Hello fellow bloggers! I ought to stop calling it Story of the Week if I haven’t been writing an entry every week, right? It’s a catchy title, though, and it’s fun too.
Today, I will take a look at The Awakening by Kate Chopin. As a feminist and proud supporter of women’s rights, this novel strikes a chord in me. Published in 1899, it functions as a wondrous starting point for the literary theory of feminism, as well. Feminist studies, as they developed and grew in prominence through the 20th century, owe some of their significance to Chopin, whose novel attracts readers of all perspectives through its strong protagonist in Edna Pontellier. However, it would be a crime against the novel’s intrinsic greatness to study it solely as a piece of feminist criticism. With that said, I will be discussing The Awakening as a psychological piece, as the psychological side of the novel tends to also attract readers.
After the break, I will begin with some feminist criticism.
The Awakening‘s protagonist, Edna Pontellier, is the focus of the novel, as she partakes in an internal journey to “awaken” from the social structures that she, and thus by relation women of her time, have suffered through by the patriarchy. Thus, the narrative largely focuses on Edna’s journey of enlightenment, and how she reaches that point. Ultimately, the way in which she becomes enlightened makes the story so sensational and intriguing. The plot details add to the social commentary that Chopin is arguing.
Edna first moves to New Orleans with the hopes of escaping a familiar structure that would normally force her to live and survive on a farm for the rest of her life in Kentucky. She realizes that that kind of life is not ideal for her, so she makes a change. She marries Leonce Pontellier, a man whose social status attracts her. In reality, Edna harbored no love for her husband, Leonce, and wanted to escape the monotony of Kentucky in the only surefire way.
By the middle of the novel, Edna is experiencing some mental difficulties, so to speak. Leonce begins to worry for his wife, who begins to distance herself from New Orleans culture and society. While New Orleans is usually depicted as a partying place with happiness and carelessness abounding, the novel takes a secondary perspective of the city. In a similar way that Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire analyzes New Orleans, The Awakening focuses on the outskirts of the city, and the depression that comes from underneath. Edna begins her transformation here, while she distances from society. It is while she is away from the world that she realizes how much control society has in enforcing its norms and standards. Thus, Edna serves as a feminist icon for trying to alter the societal corruption of females.
Edna undergoes a series of tests that ultimately serve as stepping stones on her journey of enlightenment. Most importantly, Edna learns to swim. By learning to swim she is learning to survive in a world separate from society, the natural world. Edna’s ultimate ending once again pays attention to Edna’s learning to swim earlier in the novel. It is a sort of reciprocal ending, but even the most uninsightful of readers can realize that her suicide of sorts is a symbolic way for her to finally escape society, through water and nature. By drowning at the end, Edna manages to escape the patriarchy. Otherwise, she would not have been able to live the way she wanted to, which was her “feminist goal.” Being able to do whatever she would want to would prove to the reader that she has achieved freedom and equality. However, Edna realizes that it’s impossible for her to achieve that desired freedom. For one of the first feminist novels, Chopin really shines and illuminates the struggle that late-19th century had to endure to achieve basic human rights, the kind of rights that white men have had for centuries.
One of the biggest conflicts for Edna involves her marriage to Leonce. Originally, she had married Leonce to escape Kentucky and head to a more lively place where she could live a vibrant, free life among the party-people of New Orleans. Unfortunately, her ties to Leonce burden her ability to be free. She first experiments with a known-womanizer named Alcee while Leonce is on a business trip in New York. At this time, Edna wishes to experience the different kinds of love available to her. One of the most important aspects of being free, she believes, is the freedom to love. Her marriage impedes that freedom. Marriage, a social custom, impedes Edna’s sexual desires. Whether she is justified or not may come up for debate, but on the feminist interpretation of the novel, Edna should be able to experiment how she likes such that she can defy the dominant, patriarchal, systematic society that controls her every move. Would a man be punished equally for the same crime? Even the partying atmosphere of New Orleans doesn’t seem to promote her freedom, as her friend Adele, who represents a sort of societal conscience for Edna, denies she meet Alcee, who has hooked up with just about every other girl in the city.
A better question to ask in this situation is, do Edna’s restrictions and limitations reveal a greater problem for female equality? In the late-19th century, women were forced into roles, while men were able to choose their destinies, so to speak. Women were bred to be mothers and caretakers, stay-at-home parents who raised their children and made their husbands happy. Edna is a proper example of a female lead who neglects that role, and searches diligently for a new one in New Orleans. The character of Edna Pontellier played a large role in establishing different gender roles for women in the United States. While The Awakening was censored upon publication for its stark portrayal of a strong female protagonist who defied the roles she was intended to fit into, it became a popular hit regardless of its censorship.
