The function of adultery, contract and female identity in Kate Chopin's 'The Awakening'

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 1999

15 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. The Awakening and the feminist discourse of emancipation

2. Chopin's description and utilization of adultery

3. The marriage contract and its sociocultural impact in the novel

4. Edna's quest for a female identity
4.1. The role of the setting
4.2. The problem of solitude
4.3. A language of one's own

5. The cultural project of The Awakening


1. The Awakening and the feminist discourse of emancipation

In Kate Chopin's The Awakening, sexuality, love and marriage are negotiated in connection with the problem of a uniquely female identity which defies the ideas of Victorian prudery and seeks to represent the "new woman". But what precisely is the nature of Edna's awakening?[1] Does the novel really convey a feminist tenor, and does Chopin succeed in exploring new cul­tural and social options in the sphere of fiction? Three major aspects have to be analysed to il­luminate this matter, namely adultery, the notion of contract and the question of a female iden­tity, all of which are directly linked to the organization and stability of society in general and in American society by the end of the nineteenth century in particular. Considering the ubi­quity of adultery - seen as a transgression against the marriage contract - in nineteenth-century novels, Tony Tanner postulates "relationships between a specific kind of sexual act, a specific kind of society, and a specific kind of narrative" (1979: 12), all of which here imply a defini­tion of woman's role on a social scale.

As far as The Awakening is concerned, however, the case is far from clear because society's ideological hegemony is significantly diminished, though at no point relinquished. It is proble­matic to speak of Edna's sexual liberation and emancipation for two reasons: firstly, there are no restrictive measures or even social sanctions like ostracism,[2] and secondly, the ending is too ambivalent to interpret it from an exclusively feminist perspective. Nevertheless, Showalter is certainly correct in asserting that "Chopin went boldly beyond the work of her precursors in writing about women's longing for sexual and personal emancipation"(1993: 170); contempo­rary reviews and the reception history as a whole supply sufficient evidence of this as well as of the thesis that "Chopin calls into question the ideologies and assumptions about women's place articulated by leading thinkers of her time" (Bauer/ Lakritz 1988: 47). But the text is neither a tract nor a pamphlet; it is an aesthetically composed novel which works quite differ­ently due to its fictional status. This paper tries to clarify the complex set of ideas and tech­niques that operate on the fictional level and is, moreover, designed to show their social and cultural relevance in the context of Kate Chopin's epoch while taking into account several approaches to the text.

2. Chopin's description and utilization of adultery

The act of adultery per se is not a prominent feature in the text in that it is an outward mani­festation of the protagonist's development and resistance rather than a crucial element of the plot. Surprisingly, Edna commits it with Alcée Arobin, not with Robert Lebrun, which indi­cates that she is not so much concerned with love; rather, she experiences "jenen Prozeß sen­suellen und sexuellen Erwachens [...], der in Chopins Werk mit dem Begriff awakening umfaßt ist" (Fluck 1992: 347). The two decisive passages in the novel are the end of chapter XXVII, where Edna is kissed by Arobin, and especially the end of chapter XXXI:"He did not answer, except to continue to caress her. He did not say good night until she had become supple to his gentle, seductive entreaties" (88). This is quite an implicit manner of depicting adultery, at least from a modern reader's perspective, but the essential point lies in chapter XXVIII: Edna is torn between contradictory emotions, but "there was neither shame nor re­morse" (80). In fact, her regret is caused by the lack of love in her affair with Arobin rather than by a feeling of guilt towards her husband and children. Unconsciously, Edna may also well be aware that "adultery leads to passions and desires not stilled by one adulterous inter­lude" (Weir 1990: 211), though it is equally plausible to claim that it was Edna's passions and desires that triggered the adulterous act in the first place.

Robert Lebrun, who is contrasted with Arobin, acts very differently. His escapism, evident in the absurdly precipitate business trip to Mexico, leaves Edna in Arobin's hands as soon as her husband has gone. Even after Robert's return and the lovers' accidental meeting in Mademoi­selle Reisz's apartment, he eventually adheres to the social code and leaves Edna because she is married and therefore inaccessible. In his conventional behaviour, he ironically resembles Léonce Pontellier.

These observations allow for the conclusion that Edna's adultery is not as central as it might seem at the outset; the restrictive and conventional New Orleans society does not apply any sanctions or restrictive measures whatsoever, and the protagonist herself does not assess her transgression as particularly immoral. Instead, she exhibits the impulsive behaviour of an im­patient child:"Once she stopped, and taking off her wedding ring, flung it upon the carpet. When she saw it lying there, she stamped her heel upon it, striving to crush it. But her small boot heel did not make an indenture, not a mark upon the little glittering circlet" (50-51). This highly symbolic scene expresses the meaning of Edna's demeanour, which consists in an at­tempt at annulling her marriage contract with Léonce and at freeing herself from her status as a piece of his and her children's property in order to become herself. Thus, she succumbs to despair when she realizes that adultery is not an effective method with regard to this:"To-day it is Arobin; to-morrow it will be some one else. It makes no difference to me" (108).

