Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening, first published in 1899, was not initially regarded as a feminist manifesto. Critics in Chopin’s time found the story “vulgar” and “unhealthily introspective and morbid in feeling,” leading to Chopin being spurned by social clubs and friends (“Kate Chopin” 550-51). In truth, the novel seeks to draw attention to an issue that continues to resound in our society to this day: the marginalization of women. Our oppressive patriarchal society is exemplified when Edna Pontellier is objectified by her father and husband, judged by her closest friend for stepping outside of traditional social roles, and limited at obtaining love due to her womanly station, ultimately resulting in her suicide.
Frequent instances in The Awakening indicate that Edna is viewed as something to be managed rather than a someone who is independent and equal to her male counterparts. Furthermore, it is the male characters, specifically her father and her husband, who attempt to contain Edna, thus setting the framework for her failures as she seeks autonomy. According to Steven T. Ryan, author of “Depression and Chopin’s The Awakening,” readers have paid “too little attention to the making of Edna’s personality” (254). Ryan constructs a solid argument that Edna’s “heroic struggle against social roles and expectations” is a result of her depression rather than the isolation that ensues after her sensual awakening (258). He states that Edna’s sudden emotional awareness “resurrects her frustrated need for intimacy,” which he believes was initiated in her childhood after being brought up by her narcissistic father (258). In the novel, Chopin describes Edna’s father as a stern man who takes things “very seriously” and as “rigid and unflinching” (614). During a visit to the Pontelliers, the Colonel has Leonce assist him in choosing an outfit and a wedding gift for another of his daughters, as he holds Leonce’s opinion “of inestimable value” (614). Meanwhile, Edna busies herself with catering to the whims of her father, which Ryan describes as Edna’s need to meet an unfulfilled desire for intimacy (254). Clearly, the Colonel puts stock in the opinions of Leonce, a fellow man, and sees no issue in his daughter rushing to accommodate him. From a feminist standpoint, Edna is torn between two worlds; that is, the society in which she is raised that expects her to be the obedient daughter and wife and her own budding fantasy in which she is free to choose and maintain intimate relationships as she sees fit. The Colonel tells Leonce he is being “too lenient by far” with Edna. He tells him to “put [his] foot down good and hard; the only way to manage a wife,” illustrating perfectly how Edna’s relationship with the Colonel will never extend beyond traditional social roles (617). Leonce, though he is more soft-hearted than the Colonel, also marginalizes Edna during his visit to Doctor Mandelet. Rather than encouraging Edna, Leonce assumes something is wrong with her due to her sudden interest in self-expression: “She’s got some sort of notion in her head concerning the eternal rights of women” (Chopin 612-13). If Edna is in fact depressed as Ryan suggests, it is due to this constant underlying pressure by the men in her life to sequester her own feelings and beliefs.
Aside from her husband and her father, Edna feels the pressure of social constraints from her close friend, Adele Ratignolle. An appreciation of Adele’s significance is explained by author Tuire Valkeakari in “A ‘Cry of the Dying Century:’ Kate Chopin, The Awakening, and the Women’s Cause.” She ponders why Edna, “a woman of respected social standing, a woman with no apparent worries, and a woman married to a reasonably wealthy and decent man, considers her life so unbearable that she chooses death over the private status quo” (11-12). Valkeakari states that the novel “attacks” the traditional Southern view on women; that is, they lack diversified opinions on what “constitutes a fulfilling and meaningful life” (12). She goes on to point out that diversity is illustrated by Chopin through the novel’s three main female characters: Adele, Edna, and Mademoiselle Reisz. Adele, as she notes, is the personification of the “devoted mother-woman,” embraced by her community, whereas Mademoiselle Reisz is a passionate musician who never marries yet is similarly embraced (12). Edna, who is somewhere in the middle and unable to find a social role that suits her, is keenly aware of these traits in Adele. After visiting the couple for dinner one night, Edna describes feeling “depressed,” but not full of regret or longing as their “domestic harmony” does not fit her desired lifestyle (Chopin 205). In fact, Edna feels sorry for Adele as she will never taste “life’s delirium” (Chopin 605). In contrast to Valkeakari, author Kathleen M. Streater suggests that although Adele appears to conform to her expected duties as mother and wife, Adele’s personality is not lost in these roles (410). For instance, Adele visits Edna per her husband’s request to express concern over Edna moving out of her husband’s home and taking up residence alone. This unease is directly related to the news that Alcée Arobin has been visiting Edna, with his “dreadful reputation” and his attentions that are “enough to ruin a woman’s name” (Chopin 637). She scolds Edna for being childish, but as Streater points out, she later tells Edna to disregard what she said about Arobin and about living alone, directly contradicting her husband’s wishes (411). Per Streater, “this suggests Adele’s respect for Edna’s choices, and it suggests a feminist solidarity that Edna has denied Adele” (411). From an alternative feminist perspective, the fact that it is Edna’s reputation on the line while Arobin’s name remains intact, regardless of who is doing the accusing, illustrates how Edna is being discounted simply by her gender. When Edna later bears witness to Adele’s childbirth, she watches with an “inward agony,” imagining excuses she can provide to leave (Chopin 648). Adele reminds Edna to “think of the children,” to “remember them!” (Chopin 648). Streater argues that Adele’s true meaning here is to remind Edna she can maintain her independence while still raising her children; however, she also acknowledges that Adele’s words only cause Edna to “feel her inability to conform to the constraints of her society” (415). Even if Adele is well-intentioned and deserves more merit than simply being known as the “mother-woman,” her intentions are missed by Edna and only further her insidious fate.
