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Kate Chopin's "The Awakening" - Edna's Life as a Development in Three Stage
In short, Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her. This may seem like a ponderous weight of wisdom to descend upon the soul of a young woman of twenty-eight - perhaps more wisdom than the Holy Ghost is usually pleased to vouchsafe to any woman(Awakening, 57) This paper is intended to show the development of a woman who realizes her subordinate role in society, and furthermore questions it. In the society of late nineteenth-century Louisiana, Edna has to fight stereotypes and finds herself in a struggle between self-realization and self-damnation. But she is still courageous enough to continue her personal liberation and emancipation, and finally, for individuality and independence, she is even willing to pay with her life. This paper will take a close look at Edna's development, respectively a development in three stages - the phase of sleeping, the phase of dreaming, and consequently the Awakening. Furthermore, I will discuss the various symbols and characters that represent each of these stages.
Kate Chopin's biography should, first of all, give an overview of the author's life. This biographical information will consequently lead to a better understanding of the novel and the conflict in which the protagonist is trapped, as it gives a first insight into the cultural and social setting of the novel.
2 Biography of Kate Chopin
Kate Chopin, née O'Flaherty, was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1850 (cf. Carey, 5ff). The combination of two heritages, Irish on her father's side and French on her mother's, molded and fashioned her unique character.
Kate Chopin was only four years old when her father died. She then grew up in the company of her mother, grandmother and her great-grandmother. Their strength and independence as well as their ways of entertaining Chopin by telling tales about people and adventures strongly influenced Kate Chopin in her career as a unique woman and writer.
Kate Chopin had the opportunity to indulge in an extraordinary education for a woman of her time, and she finally graduated from the St. Louis Academy of the Sacred Heart in 1868. Soon after her graduation she met Oscar Chopin, a man who was especially fascinated by her individualism. In their marriage she was given an immense amount of personal freedom, which was rather unusual for wives at that time. Oscar and Kate Chopin spent the first nine years of their marriage in New Orleans, and after Oscar's business in the cotton industry failed miserably they had to move to Cloutierville, a small village in the Cajun area of Louisiana. Through her life in Louisiana Chopin was introduced to Creole and Cajun culture and society, which had a great impact on her writing. As her stories are mainly set in the Louisiana of Creole culture, she was considered a local color or regional writer for a long time. This reputation is partly responsible for her 'being ignored as one of America's finest fictional writers' (Carey,7). Only after her death, her novels and stories were discovered as important works of feminist literature.
By the age of thirty, Kate Chopin was the mother of six children. When Oscar died in 1882, Chopin ran their plantations. In the secure space of social acceptance as a mother and widow, Kate Chopin had the opportunity to express her views of life, especially as a woman, in her writings. The primary concern of her fiction was 'the celebration of female sexuality, and the tension between erotic desire and the demands of marriage, the family, and a traditional society' (Martin, 1). She wrote two novels -At Faultin 1890 andThe Awakeningin 1899 - and almost a hundred short stories, poems, essays, plays and reviews. Kate Chopin was highly acclaimed for her volumes of short stories,Bayou Folk(1894) andA Night in Acadie(1897). After the publication ofThe Awakening, which was considered a scandalous book as it dealt with adultery and sexual desires of married women, there was an outcry of contemporary critics and the novel was widely condemned.
Consequently, Chopin's third volume of short stories,A Vocation and aVoice, was refused to be published. As an answer to the scathing criticism and the banning ofThe Awakeningfrom libraries, Kate Chopin even wrote a note of apology in a local paper. (cf. Carey, 7). It was a satiric and mocking apology, which did not express Chopin's true disappointment over the negative reactions, and the attacks from reviewers towards her and the novel did not come to an end. Chopin, though she never regretted having writtenThe Awakening, felt that her career as a writer had no further future, and she had only two more stories published afterwards. She devoted the rest of her life to her family until she died on August 22, 1904.