Chopin uses adultery as a medium of presenting the protagonist's tentative steps towards indi­viduality rather than as a means of questioning the structure and rules of society in general. Edna's indifference to the political and institutional discrimination against women as well as society's indifference to - by then valid standards - inexcusable escapades point to a personal, not to a social level of cultural exploration that is meant to test the boundaries of what was and what was not possible for a woman among the comparatively liberal Creoles by the end of the nineteenth century. The Awakening is neither primarily a novel of adultery nor merely a fe­minist text; if any genre label is appropriate, then it is Rosowski's (cf. footnote 1) admittedly vague concept. As to the importance of adultery, it is outweighed by Edna's decisions to go out on reception day and to move to her pigeon house without asking her husband's permis­sion beforehand. It is her increasingly spontaneous and unpredictable behaviour which irritates Mr Pontellier, even if Dr. Mandelet worries seriously whether she does have an affair with Arobin. Neither of them intends to discipline Edna although her father suggests just that. The circumstances of the act itself are uncommon enough, as Edna's husband and children are away and she feels free to dispose over her time and their house as she wishes; moreover, Chopin emphasizes the Creole's husband's disinclination towards jealousy; all of these factors diminish, as it were, the transgressive quality of Edna's adultery and explain why nobody ex­cept Dr. Mandelet is really curious, let alone scandalized.

3. The marriage contract and its sociocultural impact in the novel

Strictly speaking, Edna has never entered into a genuine contract with her husband. Her very marriage originally served as a protest against her family, Kentucky Presbyterians whose narrow-mindedness and rigour are personified in her father. After having strived for a passionate relationship as it is indicated by her former attraction to the cavalry officer, the young gentle­man and the tragedian, she met her husband:"Her marriage to Léonce Pontellier was purely an accident" (18) the narrator laconically comments, at the same time stressing that she left the "realm of romance and dreams" (19) forever. Mr Pontellier, on the other hand, regards their matrimony as being based neither on mutual love nor on passion, but on a quasi-commercial contract that entitles him to treat Edna as one of his material possessions,[3] "looking at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of property which has suffered some damage" (4).[4]

Remarkably, he is not a rude husband who insists on his 'rights' to his property; he even con­sults a doctor rather than trying to coerce Edna, which is what her father recommends. Thus, the contract between the two is based on inequality and, more fundamentally, on misunder­standing. Not only does Léonce dominate, as can be expected in a patriarchal structure, but he also wants Edna to face the reality of bringing up children and of fulfilling social duties, whereas she keeps entertaining her romantically idealized childhood notions. The opposition here is one between social and economic agreement on the one hand and romance and passion on the other.

Unfortunately, the protagonist "fancied there was a sympathy of thought and taste between them, in which fancy she was mistaken" (18). These diametrically opposed concepts of marital union lead to conflicts which are enhanced by the fact that Edna, being a woman in a male-do­minated culture, has considerable difficulty finding adequate means of articulating herself and of acting accordingly.[5] Paradoxically, her marriage, which was originally meant to be an act of rebellion, induces her to rebel against it, in turn. The reason is that Edna cannot live up to her illusion that she will turn into a respectable matron after the wedding:"in short, Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother-woman" (9). It is exactly the link between the roles of wife and mother in the marriage contract which constitutes a grave problem for her, as can be seen in her hus­band's continual (if not always unjustified) reproaches that she does not take sufficient care of the children. Her volatile behaviour, hugging them at one moment and neglecting them at the next, is a point in case; she is glad not just about Léonce's absence, but also about theirs. The estrangement is revealed in Edna's response to Mme. Ratignolle's critical comment on Mr. Pontellier going to his club: "What should I do if he stayed home? We wouldn't have anything to say to each other" (66).


[1] Rosowski (1988: 33) suggests that Chopin's text belongs to the genre of the "novel of awakening" as opposed to the bjldungsroman.

[2] Cf. Hester Prynne's fate in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter.

[3] Indeed, the legal position of a married woman at the time confirms this view.

[4] Cf. Gilmore's idea:"Edna's revolt against the family also constitutes a threat to proper­ty. This is so because women have been customarily thought of as belonging to men" (1988: 62).

[5] Fluck describes this as "Suche nach Möglichkeiten einer Artikulation von Wünschen, die eigentlich unaussprechbar scheinen und lediglich kurzfristig an den Schnittstellen sozialer Interaktion [. . . ] andeutungsweise aufscheinen" (1997: 333). Showalter, by contrast, analyses it as "conflicts between love and work" (1993: 174), where work refers to Edna's artistic ambitions, which collide with her maternal obligations. Fluck's approach seems more convincing because it focusses on central aspects of the text whereas Showalter exaggerates the importance of the protagonist's artistic work.

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The function of adultery, contract and female identity in Kate Chopin's 'The Awakening'
University of Cologne
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Dr. Martin Holz (Author), 1999, The function of adultery, contract and female identity in Kate Chopin's 'The Awakening', Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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