The significance of Robert Lebrun in The Awakening is key as his involvement with Edna, or lack thereof, leads up to what is arguably the biggest disappointment for Edna in the entire novel. Early on, it is revealed that Edna was once a passionate young woman with a propensity to seek the unattainable love. Edna’s marriage to Leonce is also unveiled as “purely an accident” (Chopin 575). She is enamored by his devotion to her, feels rebellious because he is of a different faith from her family, and decides that one day she will grow to love him, thus “closing the portals forever behind her upon the realm of romance and dreams” (Chopin 575). Edna is described several times throughout the story as being “childish” or “capricious,” and with the knowledge of her whimsical teenage fantasies, it is not surprising that she ends up being drawn to Robert. Chopin provides Robert with a reputation of his own: the “devoted servant” of various women each summer (569). Chopin describes Robert as “living in the sunlight” of one woman in particular, and after her passing, Robert “posed as an inconsolable” and sought sympathy from Adele, giving the impression that Robert, like Edna, is childish and dramatic (569). Robert and Edna grow to share “an advanced stage of intimacy and camaraderie,” but when Robert suddenly announces his imminent departure to Mexico, Edna withdraws to her room to sulk. His unanticipated exit causes Edna to “[recognize] anew the symptoms of infatuation” she felt in her earlier years and that she “has been denied that which her impassioned, newly awakened being demanded” (Chopin 597). As Catherine Mainland points out, their time spent apart results in Edna “[outgrowing Robert] while he is in Mexico” (82). Mainland emphasizes these new differences in maturity levels by highlighting the return of Robert to New Orleans, where he and Edna unexpectedly meet up in Mademoiselle Reisz’s apartment. She describes Robert as “twirling on the piano stool like a child” and “[blushing] at Edna’s questions” (83). When Robert begins increasing the distance between himself and Edna, Mainland points out that Edna plays it cool and continues her affair with Arobin instead of becoming desperate (83). When Edna and Robert cross paths again, Robert expresses discomfort with Edna’s questions and accuses her of being overly personal. Mainland identifies here that Edna maintains the “dominant position” by discussing her “unwomanly” habit of self-expression (83). She goes on to say that Robert is “scandalized by Edna’s freedom,” evident by his “blanching” when she exclaims that she is “no longer one of Mr. Pontellier’s possessions” and she will give herself as she chooses (83). When Edna returns from Adele’s childbirth to find only a letter from Robert, her fantasy of their long-awaited union is shattered. Too concerned with being scandalized by involvement with a married woman, Robert flees, leaving Edna feeling more isolated than ever. It is clear at this point that Robert will never meet Edna’s expectations; that he will always regard her as belonging to Mr. Pontellier. Although Edna grows and develops throughout the story, her anticlimactic relationship with Robert illustrates how she is again limited by her roles as “wife” and “woman.”
Throughout The Awakening, Edna is constantly diminished by those around her. In the end, she is despondent when she realizes that because she is a woman, she will never truly escape the social constraints imposed on her. All of the weight on Edna’s shoulders from the pressure of her father and husband, her best friend, and the destroyed image of the love that might have been cause irreparable damage. It is a sad yet direct result of this oppression that Edna pursues suicide, her only means to escape any ensuing scandal and to avoid living in a state of isolation.
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym and Robert S. Levine. 8th ed. Vol. C. New York: W. W. Norton, 2012. 551-652. Print.
“Kate Chopin.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym and
Robert S. Levine. 8th ed. Vol. C. New York: W. W. Norton, 2012. 550-51. Print.
Mainland, Catherine. “Chopin’s Bildungsroman: Male Role Models in The Awakening.” The Mississippi Quarterly, 64.1 (2011): 75-85. Literature Resource Center. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.waketech.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1009293845?accountid=15152. 17 September 2016.
Ryan, Steven T. “Depression and Chopin’s The Awakening.” The Mississippi Quarterly 51.2 (1998): 253-73. Literature Resource Center. Retrieved from http://go.galegroup.com.ezproxy.waketech.edu/ps/i.do?p=LitRC&sw=w&u=nclive&v=2.1&it=r&id=GALE%7CA168292136&asid=3720dbaf5ac1ab83c50a2e3d3dd083d4. 13 September 2016.
Streater, Kathleen M. “Adele Ratignolle: Kate Chopin’s Feminist at Home in The Awakening.” The Midwest Quarterly, 48.2 (2007): 336-37, 406-16. Literature Resource Center. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.waketech.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/195702045?accountid=15152. 13 September 2016.
Valkeakari, Tuire. “A ‘Cry of the Dying Century’: Kate Chopin, The Awakening, and the Women’s Cause.” Nordic Journal of English Studies, 2.1 (2003): 193-213. Literature Resource Center. Retrieved from http://go.galegroup.com.ezproxy.waketech.edu/ps/i.do?p=LitRC&sw=w&u=nclive&v=2.1&it=r&id=GALE%7CA351789215&asid=c02d0871e722084b1048b9b2519e0d2a. 17 September 2016.