The Self-Inflicted Crisis of Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin’s "The Awakening"

Term Paper, 2017

12 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Women Images in the Late 19th Century

3. Women in “The Awakening”
3.1. Adèle Ratignolle as the “Southern Lady”
3.2. Edna Pontellier as the “New Woman”

4. Conclusion

5. Works Cited

1. Introduction

In 21st-century America, women fulfil many different roles in their lives: they are daughters and sisters, they are colleagues and friends. Women can be wives and mothers. They can choose freely whether they want to go to university which offers them a wide range of subjects. They can become doctors, lawyers, teachers, scientists, writers, artists, engineers or the next president of the United States of America. Women can determine their future and are free to change the paths they take. To refer to a common idiom: every woman is the architect of her own fortune. For Edna Pontellier, the protagonist of Kate Chopin’s short novel “The Awakening”, which was published in 1899, there are only two roles in her life: the role of wife and mother. She is married to Léonce, a businessman who regards his wife as “a valuable piece of personal property” (3). He expects her to satisfy his beliefs of a domestic wife and “society matron” (Shapiro 106). But Edna is not willing to accept the societal expectations and patriarchal structures she is supposed to meet. She longs for self-determination, looks for something more than just being a wife and mother. Her friendship with Mademoiselle Reisz opens up her eyes and gives her a new view at the world. Mademoiselle Reisz is an artist - in contrast to Edna, she explicitly inhabits a social identity; she speaks her mind, even in public. She does so with real consequences, within real conditions that she must navigate. Her character demonstrates the options available to women in this time period. Edna, however, cannot identify herself with the role Mademoiselle Reisz inhabits either. As Shapiro remarks, her “inability to find satisfaction in her painting is part of her larger failure at self-definition” (130). She gets lost between the social structures of patriarchy and her willingness to develop her own social identity. Although it seems at first that Edna’s conflict with her expected roles of being a wife and a mother has blocked her way to emancipation, I will argue that it is in fact Edna’s own lack of capabilities and responsibility that provokes her downfall. As Shapiro concludes, “her successive steps . . . lead her not to happiness but to death” (115).

2. Women Images in the Late 19th Century

It is difficult to classify Kate Chopin’s novel “The Awakening” into one of the literary genres of the 19th century. It was written during the literary movement of realism which is characterised by descriptions of real life. Realist novels deal with themes such as society, social classes and portray life as it is, without idealising or romanticising. Chopin’s novel also shares characteristics with the naturalism, which is an outgrowth of the realist genre. Besides the description of real life in a plain and explicit language, naturalist writers suggest that everyone’s life is determined by its social environment and one’s heredity. Regardless of the fictional application in the novel, the main characters show traits of two different women types of the late 19th century in the United States. To understand the characters of Edna Pontellier and Adèle Ratignolle, it is necessary to have a look at the history of the so-called “Southern Lady” and the development of the “New Woman”.

In “The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics, 1830 – 1930”, Anne Firor Scott portrays the image of the Southern Lady as the “Queen of the Home”: “. . . a submissive wife whose reason for being was to love, honor, obey, and occasionally amuse her husband, to bring up his children and manage his household” (4). She goes on by comparing this image to the reality of these times – to check whether this image really applies to women in the South. Scott discusses original sources such as diary entries or letters and confirms that women were believed to be created “to be a wife and mother” (35). In contrast to the idealised image of the “Queen of the Home”, some women feared the possibility of getting pregnant (Scott 38). Scott argues that “[o]ne of the most persistent threads . . . was the glorification of motherhood” but “[n]othing . . . emphasized the darker side of maternity” (37). Her findings can be summarised by saying that the southern lady’s real life included many different and exhausting duties, “she was likely to work hard for the rest of her life [and] having a baby every year or so . . .” (44).

In her chapter “The New Woman Observed”, Scott examines the changes women went through during a time period of 100 years, from 1830 to 1930, including the Civil War and its aftermath. Because of the recruitment of men, women had to take on new roles in their lives. Workers were urgently needed, be it in the managing of farming or in the area of teaching (Scott 108-110). With the increase of colleges, women slowly but steadily started to have access to higher education. At the same time school teaching became a professional opportunity (Scott 114-115). Changes were visible in the areas of “work, political activity, education, religion and self-image” (Scott 213). A changing and growing self-awareness also extended to the domestic spheres. As Scott claims “if women changed, family life was bound to be affected” (213). New forms of family life emerged and started to modify the old patriarchal structures (Scott 214). Not only could women develop financial independence, but they also started to determine their sex lives: one important achievement was found in better medical treatment regarding contraception (Scott 218). Scott emphasizes that women now had a choice:

