Usually, feminist criticism concentrates on themes such as equality, women’s unconscious selves, political and literary rights as well as efforts of throwing patriarchal oppression and repression. Kate Chopin’s book The Awakening shows people how women struggled not only in the nineteenth century but also the future generations in an effort to overcome their conflicting emotions and oppression of the society that viewed them as property that was controlled by the men. As Chopin puts it through Mademoiselle Reisz, “the bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth.” (p.106). Thus, the bird here represents all women who have the desire to rebel the traditional way of thinking, although Reisz was referring to Edna’s decision to divorce her husband. Upon the book’s serialization, it caused quite a stir because it presented a protagonist (woman) who blatantly refused the society’s traditional norms as she believed that she was sexually aware. Because of the way she chooses individuality over the conformity, art over entertaining and sexuality over the repression and oppression, Edna is acting as a feminist and this paper will examine feminist representation to see how the book promotes feminist ideals.
Feminist criticism depicts women in literature as the most crucial forms of socialization as it orders the society of what are the acceptable versions of legitimate feminine goals and objectives. Throughout her book The Awakening, Kate Chopin showcases examples of how women should act or should not act in the society, in their homes and when with their husbands. Hence, through Edna Pontellier’s adopted society, one views women as vulnerable beings when they conform to the mother-woman role which she sees as a form of another way that men use to control women, as it dictates how women should worship their men, idolize their children while being at a position to honor their inferior positions. Written in 1899 when women were demanding the higher education such that they can keep up with the professional and political world of women, The Awakening was written to be a catalyst for the feminine movement through eyes of Edna Pontellier. The book shows how strong women must be in order to overcome the men’s dominance and achieve their aspirations. However, it should be noted that men condemned the book for they felt that it contracted views of a male dominated the society, as it portrayed women’s desires as more crucial in the control of their own sexuality and independence.
The nineteenth and indeed the late nineteenth century was a tumultuous time in the U.S. as the country’s social, scientific and cultural landscape were undergoing radical changes. Some of established (traditional and conventional) views were called into question especially because urbanization during the Civil War had ushered both men and women into a new society. The women’s rights movement had been gathering storm since the late 1840s when the first rights’ conference for women was held in 1848 at Seneca Fall, New York. Therefore, before The Awakening was published it shows that the society was engaged in some struggle over equal rights issues and some social ideologies. Thus, women had experienced some emancipation and mobilization from their socioeconomic impediments. It was during this era that women for the first time begun bringing their private issues into a public arena before the introduction of Kate Chopin’s character; Edna Pontellier.
Edna Pontellier is a twenty eight year old woman who struggles with constraints that the society has placed on her; by default. She epitomizes the consummate New York woman of the late 19th century who is clearly choked by the moralistic garb of the Victorian era and who is willing to give up everything even her own life for ‘freedom.’ Edna embodied social ideals for which women during that time were striving. She was a maverick but passionate individual, intrepid and courageous person whom several women during the late nineteenth century saw as a role model. Combined with the fact that Chopin was already an established author, The Awakening was destined for the success. Shortly before its release, Lucy Monroe in her review praised the book as a “remarkable novel” that was keen to analyze a character that seemed to reveal life and represent it at the same time. Monroe’s review heightened the release of this book and acted as a boost to Chopin’s career.
Edna’s “awakening” starts when her friendship with Madame Ratignolle starts to bud and grow. Ratignolle is the epitome of an elegant woman and in many different ways evokes Edna’s innermost desires (which she feels are repressed) and starts the process of setting them free. It seems that Madame Ratignolle’s happiness in her system and with her position made Edna have the desire to unleash her inner peace and her own happiness. It seems that Robert’s attachment to Edna strengthens her to be free from her responsibilities as a mother and a wife. As a result, Robert befriends Edna and the two become best friends and extremely close before the end of the summer. Robert’s companionship makes Edna feel more independent of her husband, Leonce, as she seems to confide more in Robert than Leonce. However, Madame Ratignolle realizes that it is treacherous for Robert to attach himself to Edna, as he has done to some other women. Ratignolle knows that Edna does not need temptation or encouragement to follow her desires of rebellion. However, Robert successfully distracts Edna from her social obligations, her children and even her husband.
Edna seems to have a recurring image that she remembers thought The Awakening: that of an open field with no begging and no end. This is the field that Edna seems to be wandering and clearly represents her longing for freedom and especially due to the fact that she thinks that some traditional systems are either obsolete or just meaningless. The recurring images also embody her desires to have control of her life. Edna feels that responsibilities she is inclined to burden her, as based on women’s societal obligations and the way that she is expected to have. Eventually, oneis shown that Edna succumbs to her dream. Towards the end of the novel, oneis shown that she is able to control her life by swimming out into the open ocean and never to return.
