Albert-Ludwigs Universität Freiburg
Survey of British and American Literature
Kate Chopin’s The Awakening is a masterpiece of feminist philosophy. It tells the story of Edna Pontellier, a wife and mother who realizes that her society does not allow her the possibility to be an autonomous individual human being. The play is set in the late nineteenth century. At that time, women were regarded as the possessions of their husbands and their main function was to give birth to children. In the course of the novel, Edna Pontellier undergoes a series of awakenings: she realizes she is not in love with her husband, discovers a sense of “self” and begins to “realize her position in the universe as a human being.” She discovers love and her long dormant sexuality and passions reawaken. When she thinks she has finally achieved independence and freed herself of her husband’s ownership, she realizes that Robert, whom she loves and who returns her love, will not treat her any different than Léonce. Even Alcée, her roué, who satisfies her sexual desires, treats her as though she belonged to him. Edna begins to understand that there is no possibility for her to lead a life as a complete person in her society as she is obliged to fulfil her role as a mother. Not wanting to sacrifice her soul for her children she commits suicide in the sea.
In the following pages I will discuss and analyze the reasons for her suicide and show that it can be seen as a failure on Edna’s part: She did not drown herself in the sea simply because she could not be with Robert. On the contrary she was unable to set herself above the limitations furnished by her society and I will illustrate how this, together with her responsibilities as a mother, plays a very important role in her decision to end her life.
There are several types of women portrayed in The Awakening. The most important ones are those embodied by Adèle Ratignolle, Mademoiselle Reisz and Edna Pontellier. Adèle Ratignolle is a perfect example of the “mother woman” the traditional and in those days dominating kind. They “idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels.”(16) Although Adèle is perhaps the female character in the novel who is the happiest with her role, it is apparent that she is “unable to perceive herself as an individual human being, possessing no sense of self beyond her role of wife and mother.” Her existence is linked directly and only to her husband and children. Mademoiselle Reisz is of an entirely different kind: she personalizes the artist woman. She is independent and autonomous. However she is portrayed in the novel as “a disagreeable little woman, no longer young, who had quarrelled with almost everyone, owing to a temper which was self-assertive and a disposition to trample upon the rights of others.”(43) She is the “the most disagreeable and unpopular woman who ever lived in Bienville Street.” (99) In short she is alone, unloved and even Edna, who seeks her out for advice, does not know whether she likes her or not. (104) It is effortlessly observed, that Mlle Reisz’s way of living is not satisfying either. In her critical review of The Awakening, Peggy Skaggs comments similarly that
An adequate life cannot be built altogether upon autonomy and art. Although [Mlle. Reisz] has a secure sense of her own individuality and autonomy, the place she has established in her personal community lacks love, friendship, or warmth.
In contrast to these two personalities, Edna does not want to settle for less than what Peggy Skaggs calls a “complete person” and “achieve her full potential as a human being.” At the very beginning of the novel we learn how Mr. Pontellier perceives his wife to be his possession, a common view in Louisiana society: he looks at his wife “as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property.” (7) She is supposed to be a good mother to her children and fulfil the demands of her husband. It is also on her to secure the family’s reputation: for the last six years Edna has held reception days at their house in New Orléans. Early in the novel Edna realizes for the first time her discontentment with her present life when Léonce comes home from the club and scolds her for neglecting the kids, simply because he feels disregarded. Edna then feels how
An indescribable oppression, which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar part of her consciousness, filled her whole being with a vague anguish. It was like a shadow, like a mist passing across her soul’s summer day. It was strange and unfamiliar; it was a mood. (14)
She cries without really knowing why. Although such situations have occurred before in her married life, it is at that point that Edna begins to realize what her husband truly sees in her. As Peggy Skaggs phrases it,
This vague ‘oppression’ or ‘mood’ will eventually grow into so strong a determination to seize control of her own life that it will cause Edna to give up everything in its pursuit.
A few chapters later we learn more about the marriage of Edna and Léonce: it had happened by accident. She did not love him, he pleased her and his devotion impressed her. The opposition of her sister and father confirmed her even more in her will to marry him. She soon grew fond of her husband but never felt true passion towards him. Ironically, Edna did not mind, it even contented her as she “realized with some unaccountable satisfaction that no trace of passion or excessive and fictitious warmth colored her affection, thereby threatening its dissolution.” (33) In her quest for identity and self-fulfillment, Edna is misunderstood by her husband. He never sees and comprehends her or who she is trying to become, as the following passage shows:
It sometimes entered Mr. Pontellier’s mind to wonder if his wife were not growing a little unbalanced mentally. He could see plainly that she was not herself. That is, he could not see that she was becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world. (69)
 Kate Chopin, The Awakening, (New York: Avon Books, 1972) p. 25. All references are to this edition.
 Peggy Skaggs, Kate Chopin, (Boston: Twayne’s United States Authors Series, ed. David Nordloh, 1985) p. 94
 Skaggs p. 96
 Skaggs p. 88
 Skaggs p. 99