Edna Pontellier’s gradual awakening
by means of learning different “languages”
Edna Pontellier, the protagonist of Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening finds herself dissatisfied with her marriage and the limited, conservative lifestyle that it allows. The people Edna meets and the experiences she has on Grand Isle awaken desires and urges for music, sexual satisfaction, art, and freedom that she can no longer bear to keep hidden. Like a child, Edna begins to see the world around her with a fresh perspective, forgetting the behavior expected of her and ignoring the effects of her unconventional actions. She emerges from a state of devoted wife and mother to a state of total awareness in which she discovers her own identity and acts on her desires for emotional and sexual satisfaction. During her gradual awakening, Edna learns at least three new "languages" and modes of expressing herself that lead to the revelation of her long-repressed emotions. These new languages will be further dealt with in the course of this paper.
At the beginning of the novel, Edna exists in a sort of semi-conscious state. She is comfortable in her marriage to Léonce and unaware of her own feelings and ambitions. Edna has always been a romantic, enamored with a cavalry officer at a very young age, in love with a man visiting a neighboring plantation in her teens, and infatuated with a tragedian as a young woman. But she saw her marriage to Léonce as the end to her life of passion and the beginning of a life of responsibility. Although she expected her dreams of romance to disappear along with her youth, her fantasies and yearnings only remain latent, re-emerging on Grand Isle in the form of her passion for Robert Lebrun. “She awakens from the romantic dreams of girlhood first to find herself a married woman and then to find that the meaning of marriage is very different from what she had supposed” (Gilbert 358).
Edna Pontellier is a respectable woman of the late 1800s who not only acknowledges her sexual desires, but also has the strength and courage to act on them. Breaking through the role appointed to her by society, she discovers her own identity. Through a series of experiences, or "awakenings," Edna becomes a shockingly independent woman, who lives apart from her husband and children and is responsible only to her own urges and passions. Tragically, Edna's awakenings isolate her from others and ultimately lead her to a state of total solitude. The major conflict is that once Edna embarks upon her quest for independence and self-fulfillment, she finds herself at odds with the expectations and conventions of society, which requires a married woman to subvert her own needs to those of her husband and children. “The forms of value in which Edna exchanges herself are the duties and functions of the woman and wife: female sexual service, motherhood, and the performance of wifely domestic/ social amenities” (Stange 32). In her aspiration to self-ownership Edna claims that she will “never again belong to another than herself” and to give herself where she chooses.
Kate Chopin’s second and final novel The Awakening was written between 1897 and 1899 while Chopin was living in St. Louis. The novel is set in 1899, at a time when the Industrial Revolution and the feminist movement were beginning to emerge yet were still overshadowed by the prevailing attitudes of the nineteenth century. The Awakening was first published in 1899 at the height of Chopin's popularity. Ironically, this work, now regarded as a classic, essentially marked the end of Chopin's writing career. The reading public was shocked by her sympathetic view toward the actions and emotions of the sexually aware and independent female protagonist. The feminist movement, just beginning to emerge in other parts of America, was almost entirely absent in the conservative state of Louisiana. In fact, under Louisiana law, a woman was still considered the property of her husband. Chopin's novel was scorned and ostracized for its open discussion of the emotional and sexual needs of women.
Lynda S. Boren sees Edna as “a woman caught between centuries [...], struggling to be modern [but] held back by outmoded notions of romantic love and fulfillment” (189). For Edna, independence and solitude are almost inseparable. The expectations of tradition coupled with the limitations of law gave women of the late 1800s very few opportunities for individual expression, not to mention independence. Expected to perform their domestic duties and care for the health and happiness of their families, Victorian women were prevented from seeking the satisfaction of their own wants and needs. Cynthia Griffin Wolff observes that after about 1850, the notion of a “woman’s sexual awakening” became, by definition, an impossibility because the medical establishment in America became to promulgate the view that normal females possessed no erotic inclinations at all. It was deemed scandalous for a woman to indulge in passionately sexual conduct as females were allowed access to sexuality only as a subsidiary component of their desire for children (377-383).