She could remain single and become a professional worker, she could marry and enliven her life with volunteer work, she could marry and still hold a job, or she could marry and fit into the traditional pattern of domesticity. (220)

Scott also underlines that these new options and possibilities put pressure on women of that time. Benita von Heynitz also mentions these difficulties in her book “Literarische Kontexte von Kate Chopins ‘The Awakening’”: “The ‘New Woman’ only served as a symbol for social protest but the realization of its attributes was almost impossible” (Cunningham and Calder qtd. in von Heynitz 99). Nevertheless, even if the “New Woman” rather functioned as an idealised type, it was still visible that “women began to affect the public life of society” (Scott 229). Scott concludes her description with a remark that fits perfectly to Edna Pontellier’s progress in ‘The Awakening’: “Southern women . . . were now free, for better or worse, to struggle to be themselves” (231).

3. Women in “The Awakening”

3.1. Adèle Ratignolle as the “Southern Lady”

Chopin introduces Adèle Ratignolle, the personification of what Scott refers to as “Queen of the Home”, in the fourth chapter of “The Awakening”. She portrays her as a comparison to Edna. According to Adèle Ratignolle, “Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother-woman” (12). She goes on by describing the “mother-woman” with its characteristics and concludes with introducing Adèle Ratignolle as “the embodiment of every womanly grace and charm” (13). It is noteworthy that the portrayal of Adèle only relates to her physical appearance: “her beauty was all there, flaming and apparent: . . . blue eyes that were like nothing but sapphires; two lips that pouted, that were so red one could only think of cherries or some other delicious crimson fruit in looking at them” (13). In summary, Adèle looks like “the fair lady of our dreams” (13). Chopin uses many similes in this context and it almost seems that a plain and clear language wouldn’t be good enough to describe her. Adèle seems to be the perfect woman, nothing about her physical appearance should be changed: “One would not have wanted her white neck a mite less full or her beautiful arms more slender” (13). Besides her appearance, Chopin also shares insights into Adèle’s life as a wife and mother. As von Heynitz notes, she defines herself through her children and the possibility of getting pregnant (105). Scott’s depiction of “The Southern Lady”, as mentioned in the second chapter of this paper, can be found in Chopin’s “The Awakening”: “About every two years [Madame Ratignolle] had a baby. At that time she had three babies, and was beginning to think of a forth one” (14). This self-representation through her motherly care can be seen in the same chapter where Adèle brings Edna cutting patterns for children’s winter wear. While Adèle seems to always think about her parental duties, Edna “could not see the use of anticipating and making winter night garments the subject of her summer meditations” (14). Although there is rarely any information on Adèle’s personal interests, thoughts, likes and dislikes, this scene gives us a glimpse of the talents she possesses. In chapter 7, Edna and Adèle take a trip to the beach together, but Edna “could not induce her to relinquish a diminutive roll of needlework . . .” (14).

Seemingly, Adèle wants to fulfil her domestic duties no matter where she is. Apart from her sewing skills, she is also capable of playing the piano. But as von Heyintz claims, she doesn’t play the instrument for her own amusement or pleasure: “. . . eine weibliche künstlerische Begabung [wurde] nicht um ihrer selbst willen gefördert und gepflegt . . ., sondern um der Unterhaltung und der Außenwirkung und des Effekts willen” (105-106). This statement is depicted in chapter 9 where the reason behind Adèle’s intention is revealed: “She was keeping up her music on account of the children . . . because she and her husband both considered it a means of brightening the home and making it attractive” (38). This quotation leads us to her relationship and the fulfilment of her marriage. Visiting Adèle Ratignolle at her home, Edna barely stands the “domestic harmony” (87) which is shown in the following scene:

The Ratignolles understood each other perfectly. If ever the fusion of two human beings into one has been accomplished on this sphere it was surely in their union. . . . [Monsieur Ratignolle’s] wife was keenly interested in everything he said, laying down her fork the better to listen, chiming in, taking the words out of his mouth. (88)