Another important question to ask regarding the novel would be: For how long has female sexual desire been revealed and explained so openly? In America, the answer is simple: since Kate Chopin. In her short story “The Storm,” Chopin pays further attention to sexual desire in women. Previously, both male and female authors tried to limit their depictions of females desiring anything aside from the pleasure and happiness of their husband and children. Is that fair? Not really. For years and years, authors of all origins have written freely about male sexual desire. The Awakening seeks to awaken America, and the world at large, and show them that females can crave and lust for things just as freely and openly as men. At the time, the novel was considered unethical and immoral. Now? The times have changed, and a new appreciation for The Awakening has developed. The times have certainly changed since Chopin’s era.
Next in the story, Edna meets Robert Lebrun, the true source of her “awakenings.” In Robert, she sees something unique and charming. Robert represents what she really, truly desires outside the realm of marriage. Robert presents a tough task for Edna, to decide what she wants in life. From there, she awakens. Her enlightenment begins from meeting Robert and partaking in sexual relations with him. Those relations intensify as her awakenings become more apparent and real; the paralleling of these two is intentional. The more Edna meets with Robert, the more she neglects her children as well. Is it okay to neglect your children, even if it is to prove a point?
At this point, in my opinion, Chopin begins to shine as a writer. Her style really takes shapes as she describes the massively changing feelings which Edna experiences. Edna’s complications with her marriage and Robert add for great content to write about, especially as Chopin’s lyrical narration shows it all. If you are interested in a unique narrative style, Chopin’s The Awakening is worth the read. While reading, I felt as if the author really enjoyed what she was writing about, as if the social issue of gender injustice was clawing at her throat for so long and the only way to present her argument came in the form of a creative novel. And what an argument she presented! So incendiary that it caused censorship upon its initial publication!
While Edna’s relationship with Robert escalates, she is visited by her dear friend, Adele, who I mentioned earlier. Adele clearly symbolizes the perfect female ideal of that time period. Despite their friendship, Adele and Edna butt heads in direction. While Adele cares for her husband and children, Edna would prefer to stay with Robert, and pretend they never existed. It makes for a great side-conflict, and by the end of the novel the side-conflict comes to the forefront of the plot. Adele and Edna are clear symbols, in this case, which Chopin must enjoy manipulating through her intricate plot of self-discovery and awakening.
Robert eventually flees to Mexico, under the guise of a business opportunity. He is a hard-working businessman and, at times, he must leave on a whim and pursue such ventures. However, unbeknownst to Edna, Robert uses the business opportunity as an excuse to leave New Orleans, as he sees their relationship as a failed endeavor because of Edna’s marriage. Meanwhile, with Adele telling her to conform and Robert gone for the foreseeable future, Edna turns to Mademoiselle Reisz, who is receiving letters from Robert. Reisz serves as an ideal for Edna to strive for, as a foil to Adele. Reisz plays music, acts freely, and enjoys life. Eventually, Reisz reveals to Edna her letters…and in them, Robert proclaims that he is still thinking about Edna! What a surprise!
With renewed hope, Edna perseveres. Eventually, Robert returns. At the same time, Adele is having a baby in the hospital. While Robert proclaims his love for Edna, Adele is going through the final stages of childbirth. Robert explains to Edna why he left her, but then Edna is called to by a letter from Adele. She leaves Robert and visits Adele at the hospital, as she had promised she would do. Edna returns home to find Robert gone, with a letter telling her that he has left forever.
Then, she swims out to the Gulf of Mexico and drowns in the same waters she had awakened from earlier in the story. Tragic ending! Does this decision promote the idea that there is no room for a free, independent woman in that society? Does it promote depression, tragedy, and conformity? Ultimately, I believe that the ending serves as a glimmer of hope. Obviously, Chopin used the setting for Edna’s first awakening to show a sort of reciprocal turn of events. The hope comes from Edna, who is now free from the world. Although she is dead, she successfully managed to escape everything she wanted to escape from. Adele would no longer want her around, and the love of her life had disappeared forever as well. It’s a tragic ending, but it leads to, in my opinion, a mature decision on Edna’s part to finally escape the world she so wanted to live without. Does that decision make her weak, or strong?
Now, there are many symbols, aside from the characters, that are worth talking about in this novel. Throughout the story, the narrator relates Edna to that of a white bird. That bird flies freely above the world, above society, and does what it pleases. At the onset, Edna is compared to a bird that is imprisoned. If the bird is able to escape the prison, it can fulfill its dreams. However, while stuck in that prison, the bird cannot fly, nor can it move or interact with others. Even at the start, while Edna follows her family through Kentucky, she is tied down by social constraints. She escapes Kentucky only to be put into a larger cage, in a marriage with Leonce. Has she escaped? No, not yet. In her house, away from family, Edna keeps birds of her own. She is visited by birds, too. The influx of avians and more seems to prove that the protagonist really dreams of becoming just like them. Or perhaps she is one of them, but is limited by a broken wing, thus making her weak?
When Edna commits suicide by drowning, she uses courage to do the deed. However, as she passes downward into the depths of the sea, the narrator says: “A bird with a broken wing was beating the air above, reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water.” The bird, in this case Edna, has perished completely.
This story is truly intense and worth reading yourself. I hope my post here has helped you all understand the story better, or has convinced you to pick it up. Until next time, friends!