3 The three stages of Edna's development
The Awakeningwas published in 1899 and is regarded as Chopin's most controversial and scandalous work. The novel deals with the emotional, mental and sexual awakening of Edna Pontellier, the wife of a Creole businessman, and mother of two sons. In the course of the story she breaks through social conventions, questions the role of women in society and neglects restrictions and limitations laid upon her as a woman. Edna's struggle for individualism and selfhood results in her suicide, as there is 'little possibility for self-determination for women in a society where legal and economic practice and social custom prohibit female autonomy' (Martin, 17). Whereas the suffrage-movement, spawned by the Civil War, was growing in some parts of the U.S., Louisiana and most Southern States openly expressed their antagonism toward female emancipation, as an excerpt from a publication by Wilbur Fisk Tillet from 1891 shows:
So far as this movement may have any tendency to take woman out of her true place in the home, to give her man's work to do and to develop masculine qualities in her, it finds no sympathy in the South. The Southern woman loves the retirement of home, and shrinks from everything that would bring her into the public gaze. (Tillet, 16) Edna is quite the opposite of a woman who finds true fulfillment in the role of a loving wife and mother. Her liberation from social conventions, suppression and restrictions in the setting of conservative Southern Catholic society makes her suicide inevitable as there is no other way to break out of the social boundaries that were present in almost every domain of life. Edna's suicide can be seen as her ultimate awakening because she refuses to return to the life of restrictions. She rather sacrifices her own life than her individuality and freedom, because 'nothing less than a transformation of social reality would enable [Edna] to go on living' (Gilmore, 63). Through suicide she expresses her disapproval of her role as a woman and mother, as a possession of her husband and her children. This is reflected by her thoughts shortly before she drowns herself:
Her arms and legs were growing tired.
She thought of Léonce and the children. They were a part of her life. But they need not have thought they could possess her, body and soul. (Awakening, 176)
Edna's awakening, i.e. her suicide, results from a process of self-realization that the protagonist experiences in the course of her life. It is not a surprising awakening, as the story gradually describes her development in three stages, respectively a sleeping phase, a phase of dreaming, and the final phase of awakening that goes hand in hand with the realization that Edna's attempt to be truly free within the present social conventions is futile.
3.1 Sleeping Edna
Edna's phase of sleeping in the story is a relatively short one. It is nevertheless of importance, for, if there is no sleeping, there can be neither dreaming nor awakening.
The state of sleeping, of course, is not meant literally. It is a metaphor for a condition of repression. Edna, in her phase of sleeping, quietly accepts her position in society. She does not question her role as a mother and wife. The first lines of the novel describe a parrot in a cage, and this parrot is a symbol for Edna herself. In her sleeping phase, she is a bird in a cage, merely there to be looked at and not taken seriously. Her husband, Léonce, sees her as his possession, as he is 'looking at [her] as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage' (Awakening, 44). Edna, on the surface, seems to be devoted to her husband and cares for him. She asks him to 'take the umbrella' (Awakening, 45), and wonders if he is 'coming back to dinner' (Awakening, 45), thus expressing an interest in his well-being and in his presence. In her sleeping phase Edna does not openly show her disapproval of her position as a woman within society, even though the reader gets hints that she 'is not comfortable with the traditional role of wife and mother but has difficulty imagining alternatives' (Martin, 19). When Léonce 'reproached his wife with her inattention, her habitual neglect of the children' (Awakening, 48), the reader realizes that Edna is not content with her role. Edna then 'could not have told why she was crying' because 'such experiences as the foregoing were not uncommon in her married life' (Awakening, 49). Edna feels her own dissatisfaction with life, but in her sleeping phase she does not understand why. She does not yet question social conventions and believes that she, as a woman, might not have the right to disapprove of them.
As stated earlier, Edna's phase of sleeping is not of long duration, but there are characters and symbols within the novel that reflect this phase throughout the story.
