"The Awakening" by Kate Chopin - Edna Pontellier, a woman fated to die

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2007

21 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Edna Pontellier, a woman fated to die

In the following paper I will subject the character of Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin´s The Awakening to a critical analysis. Edna Pontellier`s death at the end of the novel is not the essential sense. Since the society of her time cannot allow such an “awakening” of individuality to take place, Edna is fated to die. Therefore death is a forgone conclusion. Given that Kate Chopin tried to paint the picture of a truly liberated, independent, and individual woman, she cannot let Edna go back to her conventional life, which would be the only alternative. Following the biography of Kate Chopin closely, the reader discovers many parrallels between Kate Chopin`s life and the character of Edna Pontellier. The novel does not, as some critics of Kate Chopin`s time have claimed, lack “authorial comment and judgement“.[1] Kate Chopin`s novel was meant as a judgement of the Creole society of her time. Therefore it is important to examine the characters and the events that are crucial for the development that leads to the tragic end of Edna Pontellier. Starting with her husband, Léonce Pontellier, whom she does not love, I will discuss in what way the main characters Adèle Ratignolle, Mademoiselle Reisz, Alcée Arobin and Robert Lebrun are responsible for Edna´s “awakening”.

The novel can be divided into two sections – the summer at Grand Isle and autuum or winter in New Orleans, in the house in Esplanade Street and later the pigoen house. It containts elements from different genres such as Bildungsroman (novel of formation or education) concerning Edna`s developments, struggles, and the recognition of her identity and her role as woman in society; such as Künstlerroman (artist-novel) concerning Edna`s rediscovery and mastery of her painting talent; and elements of local color given the fact that Kate Chopin lived in Creole society and wanted to present it as accurately as possible. The use of French vocabulary like “peignoir[2] and “´ Blagueur – farceur –gros bête, va!`” (Chopin 11), the way the Creoles talk to each other is a major motif. Moreover are common beauty standars established through the descriptions of Adèle Ratignolle or Léonce`s criticism of Edna being “burnt beyond recognition” (Chopin 2). White, pale skin was chic - sun teint was a sign of lower class. The classic Creole woman was white, dark-haired, plump, and beautiful. She had fine hands because she did not work physically but ran her household by giving orders to the servants.

The action spans over a period of nine month – like a pregnancy – this is either a coincidence or a metaphor for Edna seeking rebirth in her suicide following her awakenings. Edna awakens in many different ways - emotionally (she falls in love with Robert), artistically (she rediscovers her painting talent and uses it to grow financially independent), physically (she learns to swim and discovers her own body), and sexually (she sleeps with Alcée Arobin for pure pleasure). Kate Chopin allows Edna to more and more defy the role the male-dominated society forces upon her without any judgement or criticism. “There was with her a feeling of having descended the social scale, with a corresponding sense of having risen in the spiritual. Every step which she took toward relieving herself from obligations added to her strength and expansion as an individual.” (Chopin 94)

Critics in secondary literature can be seperated into two major groups reading Edna`s suicide either as a representation of failure or as the final act of liberation. The key question is whether Edna Pontellier is responsible for her life and her suicide? Realism had a major concept for an individual who failed in society - the individual was expected to deliberately take the role confined by society, which was the source of value. This attitude may be the reason why Kate Chopin was, as a result of the bad reception of her novel, no longer a part of society. The criticism was not that harsh because Edna Pontellier is having sex out of marriage - that was an old theme - but that Kate Chopin did not condem her for that. The narrator in the novel clearly sympathizes with the character of Edna Pontellier. As a result, the novel was seen as leading to immorality. Furthermore did Kate Chopin`s and equally Edna Pontellier`s refusal to live and act as male-dominated society expected them to and their wish to produce something meaningful disturb and provoke the conservative public back in 1899. As a consequence The Awakening was long forgotten and not on the American canon. In the 1970s women`s activists rediscovered the novel. Nowadays the novel is on the canon and very popular (among feminist critics) because of Edna`s search for identity and liberation and because the character of Adèle Ratignolle is considered the literary embodiment of the cliché of the Angel in the House.