Robert is depicted as one who puts more color to Edna’s life and he evokes her creativity to pursue her desire to paint. Thus, Edna follows her urge to neglect the customary “woman’s chores” and she becomes defiant and disobedient to her husband, Leonce. An example is where Leonce asks her to come to bed as it was getting late but she refuses to be told on what to do. She, therefore, feels that she can go to bed when she wants to defy her husband’s influence of her. Robert’s absence also has some sudden effects on Edna’s behavior. Robert falls in love with a married woman whom he cannot pursue and he decides to move to Mexico. During his absence, Edna ignores her “presumed chores” and she is able to paint many pictures and later moves to a new house where she feels that she is in control of her won life and not a property of any other person. As Leonce leaves for business, Edna sends children to go and visit their grandparents and, thus, she feels she has no responsibilities and even goes a head to dismiss some of servants such that she will feel more independent. Although Alcee Arobin enters Edna’s life and fulfills her sexual desires, he never connects to her emotionally as Robert did. Alcee, thus, only befriends Edna and gives her company but allows her to continue enjoying her independence.
Clearly Edna’s actions are iniquitous. Her infidelity and self-centered egotism are reprehensible. To invoke wrath to this behavior, Chopin seems to approve of this kind of behavior. Therefore, Chopin can be seen as the genitor responsible for that kind of behavior from Edna. As the author of this novel, Chopin had the final say on what actions Edna did or did not. Thus, Chopin had the responsibility to discipline Edna who is seen as a malcontent character and, thus, help assuage her moral and religious elements. Chopin should have acquiesced to some of cultural and social mores that were prevalent during her writing of the book and, thus, wanton Edna’s sense of clemency. However, to most people’s indignation, Chopin never was willing to do such a thing. By ending the novel with Edna’s drowning, Chopin only confirms of Edna’s freedom to what she sees as a restrictive and repressive culture.
It is, thus, shocking that there is Edna’s crude mental operation vouchsafe’ women. In any case, in a civilized society it is the right of any person to indulge to any notions that may be subjected to restrictive clauses, e.g. for a married woman to indulge in infidelity. Thus, the resistance to Chopin’s novel is mainly due to the puritan morality, the plumb line through which Chopin and Edna are judged. Chopin’s novel, therefore, was seen as a moralistic criterion and a negative influence among youth. This was especially because Chopin was an established author and a respected member of the society, thus, her views had a strong negative impact among the people and especially the young. Her condoning Edna’s immoral behavior is one such example.
Another person who aids Edna break the barrier between her fantastical world, her desires and the way she is expected to act is Mademoiselle Reisz. Reisz encourages Edna to do whatever she wants as long as it makes her happy. She further tells her to follow her heart something that an “ideal” woman is not encouraged to do. It, therefore, seems that Reisz is the ideal woman that Edna should have been had; she not been married so early and was confronted to womanhood duties. Reisz devotes herself to music and she understands the way music distracts Edna from her womanly duties.The book is, thus, perceived as being unwholesome with some peculiar interest to women.
Psychoanalytical Perspective of The Awakening
The novel The Awakening exemplifies emotional and sexual awakening with regards to the significant revelation by Edna Pontellier. Edna is caught up in a loveless but pampered marriage with Leonce. However, independence stirs after she meets Robert LeBrun at her resort in Grand Isle, off the Louisiana coast. Throughout the novel, there are several symbols that relate to what Edna desires. An example is from the beginning of the novel is the caged parrot that represented the inability by Edna to communicate her feelings of being trapped in the surrounding society. The other bird, the mockingbird is, however, akin to Madame Reisz as they are shown that she was able to come into terms with her place in the society as she whistled as pleased. The entrapment of the parrot shows Edna’s desires to be free and not be a “mother-woman” while the use of wings describes what Edna needs, not for flying but for protection like the other women in Grand Isle. His attitude was one of the hopeless resignations as he looked toward a distant bird winging its flight away from him” (Chopin, 2011, C.9 Para.19). This shows how Edna was imagining herself as she looked into the distant at the flying bird (fleeing from her husband). The sea also symbolizes Edna’s independence and freedom as well as her rebirth. The sea acts as a voice of reasoning for Edna, it soothed her while conveying whatever she wanted to hear. “…The voice of the sea speaks to the soul” (Chopin, 2011, Ch. 6, para. 6-7). Thus, because Edna is unable to conform to the society, the voice of the sea is her independence.
As Chopin’s popularity spread, The Awakening served to bring the awareness and insights to issues that affect women. As a feminist literal writer, Chopin must have struggled to make her novel not only acceptable but also legitimate. However, since the book was published, many students in the U.S. and the world over have found Chopin’s novel The Awakening as a superb example of the inspirational New Woman. The book has helped in rediscovering the re-emergence for a classic woman and Chopin has been able to satisfy some of contemporary women issues.
The aspect of marriage also comes out clearly through this text. In the views of a feminist and thus that of the text by Chopin, a marriage is a union where a wife should have an equal share of responsibility to that of her husband. The author uses this text to bring to surface the calamities that befalls women in their marriages. The author shows that the traditional women roles in marriage limit the potential of women to a great extent. This is illustrated through Edna’s life. Edna manages to succeed in the art of painting after defying the customary expected roles in her marriage.
The Awakening by Chopin's captures the essence of the struggle for equality, freedom and independence in which women have been engaged for more than a century now. Consequently, the novel The Awakening earned its long-awaited praise in the world of literature. This is seen as a testimony to the weight of changing social frameworks on literary criticism as the precision of Chopin novel. The novel The Awakening has, nevertheless, found its way into the principle norm in the current society. It seems that with the continued success and use of Chopin’s novel, the book’s message has been carried and will indeed be carried into future generations.