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The Awakening | Context

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The Angel in the House

The 1858 poem "The Angel in the House" by Coventry Patmore depicts the ideal Victorian woman. According to the poem, "Man must be pleased; but him to please/ Is woman's pleasure," and even when her man sins against her, she "leans and weeps against his breast,/ And seems to think the sin was hers." This ideal of the "angel in the house" was very much alive in New Orleans society in the late 1800s. Louisiana Creoles were the descendants of settlers from France and Spain who, while integrating into the New World in many ways—including accepting the unique ethnic diversity of the Gulf Coast area—also maintained French customs and culture. They spoke French, enjoyed French wine, preferred French cuisine, and valued French art and literature. They were both wealthy and religious; church attendance and attendance at fancy balls were both part of social expectations.

Formal courting, arranged marriages, dowry, and strict rules against premarital unchaperoned meetings were common. Women were expected to move seamlessly from chaste daughters under the protection of their fathers to virtuous wives under the protection of their husbands. They were to stay in the "women's sphere"—the blissful domestic world of home and children that was separated from the world of men with its business deals, gambling, and vices. Because of her virtue, the "angel in the house" was at once too delicate to survive in the world of men and a powerful purifying force for her man, who could retreat from the sinful world into his own private Eden.

Although by the time of The Awakening these attitudes were beginning to change, the adherence to Old World values made Louisiana Creole culture resistant to some of the changes taking place in other areas of the country, such as the women's rights movement. Madame Adèle Ratignolle, the model housewife and mother in The Awakening, is a classic example of the "angel in the house," an oppressed female role the novel's protagonist, Edna Pontellier, does not want to play.

Laws Regarding Women and Marriage

For much of U.S. history, a woman's status under the law was dictated by her relationship to a man—most often a father or a husband—and Edna Pontellier's plight very much reflects this situation. Women had few if any rights as individuals. A female was her father's dependent until she married, when she became her husband's dependent. Under the legal doctrine known as coverture, a woman lost her separate legal rights when she married; if her husband died, legal guardianship of the children did not pass to her.

The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 allowed a woman to divorce her husband, but only if she could prove he was adulterous and had committed some other egregious transgression, such as incest or bigamy. Under an 1878 law women were granted the right to legal separation if they could prove cruelty. This law also allowed women legal rights to their children after divorce or separation. An 1884 amendment to the Married Women's Property Act did away with designating wives as their husbands' "chattel," or personal property, inching women toward equality. Not until 1981 did the Supreme Court rule Louisiana's "head and master" laws unconstitutional. Of course these laws giving husbands control over their wives' property were very much in play during Edna Pontellier's day.

A Feminist Awakening?

Today The Awakening is considered by many to be a feminist novel. It certainly engages themes that have become important ones in feminist literature. For example, it tackles the subject of women's ability to contribute to and interact with society in some of the same ways men do, which is an important issue in English writer Mary Wollstonecraft's important 1792 feminist work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. It also shares striking similarities with the 1892 short story "The Yellow Wallpaper" by the feminist writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman. For example, the protagonists of both stories want to express themselves in some kind of artistic endeavor, both are distanced from their own motherhood, and both self-destruct. In both "The Yellow Wallpaper" and The Awakening, a woman's unconventional behavior is seen as a sign of her physical and mental frailty—a physical and emotional weakness that could have a medical treatment.

Yet The Awakening can also be seen as an example of another common refrain, the drowned woman. Notable examples include Shakespeare's Ophelia (Hamlet) and Thomas Hardy's Eustacia Vye (The Return of the Native) in literature and Found Drowned (Watts, 1850) in art. Women were often depicted as prone to suicide, often by drowning, and especially if they were "fallen" angels rather than "angels in the house."

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