Victorian values are omnipresent in the novel. The Colonel, Edna’s father, is a strict Protestant and believes that husbands should manage their wives with authority and coercion. The lady in black embodies the patient, resigned solitude that convention expects of a woman whose husband has died. However, her solitude does not speak to any sort of independence or strength; it rather owes to a self-effacing withdrawal from life and passion out of utter respect for her husband's death. Throughout the novel, the lady in black remains silent, which contributes to her lack of individuality and to her role within the text as the symbol of the socially acceptable husbandless woman. The two lovers represent the form of young love accepted by society. Always appearing in conjunction with the lady in black, the lovers represent the stage of a woman's life that precedes her maternal duties. The Farival twins represent the destiny of adolescent Victorian girls: chaste motherhood. Having been dedicated to the Virgin Mary at birth, they wear her colors at all times. Moreover, they embody society's expectations of the way women should use art – as a way of making themselves more delightful to others, rather than as a means of self-expression.
In The Awakening, Chopin renders these cultural regulations of women’s role in ways that are designed to demonstrate their potentially lethal consequences, for in Edna’s case, the already vexed situation is brought to crisis by a superadded disjunction: a conflict of “religions” and “cultures” (Wolff 383).
Initially, Edna experiences her independence as no more than an emotion. When she swims for the first time at Grand Isle, she discovers her own strength. For in swimming away from the beach where her prosaic husband watches and waits, Edna swims away from the shore of her old life, where she had lingered for twenty-eight years, hesitant and ambivalent (Gilbert 360). Through her pursuit of her painting Edna is reminded of the pleasure of individual creation. Yet when Edna begins to verbalize her feelings of independence, she soon meets resistance from the constraints—most notably, her husband—that weigh on her active life. And, when she makes the decision to abandon her former lifestyle, Edna realizes that independent ideas cannot always translate into a simultaneously self-sufficient and socially-acceptable existence.
According to Patricia S. Yaeger, The Awakening ’s most radical awareness is the fact that “Edna inhabits a world of limited linguistic possibilities, of limited possibilities for interpreting and reorganizing her feelings, and therefore of limited possibilities for action” (435). The very first image in the novel already alludes to language and the difficulties that language and the mode of expression in general might bring along. The story begins with the comical curse of the caged parrot who also spoke “a language which nobody understood”. The bird prefigures “both Edna’s restlessness and her irony, her awakening desire for freedom and her sardonic sense that freedom may ultimately be meaningless, her yearning for solitude and her skeptical worries about loneliness (Gilbert 358).
However, during her gradual awakening, Edna learns at least three new "languages". First, she learns the mode of expression of the Creole women on Grand Isle. Then, she also learns to express herself through art. And from Robert and Alcée, Edna learns how to express the love and passion she has kept secret for so long. Edna's discovery of ways to express herself leads to the revelation of her long-repressed emotions.
Through her relationship with Adèle Ratignolle, Edna learns a great deal about freedom of expression. Because Creole women were expected and assumed to be chaste, they could behave in a forthright and unreserved manner. Exposure to such openness liberates Edna from her previously prudish behavior and repressed emotions and desires. Edna learns that she can face her emotions and sexuality directly, without fear. Once her Creole friends show her that it is okay to speak and think about one's own feelings, Edna begins to acknowledge, name, define, and articulate her emotions.
Adèle is the Victorian feminine ideal. She is a devoted wife and mother and therefore the epitome of nineteenth-century womanhood. Adèle spends her days caring for her children, performing her domestic duties, and ensuring the happiness of her husband. She had been married seven years and had a baby about every two years. Her sexuality is defined by motherhood. Edna, on the other hand refuses to define her sexuality in terms of their children although she loves them and is happy to be a mother (Stange 28-29).
- Quote paper
- Anonymous, 2002, Kate Chopin - Edna Pontellier’s gradual awakening by means of learning different 'languages', Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/23484