Léonce is the male character in the story who represents the sleeping phase of Edna. Their marriage is a symbol for social conventions and restrictions, especially as Léonce's behavior is mainly motivated by what is expected of their marriage by society as well as business. His reaction to Edna's absence on a Tuesday, her official reception day, expresses his obedience to social conventions very well:
Why, my dear, I should think you'd understand by this time that people don't do such things; we've got to observeles convenancesif we ever expect to get on and keep up with the procession. If you felt that you had to leave home this afternoon, you should have left some suitable explanation for your absence. (Awakening, 101)
Léonce is even more outraged when he learns that Mrs. Belthrop wanted to visit Edna, because they 'can't afford to snub Mrs. Belthrop [because] Belthrop could buy and sell [them] ten times over' (Awakening, 101). In this sequence it becomes obvious that Edna is merely a representative, and 'her social duties [ ] are an important extension of his business world' (Carey, 42).
Léonce obviously stands for the world of restrictions and social conventions, and in his marriage to Edna he is definitely a part of her sleeping phase. The female pendant to Léonce, also a character reflecting social conventions, can be found in Mme. Adèle Ratignolle.
The role of Mme. Ratignolle is typical of a woman of that time. She is devoted to her husband and children and lives for them solely. There are few moments in the book, in which Mme. Ratignolle is not in some way, attached to her children or her husband. They live in an apartment just above the drug store her husband runs, thus Adèle and her husband are always close to each other. While Mr. Pontellier goes on business trips, Mr. Ratignolle remains near Adèle throughout the story. When Edna thinks about inviting Adèle to join her and Alcée one afternoon, she realizes that "her fair friend did not leave the house, except to take a languid walk around the block with her husband after nightfall" (Awakening, 130). Adèle never gives the impression of discontent as she accepts her role in society. She adores her husband and never questions her subordinate position. When Edna visits the Ratignolles, the reader can picture Adéle's devotion, as she 'was keenly interested in everything [her husband] said, laying down her fork the better to listen, chiming in, taking the words out of his mouth' (Awakening, 107). Here we can again draw a connection to the parrot. Adèle is not talking herself, instead she parrots her husband, accepting everything he says without questioning. Even though Adèle reflects Edna's sleeping phase, she somewhat triggers the protagonist's transformation, as Edna, 'in responding to Adéle's interest [...] begins to think about her own past and to analyze her own personality' (Showalter, 46). Through her relationship with Adèle "she becomes 'Edna' in the narrative rather than 'Mrs. Pontellier' " (Showalter, 46).
Another important symbol of Edna's sleeping phase is her inability to swim:
Edna had attempted all summer to learn to swim. She had received instructions from both the men and women; in some instances from the children. Robert had pursued a system of lessons almost daily; and he was nearly at the point of discouragement in realizing the futility of his efforts. (Awakening, 73)
Here Edna is still passively receiving instructions. The swimming is a symbol for freedom, and the floating expresses independence. Edna, in her sleeping phase, is neither free nor independent. Her inability to swim gives her no opportunity to escape this world of restrictions and social conventions.
3.2 The dreaming phase
Edna's first step from her condition of sleep to a phase of dreaming can be seen in chapter seven, when she walks to the beach with Mme. Ratignolle and starts talking about her childhood memories and her marriage to Léonce. She tells Adèle about 'a summer day in Kentucky, of a meadow that seemed as big as the ocean' when she 'threw out her arms as if swimming' (Awakening, 60). In her dreaming phase Edna realizes the freedom that can be achieved through swimming, using this metaphor to describe her childhood, before she was married and when she is still "free".
In this sequence of the story the narrator stops addressing the protagonist as Mrs. Pontellier, but rather calls her "Edna", thus giving her subjectivity. In her dreaming phase, Edna tries to gain independence in various ways. When the day of Léonce's departure to New York draws near, 'Edna scurries about the house in a new kind of agitation - guilty, we suspect, not so much over the fact of remaining as over her premonition about the temptations of independence' (Delbanco, 97).
In this phase of independence, through the absence of her husband, Edna gradually realizes her individuality and her power. She even decides to move out of the house she shares with Léonce, for she develops a sense of ownership and pecuniary independence.
