When Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899) was published, there were significantly fewer women writing fiction than there are today. Authors of the time did not generally address a woman's desires or concerns, except in the context of her duties as wife and mother. As a result, The Awakening was a bombshell in a society that embraced a rigid morality and a strict code of social behavior. Main character Edna Pontellier's disregard for social conventions and gender roles earned contempt from critics and readers alike, and the novel secured a persistent negative reputation for the author. At the same time, the novel gave voice to a new generation of women, making an important contribution to the burgeoning women's movement of the early twentieth century.
At a time when cultural norms indicated that a woman's place was in the home, any woman who resisted that role was subject to discrimination and ridicule. Popular nineteenth-century fiction emphasized a woman's duty, joy, and fulfillment in the domestic realm, but as the twentieth century approached, fiction began exploring the social changes on the horizon. The Awakening is the story of Edna Pontellier's journey from a sleepy, discontented life to one fully under her own control. The romantic attentions of Robert Lebrun and Alcee Arobin bring her to life, but her awakening is far more than physical: it is spiritual, social, and personal. She begins to take her art more seriously, takes a Page 115 | Top of Articlelover, moves into her own apartment, rejects social conventions that do not suit her, and allows herself to admit that she is not a maternal woman.
Edna chooses to follow her natural inclinations rather than letting her culture's restrictive standards prevent her from living the life to which she has awakened. To learn who she truly is, she is willing to risk becoming a social outcast: "By all the codes which I am acquainted with, I am a devilishly wicked specimen of the sex. But some way I can't convince myself that I am." There is little she can do with her self-knowledge, however, especially in the insular Creole community of New Orleans.
The publication of The Awakening caused great alarm in a society still clinging to the rigid moral codes created during the Victorian era, the period in the 1800s when Queen Victoria ruled Great Britain. Chopin's book was never banned, but her literary reputation was seriously damaged by the critical and public outcry over its content, specifically over Edna's romantic relationships with two men outside of her marriage, her unwillingness to be a wife and mother, and her refusal to conform to society's expectations. Much like Edna, Chopin faced hostility for her decision to speak openly about female sexuality and a woman's private thoughts. In Chopin's male-dominated society, an independent and liberated woman was considered both threatening and unnatural. Some critics argue that Chopin knew this and that this knowledge was what motivated her to end the novel with Edna swimming out into the ocean. Others contend that the closing scene shows Edna rising above the limitations imposed on women in Victorian society and making the ultimate claim of self-possession.
I don't want anything but my own way. This is wanting a good deal, of course, when you have to trample upon the lives, the hearts, the prejudices of others.
Annoyed by a squawking parrot, Léeonce Pontellier leaves the porch of the main house where he has been sitting and moves to a chair outside his own cottage. The cottages and house are part of a private resort on Grand Isle, a vacation spot popular with members of New Orleans Creole society. He surveys the scene in front of him, including his two young sons and their nurse. His wife, Edna, and her swimming companion, Robert Lebrun, return from the beach. Leonce decides to go play billiards at a nearby hotel. Robert and Edna talk on the porch.
When Léonce returns later that night, he is drunk. He wakes Edna and tries to engage her in conversation, but she is too tired. Irritated, he checks on their sons and tells her the eldest, Page 116
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Raoul, has a fever and needs her attention. When she argues that Raoul is perfectly well, Léonce "reproach[es] his wife with her inattention, her habitual neglect of the children." Awake and furious, Edna goes outside and cries, filled with an "indescribable oppression." In the morning, Léonce prepares to return to New Orleans for the workweek. He gives Edna the money he had won the previous evening and says goodbye to the boys. Several days later, he sends a box of candies and treats. Edna shares them with the other women at the resort, who all sing Léonce's praises.
Edna is "not a mother-woman," meaning she does not have maternal interest in her children. Adèle Ratignolle, on the other hand, is a prime example of a mother-woman, a beautiful pregnant woman who spends her time knitting baby clothes and talking about her children. Listening to Adele and Robert talk freely about taboo subjects in public, Edna blushes. They speak more freely about sex, emotions, and their bodies than Edna does. She feels like an outsider in Creole society, as she grew up in Kentucky and is not a Creole.
Every summer, Robert attaches himself to one of the women at Grand Isle. The previous summer it was Adèle, and this summer it is Edna. As Edna sketches a picture of him, Robert begins to make gestures and comments suggesting a familiarity that makes Edna uncomfortable. Nearby, Adèle puts away her knitting and complains of faintness. She faints, and Robert rushes to her side; Edna wonders if she fainted to get attention. Robert invites Edna to go bathing in the ocean. Initially she tells him no, but she changes her mind.
As she wonders why she agreed to go, "A certain light [is] beginning to dawn dimly within her,—the light which, showing the way, forbids it." She begins to realize her place as a human being and individual in the world. As she moves nearer the sea, she finds that it invites "the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude."
Edna and Adèle go to the beach together one morning without their children. As they sit on the beach, Edna recalls walking through a large field of tall grass as a child and says that she feels just as free and unguided this summer as she did as a child in the field. Adele responds by saying, "Pauvre chérie" (poor darling), but Edna is confused by her reaction.
Edna thinks about the men to whom she was attracted growing up and the famous actor who appeals to her still. In contrast, her marriage to Léonce lacks passion, and she is only fond of her children in "an uneven, impulsive way." She tells much of this to Adéle, and feels flushed and liberated admitting it. Robert, with the women's children in tow, finds them. As they head back to the resort, Adéle tells him to leave Edna alone; she is concerned that Edna will take Robert's harmless affections seriously. They argue over whether he should be taken seriously or not, and Robert says there is no possibility of Edna misunderstanding his platonic intentions. Later, Robert and his mother, Madame Lebrun, discuss the trip to Mexico he is planning for the beginning of next month.