To unterstand the anti-social message of the novel it is necessary to look at Kate Chopin`s life and her other works. Kate Chopin was a feminist, or at the very least she was not an advocate of her society. Janet Beer quotes Elaine Showalter who published an article in The Times Literary Supplement in June 1995; “Women writers in the 1890s found the short story a suitable form for the new feminist themes of the decade; the exploration of female sexuality and fantasy, the development of a woman`s language, and the critique of male aesthetisicsm.”[3] Janet Beer adds that, “These claims are exemplified in the careers of Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton and Charlotte Perkins Gilman.”[4] Not only did she write feminist literature, she also lived after her own rules. “She grew physically and intellectually away from the narrow certainities of her Catholic, Confederate childhood into a free-thinking, radical and courageous woman.”[5] The critics of her time reprimanded her for writing The Awakening. They did so because of ist sexual content and Edna Pontellier´s “unjustifable conduct.”[6] These critics however missed her message. By discarding the novel as “sex fiction”[7], they missed its social critique, though it should have been evident through a comparison of her works, such as the topic related short stories At the Acadian Ball, The Storm, and The Story of an Hour.

“Marriage puts women at risk because it is seen as the end, the completion of the woman, not something which has to be lived or endured. All of Chopin`s unhappily married women are in revolt against endings, against the ideal of them as finished or completed in the act of marriage. Her stories are full of women who have been misunderstood or misread as entirely known therefore closed.”[8]

This is also refelcted in her own life. “In New Orleans she had already defied a number of conventions without any complaint from the agreeable Oscar: she smoked, she walked about the city alone, explored the area by streetcar.”[9] Following her awakenings and her growing independence from Léonce and society, Edna will adopt some aspects of this “unwomanly” (Chopin 106) behaviour. Though she had a very tolerant husband, she only truly started to live after Oscar Chopin`s death in 1882. Until then she did not have the opportunity to write, giving birth to a child almost every other year. Though she was already an individualist before she got married to Oscar Chopin, marriage confined Kate Chopin within the rules of society, which she only evaded after his death. During her married life, however, she managed to make notes of the stories she picked up in the salons or the gossip of the street. Those she often used later in her short stories and in The Awakening. Most characters encountered in the novel are indeed true-life people wo shared many characteristics or similar stories with the protagonists. Edna Pontellier, for instance is probably inspired by Edma Pontillon, a woman who gave up her art, to become one of her husbands possessions. “Her life was one of sadness and unfulfillment.”[10] Similar is the case of Léonce Olivier whose wife left him for another man. It is therefore important to keep the link to reality in mind during the discussion of the novel and why a biographical approach to the novel is both necessary and justified. Not only do many protagonists reflect real pople, but the overall society of Kate Chopin`s time is also mirrored.

Edna Pontellier is in her late twenties and has been married to Léonce Pontellier for six years. On the surface she is the obedient wife, having given birth to two sons. But on the inside she is neither a “mother-woman”(Chopin 8), nor the embodiment of the ideal Creole woman like her friend Adèle Ratignolle. Even as a child she "had apprehended instinctively the dual life - that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions." (Chopin 13) Edna did marry Léonce Pontellier because she does not love him and entered adulthood through marriage. "[...] she felt she would take her place with a certain dignity in the world of reality, closing the portals forever behind her upon the realm of romance and dreams." (Chopin 18)

The major conflict in the novel is between Edna Pontellier and Creole society. Edna does not always understand the social codes of Creole society - the way men and women treat each other. “Mrs. Pontellier, though she had married a Creole, was not thoroughly at home in the society of Creoles [...] They all knew each other, and felt like one large family, among whom existed the most amicable relations” (Chopin 9). She is a Presbyterian while everybody around her is Roman Catholic. Next to the religious difference, Edna does not speak the French language very well. Creoles were descendants of former French or Spanish settlers; so they would speak French with each other and English with Edna - but Edna, however, does understand French when she is directly spoken to. The absence of prudery in the conversations was “incomprehensible” (Chopin 9) to Edna who was “growing accustomed to little shocks” (Chopin 9). Adèle summarizes the contrast between Edna and Creole society during her conversation with Robert Lebrun: "She is not one of us; she is not like us." (Chopin 19) When Edna wants to visit Mademoiselle Reisz and realizes that she does not know where in New Orleans the old woman lives, she stops by the Lebrun estate to ask for Mademoiselle Reisz`s adress. But “Edna did not wish to enter” (Chopin 60) neither the Lebrun house nor society – since she has changed dramatically and decided to “never take another step backward” (Chopin 57).