When she sends her children to their grandmother, she can experience total freedom and independence. She steps out of her "expected role" of a mother, thus expressing her disapproval of the belief that women are supposed to sacrifice everything for their children.
Again, Edna's phase of dreaming is reflected by characters and symbols throughout the novel. The male character representing Edna's dreaming phase is Robert. Even though it is Robert who "awakens" sexual desires in Edna and thus is the reason for her change, he does not reflect the awakening phase. The reader soon realizes that, if Edna's relationship with Robert had been successful, she would again have been forced into the role of a "mother-woman", restricted by social conventions. Edna even expresses this when she meets Robert at the Café:
[...] you never consider for a moment what I think, or how I feel your neglect and indifference. I suppose this is what you would call unwomanly; but I have got into a habit of expressing myself. It doesn't matter to me, and you may think me unwomanly if you like. (Awakening, 165)
Robert's views on women do not differ from that of most men at this time. He considers wives to be the possession of their husbands. This becomes obvious when he tells Edna, 'Oh! I was demented, dreaming of wild, impossible things, recalling men who had set their wives free, we have heard of such things' (Awakening,167). In contrast to her sleeping phase, Edna disagrees openly with these views and expresses her disapproval:
You have been a very, very foolish boy, wasting your time dreaming of impossible things when you speak of Mr. Pontellier setting me free! I am no longer one of Mr. Pontellier's possessions to dispose or not. I give myself where I choose. If he were to say, "Here, Robert, take her and be happy; she is yours," I should laugh at both of you. (Awakening, p167)
Robert finally refuses to wait for Edna and stay together with her, leaving a note that says 'I love you. Good-bye - because I love you'. The reader can see his dependency on social conventions; he loves Edna and therefore he has to leave her. He knows the consequences their relationship would have and prefers to go the safe way.
Edna's learning to swim is an important sign of her first awakening, that is an awakening from a sleeping to a dreaming phase. Though she has the ability to swim, she is still full of fears. First 'she did shout for joy, as with a sweeping stroke or two she lifted her body to the surface of the water' and 'grew daring and reckless, overestimating her strength. She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before' (Awakening, 73). But as soon as she is in relatively far distance from the shore, she gets a feeling of panic:
Once she turned and looked toward the shore, toward the people she had left there. She had not gone any great distance - that is, what would have been a great distance for an experienced swimmer. But to her unaccustomed vision the stretch of water behind her assumed the aspect of a barrier which her unaided strength would never be able to overcome. A quick vision of death smote her soul, and for a second of time appalled and enfeebled her senses.
Here Edna fears the unknown, and she is eager to return to the "safe shore", which at the same time is the world of restrictions and social conventions. She is not fully awakened yet. She experiences freedom and independence but she is not yet ready for it.
3.3 Edna's Awakening
Edna's complete awakening goes hand in hand with her suicide, yet she has experienced a gradual awakening throughout the novel. Her dreaming phase, which is the longest of the three phases, often intermingles with the awakening phase. The reader might think several times throughout the story that Edna has awakened, only to find out that she is not yet free. Edna herself does not even know whether she is free or not when she talks to Doctor Mandelet, saying:
Perhaps - no, I'm not going. I'm not going to be forced into things. I don't want to go abroad. I want to be let alone. Nobody has any right - except children, perhaps - and even then, it seems to me - or it did seem - ... (Awakening, 171)
Edna might be independent from her husband and social conventions, but she still cannot escape from her role as a mother. She feels that she cannot gain freedom, independence and individuality because she is a mother. Edna has once said to Mme. Ratignolle 'that she would give up the unessential, but she would never sacrifice herself for the children' (Awakening, 175). She realizes that this is not possible in this society, and in order not to sacrifice herself, she has to commit suicide, and thus awaken.
Edna's awakening, which finally results in her suicide, is again reflected by various events and characters. Alcée Arobin is the male character who represents the phase of awakening, for he is the only man who does not have control over Edna. Their relationship means a sexual awakening for Edna, as the reader can see when Edna and Arobin kiss for the first time - 'It was the first kiss of her life to which her nature had really responded. It was a flaming torch that kindled desire' (Awakening, 139). Edna is independent in her relationship to Alcée Arobin. She plays with him and is in control of him. They do what she pleases to do and they only meet when she wants to meet. Alcée has no intentions to marry Edna, therefore he is the only man who does not want to force her into the role of a conventional wife or "mother- woman".
