In our readings from the Belle Epoque, a common theme was that of personal freedoms - rebellion from societal expectations – a time of self-discovery and of defining oneself. This was especially true for women. During this time we begin to see a rise in writings telling the tales of women rejecting their traditional wife and mother roles for freedom to discover who they are.
In the late 1800’s society’s structure and culture were undergoing fundamental changes. The most significant change to the American culture was the transformation of women's roles. Men began to work outside the family nucleus in business roles. Women became responsible for the home and children. Society told women that motherhood was one of the most important contributions a woman could make to her family and country. Women were expected to be pure, charitable, selfless and supportive at all costs. But women recognized that there lives were not their own, and there began an unrest within themselves.
In Henrik Isben’s A Doll's House, the main character, Nora, realizes she’s transitioned from being an obedient daughter as a child to an obedient wife as an adult – taking on the opinions and beliefs of her father and husband, never truly knowing who she is. With this realization, she awakens a fervent desire for discovering her personal self. This need is so powerful that she was willing to cast off her socially imposed identity and abandon her husband, children and comforts of home.
A Story of an Hour, written by Kate Chopin, is another recognized story of a woman who realizing the opportunity for living for herself, though the ending is not as optimistic. In this story, the main character, Mrs. Mallard, is told that her husband has died in a train wreck. She is instantly grief-stricken, and then goes to her room to be alone. As she takes in all that has happened she suddenly has the revelation that she is free…free to “live for herself.” The announcement of Mr. Mallard’s death had awakened this realization that she could be free to discover her personal self. Unfortunately Mr. Mallard returns home, unaware of the news the arrived before him, and as Mrs. Mallard lays eyes on him, she dies from a broken heart – broken because her newfound freedom has been snatched away as quickly as it came.
While A Doll’s House and A Story of an Hour are fictions, I feel that the stories are being told because they were what was happening in society during that period. These stories, and others like them, were very controversial. Mainly, I suppose, because it was against societal norms and tradition. But the world was experiencing transition on many fronts during the Belle Epoque, and this sort of women’s liberation was just one aspect. Personally I am inspired by the Kate Chopin stories I’ve read. They give insight to a time in our history where women were beginning to open struggle to establish equal rights and to gain personal power over their lives. To me it’s the first real sign of women emerging out from under the oppression they endured back then.