Léonce Pontellier, Edna´s husband, is an important character in the novel. He is a business men, who eventually sells cotton and only spends the Sundays at Grand Isle. The rest of the week he spends in New Orleans pursuing his business affairs. He represents the ´financial` love and materiell security in Edna Pontellier`s life. “She liked money as well as most women, and accepted it with no little satisfaction” (Chopin 7). He usually sends her luxurious presents to Grand Isle which is mistaken by the other women as romantic gesture. “[...] all declared that Mr. Pontellier was the best husband in the world. Mrs. Pontellier was forced to admit that she knew of none better.” (Chopin 7). Léonce is the embodiment of the patriarchal society. His social status as patriarch is established at the very beginning, "Mr. Pontellier had the privilege of quitting their society [the birds of Madame Lebrun] when they ceased to be entertaining" (Chopin 1). The narrator clearly sympathizes with Edna, ridiculing Léonce`s conventional attitude from time to time with the help of irony, "He thought it very discouraging of his wife, who was the sole object of his existence, evinced so little interest in things which concerned him, and valued so little his conversation" (Chopin 5). In his position as patriarch Léonce considers Edna as “a valuable piece of property” (Chopin 2) who has to represent his status. Through his behaviour he initiates the “mood” (Chopin 6), which predicts Edna Pontellier`s ´awakening`. In the progression of the novel it becomes clear that neither wife nor husband loves the other. “Her marriage to Léonce Pontellier was purely an accident.”[11] The violent opposition of her father and her sister Margaret “to her marriage with a Catholic” (Chopin 18) might have been the deciding factor. It is very obvious that Léonce is a man who needs and follows conventions. He does not, for instance, play with his sons, Etienne and Raoul. Robert Lebrun, his wife`s socially accepted summer flirt, does that. For Léonce his children seem to be yet another status symbol or social convention, but still “he loved them very much” (Chopin 5). This reflects the false dichotomy Victorian society set up between working and raising children – children belonged to the “women`s sphere”[12]. As patriarch he repeatedly reminds Edna of her social duties and her responsibility to her children. “He reproached his wife with her inattention, her habitual neglect of the children” (Chopin 5).

And therein lies one of the most easily misunderstood problems of the novel. In the progression of her ´awakening` Edna Pontellier rejects more and more her social duties.

Starting with the cancellation of “reception day” (Chopin 50), she neglects her social position increasingly until at the end she finally resigns her position as mother and wife. Reception day was a social ritual - women visited each other and left their card behind. The following week, the other woman had to attend their reception day. Léonce works with the husbands of those women; so Edna`s social status influences his business. After six years of marriage, Edna breaks with the convention. She is not at home on reception day. Léonce has no sympathy for Edna cutting a caper and evidently he does not want his social position compromised by his own wife.

"Why, my dear, I should think you`d understand by this time that people don`t do such things; we`ve got to observe les convenances if we ever expect to get on and keep up with the progression. [...] I`m not making any fuss over it. But it`s just such seeming trifles that we`ve got to take seriously; such things count." (Chopin 51)

Léonce Pontellier at one point even takes recourse to a physician, as he is persuaded that Edna is sick and growing mentally unbalanced, “she dosen`t act well. She`s odd, she`s not like herself.” (Chopin 65) Léonce Potenllier`s reaction is very conventional. Back then middle-class women, who did not represent the image of the obedient and faithful wife, were considered to suffer from hysteria. It was seen as a woman`s failure if she did not take on the role, which was confined by society During the conversation with Léonce Pontellier and Doctor Mandelet the reader discovers that Léonce is not a bad man, but a man very engaged in traditions.

“Her whole attitude - toward me and everybody and everything - has changed. You know I have a quick temper, but I don`t want to quarrel or be rude to a woman, especially my wife; yet I`m driven to it, and feel like ten thousand devils after I`ve made a foul of myself. She is making it devilshly unconfortable for me” (Chopin 65).

Moreover, there is a hint of the abscence of sexual intercourse between the married couple. “She`s got some sort of notion in her head concerning the eternal rights of women; and – you understand – we meet in the morning at the breakfast table” (Chopin 65). In the 1890s there were massive expansions of educational opportunites available to women. As a result the male-dominated society feared that the ideal of family and traditional values would be undermined. Dr. Mandelet asks Léonce if Edna “has been associating of late with a circle of pseudo-intellectual women – super-spiritual superior beings?” (Chopin 66). Women were not considered complex in intellectual terms “Of course, he couldn`t think of telling Mrs. Pontellier all about it, she being a woman and not comprehending such things” (Chopin 60) that is why Léonce seeks male advice rather than asking Adèle Ratignolle or another woman for any suggestion. Kate Chopin repeatedly uses the major male characters like Léonce Ponteller or the Colonel to unmask the hypocrisy, ignorance and arrogance of society. Near the end of the novel, Edna observes “we women learn so little of life on the whole.” (Chopin 106)

