knows nothing of appetite or sexual desire."

Are we talking about women with no appetite for sexual desire? Not in Chopin's characters. She clearly follows a pattern of both accepting and rejecting Darwin, which Bender only scratches the surface with. Chopin is likely embracing Darwin through the many images of the sea that connect Edna with evolution, if you will. "Edna is a post-Darwinian woman-animal who had evolved from the sea in a world without gods," Bender explains.

Edna is a wife, and a mother, but she is also a person who has desires and needs beyond what her family requires - a "woman-animal" connected to the sea, a woman who chooses to die in the sea - and the sea theme seems drawn from Darwin's evolution story.

And Edna is also used as a counter-point to Chopin's argument with Darwin, as Bender points out (494) in the passage in which Edna is chatting with Mademoiselle Reisz about what love really means. Chopin - in Chapter 16 - gives Edna's character wisdom that Chopin will not give to Reisz, a woman whose "avoidance of the water" is funny and portrays accurately Reisz' basic lack of sexuality. And then the thumbs down to Darwin is brought in, as Edna barks that Reisz is either lying or has "never been in love." After which Edna says, "do you suppose a woman knows why she loves? Does she select? Does she say to herself: 'Go to! Here is a distinguished statesman with presidential possibilities. I shall proceed to fall in love with him...[or with] this financier?"

Beyond the specific issues Bender takes with reference to whether or not Chopin is using Darwin's theories as vehicles to send her characters scurrying into fields hitherto unvisited by 19th Century novelists, the themes of transformation and transgression are hot and heavy in this novel.

Transformation: the book itself is a transformation from the rather conservative, lightly-sexy novels that were acceptable in the publishing world, into a world of the "shocking, morbid and vulgar" (PBS Kate Chopin A Re-Awakening). Kate Chopin's career was "devastated when The Awakening was published in 1899," according to a Web page from PBS promoting a re-visitation of the life and times of Chopin. Again, her work got her into the veritable black hole of publishing, but it was a way of path-finding, plowing the new fields of literature for other women and other writers who would not shy away from realistic writing, and hence, The Awakening was and is seen as a transformation to newer more honest writing from tired old literary traditions.

Transgression: It was in itself a transgression for Chopin to take her writing so far to the edge of the literary envelope. She went well beyond the norm, and into the storm of controversy that she probably expected. She sinned, if you will, as did Edna, one of her main characters, when Edna carried on an adulterous relationship.

It was a transgression for Chopin to create an entirely sensual novel. And it is sensual, as every line is deliberately written with a flair for the sensual.

To wit, in a scholarly article published by Women's Studies (Biggs, 2004), Kenneth Eble - who reportedly "rediscovered" The Awakening in 1956 - is quoted as saying that The Awakening is "...not only...about sex, but the very texture of the writing is sensuous, if not sensual, from the first to the last" (147).

Every action, every "conversation, every description, every figure of speech, refers forward and usually backward in the text...reinforcing the cyclical rhythms of the novel's core themes..." Biggs writes.

The care with which The Awakening is put together, Biggs continues, "is most evident when the 'voice of the sea' paragraph in chapter 6 repeats verbatim in chapter 39, just before Edna dons, then sheds, her bathing suit and swims to her death." transgression is also found in the above-mentioned fact that "nothing of importance occurs only…

Sources Used in Document:


Biggs, Mary (2004). "Sit u savais': The Gay/Transgendered Sensibility of Kate Chopin's The Awakening." Women's Studies, vol. 33, pp. 145-181.

Books and Writers (2003). "Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880)." Available:


Chopin, Kate. (1977). The Awakening. The Women's Press, London, UK.

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