The Southern writer Kate Chopin (1850-1904) is considered today to have been one of the most important women writers in the United States. Her works are recurrent subjects in high school and university literature courses, her local-color short stories have been anthologized repeatedly, and her most famous work, The Awakening (1899), has become part of the American literary canon. Lifted into the Olympus of literature in the second half of the twentieth century, Chopin’s work had been largely ignored at the turn of the century and was forgotten by mid-century (Skaggs 5-11; Davidson ix-x). It was only rediscovered by feminist literary critics among others in the 1960s and 1970s.
During her own lifetime, Kate Chopin was at best mildly praised by her contemporaries and at worst harshly condemned for her novel The Awakening (Cf. Chopin and Culley 159-78). For the most part, she was not regarded to be a serious writer. Contemporary reviewers were shocked and appalled by the novel’s then scandalous themes of female self-determination and selfhood, sex, and suicide. Failing to see the novel’s profound implications, they consequently misunderstood and misinterpreted The Awakening. The Chicago Times-Herald, for instance, described Chopin’s novel as “sex fiction” (1 June 1899, 9), while Literature called it “an essentially vulgar story” (“Fiction”), and the Providence Sunday Journal even declared that “[t]he purport of the story can hardly be described in language fit for publication” (4 June 1899, 15). Today, critics laud Kate Chopin for the richness of detail of the novel and concur that her work is “intellectually, emotionally, and critically compelling” (Davidson x).
In their analyses of The Awakening, modern critics and scholars have predominantly concentrated on the protagonist Edna Pontellier and other female characters as well as on issues of gender, symbolism and allegory, Chopin’s literary influences, the novel’s classification with regard to naturalism, realism, and modernism, and generally its place in American literary history. Albeit playing important roles in the process of Edna’s emancipation – her coming of age – in the novel, The Awakening ’s male characters – Léonce Pontellier, Edna’s father who is referred to only as “the Colonel” (Chopin 177), Robert Lebrun, Alcée Arobin, and Doctor Mandelet – have been largely ignored by scholars and thus received very little critical attention. This paper, therefore, will deal with the function of one of “Edna’s men” – Doctor Mandelet. It will examine his depiction by Kate Chopin and trace his role in the novel. It is the thesis of this paper that Doctor Mandelet is a mixed character in The Awakening – understanding and at the same time misunderstanding Edna Pontellier’s predicament – and his portrayal in this Bildungsroman is therefore rather ambiguous. Although Chopin is critical of Mandelet and the other male characters in her novel and characterizes them at times negatively, Chopin also reveals that their inability to comprehend Edna’s inner life and her transformation in the course of the novel is not inherent. Rather, Edna’s men are victims of their circumstances and – to use a Naturalist notion – are controlled by outside forces beyond their control.
On a surface level, Doctor Mandelet seems to be a minor character as he appears in only four chapters (XXII, XXIII, XXXVII, and XXXVIII) in the second half of The Awakening. Scholars have therefore consistently neglected him in their studies. As Michael Hollister points out, none of the fifteen essays in the 1976 Norton Critical Edition of The Awakening, the twenty-one essays in the MLA casebook (1988), and the five essays in the St. Martin’s Press casebook edition (1993) discuss Mandelet’s thematic significance (91). The kind, paternal, and weary family physician of the Pontelliers and Ratignolles is, however, of central position in the novel. In his role as a consultant to both Pontelliers, Mandelet influences their development and their actions. Playing the role of a doctor, psychologist, and marriage counselor, he influences to a considerable extent Léonce Pontellier’s interaction with his wife following Edna’s initial “awakening” and her first acts of defiance against the social conventions of the late Victorian Age.
When Léonce Pontellier visits Mandelet in Chapter XXII to seek help about his wife’s atypical behavior, the semi-retired doctor with a “reputation for wisdom rather than skill” (Chopin 168) regards Edna benevolently and is predisposed in her favor; perhaps because he is “more developed on his feminine side than other men,” as Hollister asserts (92). Before the worried husband, who is greatly concerned with appearances and his social standing, is able to present his case, the doctor accuses him of misconduct. “What have you been doing to her, Pontellier?” Doctor Mandelet asks (Chopin 171). The chapter furthermore offers a new perspective on the rationale behind Edna’s struggle.
Kate Chopin directs the readers’ attention at this point from purely personal, psychological reasons behind Edna’s supposedly “morbid” condition (Chopin 180) to a larger socio-political context. Léonce suggests that Edna has 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 170). But despite his benevolence towards Edna, Doctor Mandelet is a child of his time and place – the conservative, patriarchal society of the U.S. South in the late nineteenth century. Although Mandelet is not a chauvinist and appears sympathetic to Edna’s development, he is nevertheless caught up in the gender stereotypes as well as the then new medical and psychological trends such as Freudian psychoanalysis. The doctor is consequently unable to attain a true understanding of Edna’s condition and thus she remains largely an enigma to him throughout the novel. In addition, his analyses occasionally assume an air of condescension.
- Quote paper
- Johannes Steffens (Author), 2007, Consulting Edna: The Role of Doctor Mandelet in Kate Chopin’s 'The Awakening', Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/87930