When Edna`s father, the Colonel, comes to New Orleans to prepare for the marriage of his youngest daughter Janet, he is not pleased with Edna`s behaviour and Léonce`s reaction against it. “You are too lenient, too lenient by far, Léonce. […] Authority, coercion are what is needed. Put your food down good and hard; the only way to manage a wife. Take my word for it” (Chopin 71). The Colonel is a very old-fashioned man who would never allow a woman to forget about her social status and her duty to represent him in society. He is the voice of a conservative society, ridiculed ironically by Kate Chopin . “The Colonel was unaware that he had coerced his own wife into her grave” (Chopin 71). The character of the Colonel in direct comparison to Léonce shows that Léonce is not a bad man – he would not use physical violence to force his wife back into her place in society.

Since divorce was impossible for Roman Catholics, Edna could only escape her unsatisfying marriage abandoning her family and being an outsider to society. Kate Chopin wrote the novel At Fault about this problem. The state of Louisiana was not very progressive and lacked any acceptence for the early women`s movements. “Under the Louisiana Code, patterned after the Napoleonic Code of France, a woman belonged to her husband. [...] [it] equated married women with babies and the mentally ill, all three were deemed incompetent to make a contract.”[13] Edna Pontellier rejects more and more the control her husbands exerts over her life, going so far as to move out in his abscence. Léonce “begged her to consider first, foremost, ad above all else, what people would say. [...] It might do incalculable mischief to his business prosepects.” (Chopin 93) To save “appearances” (Chopin 94) and probably to avoid any social consequences for himself, Léonce spreads the news of spending a summer abroad and having the house in Esplanade Street rebuilt. Even at the end Edna is still fond of him, though she can no longer accept his authority. Edna Pontellier grows more and more independent. She makes money at horse races; she finds somebody who buys her paintings; and she has a small inherence from her mother. Her (financial) independence marks the major break with the male-dominated society. By moving away from her husband, leaving the house looking “broken and half torn asunder” (Chopin 99), like her marriage and depriving herself of patriarchal dominance, Edna Pontellier truly refuses to accept the bonds of society. “Edna felt as if she were being borne away from some anchorage which had held her fast, whose chains had been loosening – had snapped the night before when the mystic spirit was abroad, leaving her free to drift withersoever she chose to set her sail.” (Chopin 34). Somewhat later in the novel in the church of Chêniere Caminada “a feeling of oppresion and drowsiness overcame Edna during the service.” (Chopin 35). As no place can reflect the Victorian attitude of the USA in the 1890s like a church, it becomes clear that the oppression Edna feels symbolizes the society`s hold on her. Edna is being suffocated by male-dominated society; the church being a male-dominated institution, promoting conventions, morals, and conservatism. Feminists brought up the "gendered space" theory in their discussion of the novel. "Porches, pianos, mothers and children, skirts and sunshades - all these are the props and properties of domesticity, the key element of what in the nineteenth century was called ´women`s sphere`."[14] The porch is the place Edna where Edna disobeys her husband for the first time, refusing to go back into the ´male sphere` - which would be her husband`s house.


[1] Janet Beer, Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Studies in Short Fiction. MacMillan Press LTD, 1997, 66

[2] Kate Chopin, The Awakening, ed. Phillip Smith, 1899. New York, Dover, 1993, pg. 6 All references are to this edition.

[3] Beer 2

[4] Beer 63

[5] Beer 63

[6] Emily Toth, Unveiling Kate Chopin. University Press Mississippi, Jackson, 1999. Pg. 222

[7] Toth 222

[8] Beer 44-45

[9] Howard, Jane Bail, “On Kate Chopin A Woman Far Ahead of Her Time.

[10] Toth 74

[12] Wyatt Neill, “Historical and Cultural Background of The Awakening”. 1995

[13] Wyatt Neill, “Historical and Cultural Background of The Awakening”. 1995

[14] Wyatt Neill, “Historical and Cultural Background of The Awakening”. 1995

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"The Awakening" by Kate Chopin - Edna Pontellier, a woman fated to die
Humboldt-University of Berlin  (Institut für Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
"Death and Sexuality in Early American Narratives"
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Awakening, Kate, Chopin, Edna, Pontellier
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Claudia Dewitz (Author), 2007, "The Awakening" by Kate Chopin - Edna Pontellier, a woman fated to die , Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/161697


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