When it was published in 1899, The Awakening was considered vulgar by most critics. The inferior social status of women was firmly entrenched, especially in the South. An accompanying concept was the assumed moral superiority of women, at least in sexual matters. Upper-class ladies such as Edna Pontellier were ornaments, displays of their husband’s wealth. A book that challenged the traditional roles of women was likely to be controversial. The public was not ready to accept a liberated woman, even if she did commit suicide in the end. Kate Chopin disappeared from the literary world when her book was critically attacked and banned from libraries. Not all critics gave negative reviews. Willa Cather, later a famous novelist herself, praised The Awakening. Cather acclaimed the style of Chopin and also compared the protagonist to Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina, heroines of classic European fiction. From the mid-twentieth century on, critics, especially feminists, have raised the status of the novel to an American masterpiece. It has been celebrated as an important literary document in the history of women’s rights and as an artistic success.
Chopin tells Edna’s story without comment; the action and dialogue present ambiguities. Various schools of criticism have interpreted The Awakening from diverse views. Feminist critics have promoted it as a neglected text that should rightly be placed among the outstanding novels of the nineteenth century. It presents the plight of a woman who cannot accept the idea of being limited to a socially defined role. Edna rejects the economic and social success that her marriage to Léonce gives her in favor of working out her own destiny. She prefers to define her role actively rather than to be a passive object. Her awakening is sexual in part, but it is also a search for creativity, as suggested by her attempt to paint. She seeks the advice of the only artist she knows—Mademoiselle Reisz. She reads Emerson, the voice of individualism. From these sources, she gains the courage to challenge the authority of her husband. In her fight for independence, Edna becomes a threat to the values of a society.
Feminist critics also recognize other elements of the book relating to psychoanalytic theory, mythology, linguistics, and cultural studies. Critics from different fields saw it as naturalistic, an extended work of local color, or as a conflict between Creole and American cultures. A major emphasis, however, was the consideration of the novel as a work of art, which often involved an examination of patterns of imagery that tie the novel together.
One example is how Chopin uses birds to help define Edna’s situation. On the first page, the caged parrot suggests her feeling of being trapped by traditions. The mockingbird, on the other side of Madame Lebrun’s door, further illustrates her passive role, in which a voice of her own is not expected. Edna, however, speaks for herself by moving out of Léonce’s house into what she calls her pigeon-house, suggestive of both a dependent domestic bird and a wild bird that has found its own nest. The advice that Edna gets from the pianist includes a reference to a bird that will have wings strong enough to fly above traditions and prejudices. Also, when the pianist plays for Edna, the latter envisions a naked man looking toward a distant bird in “hopeless resignation.” Finally when Edna decides on suicide as a final act of free will, she watches a broken-winged bird descend into the sea. Edna breaks free from her cage, but she flounders in an alien environment. The story of her brief flight, however, has become a celebrated novel.
Kate Chopin’s The Awakening was a bold piece of fiction in its time, and protagonist Edna Pontellier was a controversial character. She upset many nineteenth century expectations for women and their supposed roles. One of her most shocking actions was her denial of her role as a mother and wife. Kate Chopin displays this rejection gradually, but the concept of motherhood is major theme throughout the novel.
Edna is fighting against the societal and natural structures of motherhood that force her to be defined by her title as wife of Leonce Pontellier and mother of Raoul and Etienne Pontellier, instead of being her own, self-defined individual. Through Chopin’s focus on two other female characters, Adele Ratignolle and Mademoiselle Reisz, Edna’s options of life paths are exhibited.
These women are the examples that the men around Edna contrast her with and from whom they obtain their expectations for her. Edna, however, finds both role models lacking and begins to see that the life of freedom and individuality that she wants goes against both society and nature. The inevitability of her fate as a male-defined creature brings her to a state of despair, and she frees herself the only way she can, through suicide.
In the world of Edna Pontellier one can either be defined by men or live a life separate from the rest of society. “Women [can] either become wives and mothers . . . or exiles” (Papke 39). Adele Ratignolle is the epitome of the male-defined wife and mother. She is a “mother-woman.”
“[The mother-women] were women who idolized their children, worshipped their husbands and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels” (Chopin 10).
Adele is described as being a fairly talented pianist, yet even the very personal act of creating music is performed for the sake of her children. “She was keeping up her music on account of the children, she said; because she and her husband both considered it a means of brightening the home and making it attractive” (Chopin 27). Adele also brings constant attention to her pregnancy in ways Edna finds to be somewhat inappropriate. Adele is very proud of her title of mother, and one might say motherhood is what she was fated for.
