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The Awakening Essay, Research Paper

Carey Coco

July 23, 1999

Dr. Jackson

English 2070

Kate Chopin and Edna Pontellier as Feminists

Kate Chopin is known for her literary works that depict culture in New Orleans, Louisiana, and of women’s struggles for freedom. She was born Katherine O’Flaherty in Missouri, and later married Oscar Chopin in 1870. He was a Creole cotton trader from New Orleans. Later they moved to a plantation near Cloutierville, Louisiana, where her husband died in 1882. She returned to Missouri with her six children, and began her writing career. She began writing mostly “local color” stories that earned her consideration as a contributor to Southern regional literature. She later began writing stories about women’s need for independence and capacity for passion, such as The Story of an Hour and the well known The Awakening. Her stories of women developing sensuality and individuality attracted a storm of negative criticism. Her career was severely damaged by this and she only managed to publish three more stories, and they were not well received. (Seyersted, 15-19)

At the end of the nineteenth century, American thoughts and beliefs were undergoing many changes. It was a period in which Americans were unsure about their feelings concerning the industrialization, urbanization, and changing social standards that were taking place. The first women’s right convention was held in July of 1848, in New York. This was the beginning of the “modern feminist movement.” The women leaders pushed on until 1870, when the 15th Amendment allowed women the right to vote. (Seyersted, 45) This was also the year that Kate was married to Oscar Chopin. Noticing this we can realize how aware Chopin must have been of these changes, and how she used them to feel confident in allowing her novels to grow more liberal. This time of change also caused the awful reaction of The Awakening that Kate Chopin probably did not expect.

Although the women in America were advancing, those in state of Louisiana were not. At the time the state operated under a different legal system than the rest of the country. Under the Louisiana Civil Code, article 1388, a woman was still the legal property of her husband, and the male had absolute (legal) control over the family. It also said, in article 1124, married women, babies, and the mentally ill were incompetent in making a legal contract. (Herman, 53) Wives were possessions to be cared for and displayed. They often brought a dowry or inherited wealth to a marriage.

Like most of Chopin’s stories, The Awaking is set in the late 19th-century Creole society of the New Orleans area. It is the story of a young woman’s struggle to become herself. It concludes that the complete freedom and happiness that she yearns for is not available to her in socially appointed roles as a wife and mother.

Edna Pontellier is married to her husband, Mr.Pontellier, “a person whom she had married without love as an excuse” (McQuade, 1661). The story opens during summer vacation at Grand Isle. This environment allows Edna to explore her own personality. It is on the island that Edna begins her “awakening” to life. She first realizes her dissatisfaction with her life. Then she learns the pleasure of swimming. It is on Grand Isle that she begins to feel sexual attraction to Robert, although her awakening to sexuality occurs months later. Edna also realizes that she is not a “mother-woman” this summer. She does love her two sons, but admits to Madame Ratignolle that “she would never sacrifice herself for her children, or for anyone” (McQuade, 1683). She distinguishes her person independent to the Edna that is a mother and wife.

Although her husband, Leonce, would visit the island, Edna spent most of her time bonding with Robert Lebrun. She fell in love with him without even knowing it. Edna was able to be herself that summer. Not having to play all the roles her husband had provided her. Edna also bonded with two other women, Adele Ratignolle and Mademoiselle Reisz. She studied each of the woman’s life roles. Adele was clearly a “mother-woman” to her children and her husband. To Edna, Adele looks like a “faultless Madonna.” An Edna can see that Adele has chosen the roles that society has offered her. Mademoiselle Reisz, the musician, is almost the opposite of Adele. “She was a disagreeable little woman, no longer young, who had quarreled with almost every one, owing to a temper which was self-assertive and a disposition to trample upon the rights of others” (McQuade). No one loves Mademoiselle Reisz; no one even calls her by her first name. Edna is possibly her closest friend. Edna uses these two women as examples of her choices much later in the novel.

Upon moving back to New Orleans, the Pontellier’s winter home, Edna takes on a new personality. She seems like a visitor in her husband’s home. Edna is again only her husband’s wife. She must resume her duties: accepting streams of callers every Tuesday, making flashy public appearances on the arm of her husband at social events, and entertaining dinner guests on a regular basis. (Skaggs, 104)

Robert has gone away to Mexico, and Edna takes up a purely sexual romance with Alcee Arobin. She also begins painting, and roaming the streets of New Orleans. Is she missing Robert, or is she missing herself?

