William Holman Hunt's The Awakening Conscience

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The Awakening Conscience, painted by William Holman Hunt, depicts a woman rising from her position on a man’s lap and gazing out of the window of the room. The title of the painting as well as a host of symbols within the painting make it clear that this is a painting of a mistress and her lover. The painting demonstrates a side of Victorian English lives that was not talked about or well received in polite society. The details of the painting, analyzed symbolically, create a domestic scene that comments on the society of the time and the fate of the fallen women. While the theme of fallen women was popular in Victorian art, Hunt’s redemptive message is unusual. Other paintings of the period emphasize the consequences of one’s actions…show more content…
His painting features the standard narrative of a girl from the countryside who became a “fallen” woman in the city, but instead of illustrating a condemnatory message he chooses to show a message of hope, redemption, and spiritual awakening. The open window in the reflection of the mirror serves as the biggest symbol of hope and redemption in the painting. The fact that the women has taken her attention off of the song and has turned her gaze towards the window is an indication of her spiritual awakening. The cat that has a bird trapped on the floor further emphasizes this. The cat and the bird serve as an analogy to the man and woman; “The cat on the floor, whose paw still rests on the captured bird, becomes a metaphorical expression of the central action of the couple at the piano” (Shefer 476). The cat has caught the bird, much like the man is keeping the woman. In the painting one can see that the bird is still flapping it’s wings, showing that it is still possible for it to escape. This image serves as a symbol for the possible redemption of…show more content…
The woman’s hands are adorned with rings on every finger except where a wedding ring would be. This absence of a wedding ring is meant to show that the woman is unmarried, so the audience will understand that the artist is portraying a fallen woman. The setting is an apartment, which the man has presumably bought for her. It is filled with furniture, which appears to be new, which symbolizes the falseness of the relationship. On the floor there is a tangled ball of yarn, which symbolizes the web in which the girl is entrapped. All of these things speak to the precarious position the woman has found herself in. She has gotten mixed up in the stereotype of the fallen women, who typically resort to prostitution if they lose the assistance of a man. These symbols help the viewer understand that Hunt is portraying the issue of a young woman engaged in an

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