One cannot help but notice the slight irony that is hidden within the second line. How meaningless Adèle’s statements are for Edna are even more evident in the scene before they had themselves seated at the table. Edna asks for Adèle’s view on her sketches and remarks: “. . . Madame Ratignolle’s opinion in such a matter would be next to valueless, that she herself had not alone decided, but determined . . .” (87). As von Heynitz points out quite provokingly, “[e]igenständiges Denken und eine eigene Meinung galten nicht als notwendige Attribute einer ‘Lady’ . . . ” (106). Although she doesn’t question the assumption that Adèle enjoys a happy life, her character provides features for a critical discussion on the ideal of “The Southern Lady” (106-107). In comparison to Edna, there is no obvious change or growth visible in Adèle’s character. Moreover, she cannot understand that a woman’s life can be more than just being a mother. Edna claims that she herself “would give [her] life for [her] children; but [she] wouldn’t give [herself]”. Adèle’s response, however, shows a lack of understanding (74-75). Even in the last encounter between Adèle and Edna, Adèle fears an affair between Alcée and Edna. Incapable of understanding the troubles Edna is facing toward the end of the novel, she reminds her to “[t]hink of the children” (175). With Adèle Ratignolle, Chopin not only creates an ideal image of the “The Southern Lady”, but at the same time she uses her to express criticism of that particular woman role. As von Heynitz points out:

. . . dieses Weiblichkeitsideal [wurde] im ausgehenden 19. Jahrhundert nicht mehr ungebrochen hingenommen. . . . Dabei erscheint die Beschreibung von Adèle nicht als Absage an das Ideal der “Southern lady”, wohl aber an dessen Allgemeingültigkeit, daß jede Frau darin aufgehe, wie Adèle. (104)

3.2. Edna Pontellier as the “New Woman”

In this chapter, I will discuss some aspects regarding Edna Pontellier’s characteristics and illustrate the progress she undergoes. Her way to an almost successful emancipation can be identified by the following indicators: her release from restrictive dress codes and her awareness of her own body, the beginning of her becoming financially independent, and the abandonment of her marriage and duties as a mother to an open and self-determined love and sex life. But in what sense does this progress fit with the image of the “New Woman”?

The first description of Edna Pontellier can be found in the second chapter. Chopin describes her as “rather handsome than beautiful” (5): “Mrs. Pontellier’s eyes were quick and bright; there were a yellowish brown, about the color of her hair. . . . Her eyebrows were a shade darker than her hair. They were thick and almost horizontal, emphasizing the depth of her eyes” (5). Compared with the portrayal of Adèle Ratignolle, this description suggests that Edna’s presence cannot only be captured by her outer appearance. She is not only beautiful, but her eyes show a certain depth. Moreover, she is described as “handsome”, a term which is usually rather used when describing men. It emphasises that Edna is not a typical “mother-woman” (12). Something that 21st-century readers probably don’t have in mind is that women at that time had to obey strict dress codes. The article “Bathing and Bathing Costumes”, which was published in the American women’s magazineThe Delineatorin 1895,provides insights into the fashion of the late 19th century (eds. Beer and Nolan 31-38). As the editors Beer and Nolan state, “a wide range of costumes [was] required for different occasions, all of which are modest and somewhat impractical. . . . [They were] extremely restrictive and not at all conducive to the free movement required for the walking [or] the swimming . . .” (34). Just like von Heynitz, they conclude that with the removal of such clothing items, Edna starts to eliminate these kinds of restrictions (Beer and Nolan 34; von Heynitz 107). As Ivy Schweitzer explains in her essay “Maternal Discourse and the Romance of Self-Possession in Kate Chopin’s ‘The Awakening’”: “Edna has awakened slowly over the course of the novel to her physical nature, her sensuality, and her right to enjoy them” (eds. Beer and Nolan 91). Her “physical awakening” is illustrated in the following scene:

Edna, left alone in the little side room, loosened her clothes, removing the greater part of them. . . . She stretched her long strong limbs that ached a little. She ran her fingers through her loosened hair for a while. She looked at her round arms as she held them straight up and rubbed them one after the other, observing closely, as if it were something she saw for the first time, the fine, firm quality and texture of her flesh. (57-58)

Here, Chopin plays with an image of a new-born child. The description of her stretching, observing and experiencing her body for the first time gives the impression that she feels like a new person. Chopin even mentions this quite clearly in the chapter prior to her famous swim: “She felt like some new-born creature, opening its eyes in a familiar world that it had never known” (182). Her self-confidence also grows as she learns to swim. Chopin again compares Edna to a child: “But that night she was like the little tottering, stumbling, clutching child, who of a sudden realizes its powers, and walks for the first time alone . . .” (43).


Excerpt out of 12 pages


The Self-Inflicted Crisis of Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin’s "The Awakening"
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz  (Department of English & Linguistics)
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Chopin, The Awakening, Edna Pontellier, Early American Women Writing
Quote paper
Sabine Strebel (Author), 2017, The Self-Inflicted Crisis of Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin’s "The Awakening", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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