Edna finds that the life of the mother-woman fails to satisfy her desire for an existence free from definition. She pities Adele and finds herself unsuited for the lifestyle of the mother-woman. “It was not a condition of life which fitted her, and she could see in it but an appalling and hopeless ennui. She was moved by a kind of commiseration for Madame Ratignolle” (Chopin 63). Adele represents all four attributes of True Womanhood as defined by the Cult of Domesticity.
The “four cardinal virtues [were] piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. Put them together and they spelled mother, daughter, sister, wife—woman” (Welter qtd. Papke 11). This definition of self in connection with others is what prevents Edna from allowing herself to follow Adele’s example. She tries to explain these reservations about loss of identity to Adele. “I would give my money, I would give my life for my children, but I wouldn’t give myself” (Chopin 53). Adele fails to understand Edna’s search for individuality, and Edna must look elsewhere for empathy.
Mademoiselle Reisz is the exile. In her first introduction, she is displayed “dragging a chair in and out of her room, and at intervals objecting to the crying of a baby, which a nurse in the adjoining cottage was endeavoring to put to sleep” (Chopin 28). Mademoiselle Reisz is a woman devoid of motherly tendencies and sexuality. She is physically unappealing and seems to have no romantic past, present, or future.
Her primary trait is her extraordinary musical talent, which she, in contrast to Adele, cultivates only for herself. Edna confides in her a desire to become a painter, and Mademoiselle Reisz cautions her about the nature of the artistic lifestyle. “The artist must possess the courageous soul,” she says, “the soul that dares and defies” (Chopin 71). Mademoiselle Reisz believes that only through a life of solitude and a disregard for society can an artist define herself and create real art.
Edna enjoys a rewarding friendship with Mademoiselle Reisz, however, she finds the lonely artistic lifestyle to be imperfect due to its lack of sexuality. Because Mademoiselle Reisz is the only artist-woman Edna is familiar with, Edna sees her lifestyle as representative of all artist-women. Mademoiselle Reisz’s life is deprived of sexuality, and due to her relationship with Adele, Edna has experienced a sexual awakening.
“There may have been . . . influences, both subtle and apparent, working in their several ways to induce [Edna] to [loosen a little her mantle of reserve]; but the most obvious was the influence of Adele Ratignolle” (Chopin 16).
Through Adele’s intimate touch, a level of affection that Edna is unfamiliar with, Edna is able to open herself to the possibilities of sexual arousal. After this potential has been brought to her attention, Edna cannot imagine herself living the asexual, artistic lifestyle of Mademoiselle Reisz, even if it might be a way to find the individuality that she is searching for. “While Mademoiselle Reisz might escape the conflicts within her own sex by absconding to an area of sexlessness . . . Edna [is] unprepared to do this—because she simply enjoys sex too much” (Killeen 423).
Edna sees that “to be a mother woman is to abjure self for the sake of others; to be an artist woman is to live celibate, to give all one’s love to expression” (Papke 82). Edna yearns for a more physical relationship, where she can be touched and pleasured, so she rejects Mademoiselle Reisz as a role model.
Edna attempts to find self-definition by creating a third lifestyle option and beginning to act like a man. She sees that men are allowed to live lives of sexual fulfillment, while not being expected to bear or care for their children, and develop a personality and individual self through participation in the business world. Edna first finds a sense of masculine freedom when Leonce goes to New York and Raoul and Etienne go to Iberville to stay with their grandmother. “A radiant peace settled upon her when she at last found herself alone. Even the children were gone” (Chopin 80).
Edna explores her newfound lifestyle by taking up gambling at the racetrack and beginning to sell her paintings. Entering the world of capitalism is a big step in her search for independence because until that point she had been, like most nineteenth century women, “the sympathetic and supportive bridge between the private realm of the home and the almost exclusively male world of the public marketplace” (Papke 10). By infiltrating this masculine world, Edna is able to generate an income all her own and use the money she makes to rent a house.
The pigeon house, as she calls it, is a place far away from any reminders of her family life. Her final attempt to acquire the unfettered life of a man comes in the form of her affair with Alcee Arobin. In this relationship, Edna samples masculine sexual freedoms; however, something in Edna’s nature makes it impossible for her to be fully satisfied with the masculine lifestyle.Continued on Next Page »
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening and Other Stories. New York: Oxford University Press, Oxford World’s Classics, 2008.
Killeen, Jarlath. “Mother and Child: Realism, Maternity, and Catholicism in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening.” Religion and the Arts. Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, Inc., 2003. 413-438.
Lattin, Patricia Hopkins. “Childbirth and Motherhood in The Awakening and in “Athenaise.” Approaches to Teaching Chopin’s The Awakening. Ed. Bernard Koloski. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1988. 40-46.
Papke, Mary E. Verging On The Abyss: The Social Fiction of Kate Chopin and Edith Wharton. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990.
The English Standard Version Bible: Containing the Old and New Testaments with Apocrypha. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009.
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