When Robert returns he avoids her, for he is trying to forget her. By this time, Edna has already moved out of her husband’s mansion and living independently in the so called “pigeon house.” Edna meets him one day in her attempts to visit Mademoiselle Reisz. She was shocked that he had not sought her out as she had imagined he would. Upon their reunion, Robert confesses his desire for Mr.Pontillier to set her free, so that they might marry. Edna is surprised and disappointed at his thought. “You have been a very, very foolish boy, wasting your time dreaming of impossible things when you speak of Mr. Pontellier setting me free! I am no longer one of Mr. Pontellier’s possessions to dispose of or not. I give myself where I choose. If he were here to say, ‘Here, Robert, take her and be happy; she is yours,’ I should laugh at you both” (McQuade, 1727). Edna then realizes that Robert wants her to be his “mother woman.” Her imagination has let her believe that Robert understood her. She learns that he comprehends her needs to be recognized as an individual human being, a person as well as a woman, no better than Leonce. Edna stays up all night thinking. She thinks of her choices in life. Edna swims out to sea the morning after.

Why did Edna choose to end her life? This question can be answered in a variety of ways. It is clear that Edna has begun to discover herself. She wants a life she can’t define or shape. Edna at this point has many choices. She has three men in her life, Leonce, Robert, and Arobin. She won’t choose any of these men. They all expect her to be the socially acceptable wife and mother, like Adele, a role that she has struggled with and fought against all along. She realizes that no man could ever understand why she wants to escape being owned by her husband and children. She could possibly have moved out, and lived on her own, which she partially did by moving to the “pigeon house.” Her friend Mademoiselle Reisz is a woman who lives alone. Her personality has been described as dark, lonely and miserable. Edna does not want to play any of these parts for the rest of her life, so she chooses death. In death she escapes her marriage, society’s rules, and her family, and owns herself again. This is not the traditional womanly “happy ending” of marriage and children. However, Edna chose to write her own ending to her tale. Choosing not to exist if existence meant living in the cage of society in which all men wanted her to reside. In the end Edna does as she pleases. She does not become a victim to social conventions. However, the question still remains, does Edna find true happiness? Has she found a setting in which she can truly be herself?

The Awakening is a novel full of symbolism. Most of the scenes in the novel have a powerful symbol that adds meaning to the text and to underlines some point Chopin is making. It is important to gain appreciation of these symbols to get the full meaning of the story.

Birds are major symbolic images in the story. The first lines tell of the caged parrot kept in the Leburn house. This represents the entrapment of women within the confines of their own homes. The parrot squawks and screams, but Mr.Pontillier just moves to another place in the house to read his newspaper. This shows that his wife’s strife for freedom and individuality, occurring later on in the novel, were just ignored by her husband.

A second symbol is Edna’s clothes. She is fully dressed during the first part of the novel, and slowly removes her clothes, because of the summer heat. This can symbolize her shedding of society’s rules in her life and her growing awakening. It stresses her physical and emotional self, not the appearance of a person’s clothes. When she swims out to sea, she is finally naked. She has shed everything from her body, and consequently herself. “She cast the unpleasant, pricking garments from her, and for the first time in her life she stood naked in the open air, at the mercy of the sun, the breeze that beat upon her, and the waves that invited her” (McQuade 1732).

Edna has tried all summer to learn how to swim. Her friends, her husband, and her children all tried to coach her. Chopin uses the idea of being able to swim a symbol of empowerment. “But that night she was like the tottering, stumbling, clutching child, who all of the sudden realizes its powers, and walks for the first time alone, boldly and with over-confidence. She could have shouted for joy. She did shout for joy, as with a sweeping stroke or two she lifted her body to the surface of the water” (McQuade 1668). Swimming gives Edna both strength and joy. She also attaches the thoughts of staying afloat, and getting in over one’s head to swimming. Edna manages to do both. The words Chopin uses to describe the event shows how Edna has felt throughout her life. She has been like a child, just waiting to unleash her capabilities. Edna is not getting new powers; she is realizing them, for they were always within her.

A third note-worthy symbol is the Gulf itself. Edna has an intimate relationship with the water. “The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in the abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation. The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace” (McQuade 1657). The sea seems to be calling to Edna. In the end she runs to it, it is her “perfect lover, speaking to the soul while caressing the body” (Skaggs, 110).

Chopin’s novel, though controversial in its time, has proven to be of interest to feminist critics and writers. Chopin wrote the novel at the turn of the twentieth century, and it was received with mixed reviews. The novel, although published in 1906, was not appreciated until it was studied and reprinted in 1969. Today The Awakening is considered to be one of the texts of both American realism and the feminist movement. It has become a classic in American literature.


Works Sited

Herman, Shael The Louisiana Civil Code A European Legacy for the United

States. Louisiana State University Press, 1993.

McQuade, Atwan, Banta, Kaplan, Minter, Stepto, Tichi, and Vendler, eds. The

Harper Single Volume

American Literature Third Editon. Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers Inc


Seyersted, Per. Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography. Louisiana State University

Press, 1969.

Skaggs, Peggy. Kate Chopin G. K. Hall & Company, 1985.


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