2. Women’s role at the end of 19th century
3. Edna’s life
3.1. Relationship between Edna and Leónce
3.2. American Women among Creoles
3.3. Change to a new life
4. Friends and Possibilities
5. Edna Pontellier and Kate Chopin
Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening”, which is today seen as an “important early feminist text”, [hungry minds], was published for the very first time in 1899. Many readers, mostly men “who wished women would remain at home” [book: criticism], were shocked how Chopin, who was seen as a “regional writer” [book: criticism], could publish such a rebellious novel. Since female writers were supposed to “stick with ladylike subjects” [book: criticism] Edna’s story was not desirable, and men did not want to let women get any revolutionized ideas about ‘New Woman fantasies’.
The scandal about ‘The Awakening’ spoiled its chance to become popular at first and so it did not come to public attention till the 1960s, when feminist movements took place.
Today it belongs to the canon of important American Literature.
The novel ‘The Awakening’ contains the story about a respectable woman of the late 1800s. Between the centuries Edna Pontellier is trapped in New Orleans’ upper-class, the Creole society, with its old fashioned thinking. On the contrary, she is already having new society ideas – the ideas of a New Century’s Woman. During her summer stay at Grand Isles she collects a lot of new experiences and gets to know some new friends, for example Robert, with whom she falls in love with.
Those months on Grand Isle and the given circumstances back in town, provoke her to think about her life, which consists of being a mother-wife without an own identity and without any rights. Soon she finds herself dissatisfied. Faced with the issues of self-hood, gender-roles and the lack of independence she discovers her own desires.
Edna does not “want anything but (her) own way” [book: p.5] any longer and cannot hold back her needs and wishes for music, art, independence, freedom, and sexual satisfaction as well. Consequently, she chooses freedom instead of slavery, starts to change her life, and breaks out of society’s expectations.
“How to free oneself but still be meaningfully connected to others” [book: p.222] and how not to, is presented several times during the story and Edna has to realize that living a New Woman’s life is harder than expected, especially when one has the dream of a fairytale love and a life in freedom.
The question is, if Edna has managed to live this new life before she drowns herself. Was the ‘Solitary Soul’, which is the origin title, able to change her life to a better? And what possibilities did she have?
Who is Edna and what makes her so different to the other women so that she has to break out of her former life? Why and how does she change and had she had other opportunities?
In this paper will answer those and other questions.
Women’s role at the end of 19th century
Until some day in the middle of the 20th century women played a subordinated role in society. Already in the middle age male children were preferred over female children. Furthermore, the bible tells the story about Adam and Eve, where Eve was made out of Adam’s rib. She destroyed the paradise and therefore is portrayed as the bad one. Later in the 4th century St. Jerome stated: “A Woman is the gate of devil” and T. Aquinas added that “women were created to be men’s helper” in the 13th century. “It was Pandora who opened the forbidden box” [encyclopedia] and only men were around Jesus while the only woman was a prostitute.
The opinion of women being not as much worth as men remained in society and was still omnipresent when Edna’ story took place. By the 1890’s the women question had become a matter of public discussion. So far, the woman’s place was at home, where they were supposed to take care of the children, to receive guests courteously, and to represent their family. This was part of the separated spheres rule, which married couples usually had. This means that women had to take care of the family and men had to earn the money. On the one hand this gave wives at least little power within the family, but on the other hand this caused, that especially upper-class women like Edna felt watched by society all the time. Since women were associated with their home, they were expected to be good looking, cultivated and cheerful as well. They also were expected to “receive visitors at whatever time they may call or whoever they may be” [Festival of Life: p.26].
Because married flirts were regarded as being dangerous, young married women were not supposed to be out in public alone with other gentlemen but her husband. Furthermore, women had to take care of not leaving their husband “spending the evening alone” [Festival of Life: p.26]. A wife had to “subordinate her interests and preferences to those of her husband” [Festival of Life: p.6]. Beyond the shadow of a doubt, sex was “for men to enjoy, for women to endure” [Festival of Life: p.7] as well, which means women were to “be married off or if left solitary remain virginal” [hungry minds: intro]; having sex with others after already being married, like Edna, was prohibited by law. The only right women had, was the right to love and the right to be loved. Women and children were owned by men as they owned material possessions.
Single women did not have many rights, either. They stood under their father’s control until leaving home, and as soon as they got married, they came under their husband’s control. To elaborate, for a woman this meant to give up her name, her independence and all her property. What followed were children, which lead women even more under their husband’s control and usually made them completely dependent on them. “There are plenty of women who never draw a single breath of freedom after their first child is born.” [Festival of life: p.149]
Edna grew up on a farm in Kentucky which means that she is, in contrast to all of her Creole friends, a real American woman. Her father, the Colonel, used to be a Confederate, an officer in the civil war. He, as a strict Protestant, probably had clear rules in education. In his opinion, husbands should manage their wives with authority. As Edna tells her friend Madame Ratignolle in chapter VII, her “history of rebellion” [hungry minds: characters] already started in her childhood, when she ran away, diagonally across the field, to escape her father’s Presbyterian prayer services.
Since women were expected to marry and raise family, Edna did so and married Léonce Pontellier. However, Edna describes this as “purely an accident” [book: p.18], but she admits that the knowledge of her sister and father being upset about her as a Presbyterian marrying a Catholic, lead her to this marriage. Therefore, marrying Léonce happened less because of passion but more because of her family’s “violent opposite” [book p.18] to this marriage. Edna’s passion instead belonged to a dead man whose picture “stood enframed upon her desk” [book: p.18], and which she kissed from time to time. Also her passion belonged to several unreachable men she met during her teenager time. All this reflects her weakness for melodrama, which is shown in her later affairs with Robert and Arobin, as well. Edna dreams her life in a way that keeps her from becoming happy in real life. Like a child she dreams of “paddling (...) away with her love one night in a pirogue and never (to come) back” [book: p.67], neither realizing any goodness, nor seeing any joyfulness in her life or accepting her given life. Her relationship to her husband has never been the best and also her children are no gift in Edna’s opinion. Additionally, she soon figures out how much she differs from the Creoles. Edna thinks she needs a change to become happy, but during her whole life Edna longs for a life that can’t be reached. Consequently, as she figures out that her dreams will never come true, she has to end her life.