Mademoiselle Reisz is the woman in the story who represents Edna's phase of awakening, as she is put in contrast to Adèle Ratignolle. Mademoiselle Reisz is not married and has no children, lives by herself and devotes her life to music. Whereas Mme. Ratignolle 'was keeping up her music on account of the children [...] because she and her husband considered it a means of brightening the home and making it attractive' (Awakening, 69), Mademoiselle Reisz often declines to play for others. She refuses to be in company of others and makes little exceptions. She does not fit into the social conventions of that time and has quite a negative reputation, as the reader realizes when Alcée says that 'she's partially demented' and that 'she's extremely disagreeable and unpleasant' (Awakening, 138). The description, or rather the position of Mademoiselle Reisz shows 'the old patriarchal prejudice that rejects women without men as anomalies' (Giorcelli, 138). Yet, Mademoiselle Reisz is the only one who understands Edna's conflict, even before Edna does. She realizes that Edna is a bird in a cage who needs to escape, and even 'felt [Edna's] shoulder blades, to see if [her] wings were strong' (Awakening, 138). Even though Mademoiselle Reisz has achieved independence and individuality in this society, Edna cannot take a similar position in society, as she is married and has children. Edna only realizes that she is not content with her role as a wife and mother when it is too late. Mademoiselle Reisz has made her decision to be alone but independent earlier - she chose not to marry but has to live with her role as an "outsider", be it negative or positive.
The third, and most important symbol for Edna's awakening is her swimming and, finally, her drowning. She now is able to swim without fear and she can experience complete freedom, because she is not drawn back to the secure but restrictive life. When Edna removes all her clothes and swims far out, she 'did not look back now, but went on and on, thinking of the blue-grass meadow that she had traversed when she was a little child, believing that it had no beginning and no end' (Awakening, 176). The same childhood memory comes to her mind which she has described earlier, when she has stepped from her sleeping into the dreaming phase. This memory symbolizes complete freedom: the meadow has no limits for Edna, just as the ocean has no restrictions. Edna overcomes her fear and realizes that she cannot swim back to the shore, because she does not want to give up her freedom and independence. Returning to the shore would mean sacrificing herself. Because Edna has awakened, there is no place for her in that society any more, except for a place that means self-sacrifice and suffering.
Hopefully this paper has made clear that Edna's awakening was not a sudden one, but rather a gradual awakening. Edna has developed in the course of the story. She started to question social codes and conventions because she realized that her position as a woman, wife and mother was a subordinate one. In contrast to the "typical mother-woman" of that time, she had the courage to disapprove of these social structures openly. For Edna it would have been much easier to accept her role and sacrifice her individuality in order to live a relatively decent life as "Mr. Pontellier's wife". But she rather chooses to stand up and find the way which is best for her - an unusual way for women of her time.
Edna is not awakened in the story, she awakens herself, step by step. She questions her role as a mother and wife, and also questions the "supremacy" of men. She starts expressing herself, thus provoking society. And finally, after a long phase of dreaming, she realizes that she can only achieve ultimate freedom by committing suicide, because society is not yet ready for a woman like her. Edna has to commit suicide because she could only live in this world if society as a whole would change.
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Gilmore, Michael T. "Revolt Against Nature: The Problematic Modernism ofThe Awakening".New Essays on The Awakening. Ed. Wendy Martin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1994. 59-88
Giorcelli, Cristina. "Edna's Wisdom: A Transitional and Numinous Merging".New Essays on The Awakening. Ed. Wendy Martin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1994. 109-148.
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Showalter, Elaine. "Tradition and the Female Talent:The Awakeningas a Solitary Book".New Essays on The Awakening. Ed. Wendy Martin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1994. 33-58
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