Like Hogarth, William Holman Hunt, in The Awakening Conscience, places small but meaningful symbolic details throughout his picture, to reinforce and add nuance to the painting's focus. Central to the painting is the figure of the prostitute, arising from her man's lap in a moment of spiritual enlightenment. She is looking out through an open glass door onto a bright, beautiful day, representing a broadening sense of self and brighter prospects for her future. The contrast between the natural world and the garish decoration of the room also suggests a message about gender relations; in the Victorian material world a woman could prettify her life with ornamentation, but only through spirituality could she be free to move beyond the confines of her social position. left corner symbolizes the violent or exploitative nature of the relationship.

The gentleman's slouched position, on the other hand, represents his self-degradation and decadence, unconcerned with the wider spiritual space that his lover is entering. The books and songs scattered about the room, which may have been signs leading the woman towards her awakening, serve as mere playthings for the gentleman, and he shows his carelessness towards them by scattering them on the floor. The glass case around the clock on the piano duplicates the theme of enclosure, while the cat chasing a bird in the lower left corner symbolizes the violent or exploitative nature of the relationship.

Questions

1. Given the importance of the nature scene to the painting, why is this scene depicted indirectly, through a mirror located behind the characters? What reason is there for having the woman look in one direction, while placing the object of her vision in the opposite direction for the viewer?

2. In the upper right corner there is a comparatively drab painting of a woman with folded hands, thus duplicating the folded hands of the prostitute. What is the meaning of this painting, and how does it belong in the gentleman's room?

3. The mirror framing of the outdoor scene is duplicated in the contrast of the real flowers on the piano with the flower images painted on the walls [upper right]. What do these images suggest about the relationship between the natural and the artificial? What religious, social, or artistic ramifications do these comparisons have?

4. What is the significance of the dark, colorless spots underneath the piano, the chair, and the table? Are these meant as realistic or symbolic touches?


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Last modified 27 September 2006