Several weeks after Adéle and Robert's talk, there is a party for the families at the resort. Robert entreats Mademoiselle Reisz, an unconventional older woman, to play the piano. The sound of Reisz's playing conjures feelings of Page 117 | Top of Articlehope and solitude in Edna, and she is moved to tears. Reisz tells Edna she is the only one who truly appreciates her playing. Robert suggests a late-night swim, and the group heads to the beach. Edna, who has been struggling to learn to swim all summer, suddenly feels confident enough to try it on her own. She swims out too far and panics when she sees the distance she must cover to get back. Though she recovers herself and swims in, she tells no one what happened. Edna decides to walk back to the resort alone, but Robert catches up with her. At her cottage, she lies in a hammock and Robert stays with her a while. Though they do not talk, the silence is "pregnant with the first-felt throbbings of desire."
Léonce tells Edna to come inside when he arrives at the cottage, but she does not. He demands that she come inside. She is surprised that she ever let him talk to her like that before, or that she submitted. She refuses to come inside, so Léonce comes outside and sits silently with her. Near dawn, when Edna finally decides to go inside and sleep, she asks Léonce if he is coming. He tells her that he will when he is ready.
Edna rises early the next morning and sends a servant to wake Robert so they can go to mass at a nearby island. On the boat over to the island, Robert flirts with Mariequita, a young Spanish girl. Edna is enjoying the boat ride, feeling unanchored herself. Robert quietly suggests they go alone together to Grand Terre the next day and go fishing the day after. They imagine several plans that involve the two of them being together.
Feeling unwell and restless inside the church, Edna leaves in the middle of the service, and Robert follows. He takes her to Madame Antoine's house where she can rest. Edna sleeps deeply for most of the afternoon, and she and Robert dawdle at Antoine's house. Returning to the resort, Edna learns that Léonce has gone to a nearby hotel and will be back that evening. She and Robert part, having spent the entire day together. Edna waits for Léonce to return, feeling that "she was seeing with different eyes and making the acquaintance of new conditions in herself that colored and changed her environment." She wishes that Robert would have stayed with her to wait for Léonce.
At dinner, Edna learns from the other guests that Robert is leaving for Mexico that evening. She is bewildered and does not hide her emotions. He tells the group he made the decision that afternoon. After finishing her coffee, Edna returns to her cottage. Robert comes to see her. He starts to tell her that he is leaving because they are growing too close but stops himself. Edna "recognize[s] anew the symptoms of infatuation" in herself.
Days later at the beach, Reisz asks Edna if she misses Robert greatly. Since Robert's departure, Edna has been spending her time swimming and visiting with Madame Lebrun, seeking Robert in their conversation and in the family photo album. Edna reads a letter from Robert, but it does not mention her. She and Reisz discuss Robert, and Edna is "glad to be talking about Robert, no matter what [is] said." Reisz gives Edna her New Orleans address in hopes that Edna will visit.
Every Tuesday Edna receives visitors, society women who come to the Pontelliers' richly appointed home in the French Quarter. This has been her traditional receiving day for six years, but one Tuesday after returning from Grand Isle, Edna leaves the house instead of receiving guests. Léonce chides her for overlooking "les convenances" (social conventions) that secure their place in society. Unhappy with the taste of his dinner, Léonce leaves to eat at the club. Whereas Edna would once have tried to reprimand the cook or make amends with Léonce, she now lets Léonce go without a word. While pacing in her room, she drops her wedding ring, and "When she [sees] it lying there, she stamp[s] her heel upon it, striving to crush it." She then smashes a vase, which brings the maid. The maid hands Edna her wedding ring, which she slips back onto her finger.
Feeling alienated from the world around her, Edna gathers several of her sketches and goes out to visit Adèle. On the way, she thinks longingly of Robert. She eats lunch with Adele and Mr. Ratignolle and leaves feeling depressed over this scene of "domestic harmony" that seems to Edna to carry "an appalling and hopeless ennui" (boredom). Edna believes that Adèle's life has no place for strong emotions, either positive or negative, and offers no chance to experience "life's delirium."
To Léonce's displeasure, Edna abandons all pretense of being "en bonne ménagère" (a good housewife). He wonders if Edna is becoming mentally ill. She begins sketching regularly, using the maids and her children as models. She is often happy "without knowing why," but sometimes she finds herself filled with inexplicable sorrow.
Edna decides to visit Reisz to hear her play piano again. Having lost her address, she attempts to locate her but no one appears to know where she has moved. She goes to Madame Lebrun's house seeking information and meets with Victor, Lebrun's youngest son and Robert's brother. Victor flirts with her and she discovers that Robert has sent two letters, neither of which contains a message for her. She learns Reisz's address and leaves to pay her a visit.
Once at Reisz's tiny apartment, Edna is unsure if she even likes the older woman. Reisz has a letter from Robert that is all about Edna, which she eventually shares with her. Reisz then begins to play a Chopin impromptu, as Robert had requested she do. Edna sobs and asks if she may return and visit Reisz often, a request that the older woman welcomes.
Léonce visits the Pontelliers' family doctor, Dr. Mandelet, and tells him that something is wrong with Edna: "Her whole attitude—toward me and everybody and everything—has changed." The doctor suggests sending Edna to her family in Kentucky for her sister Janet's wedding, but Edna refuses to go. He then tells Léonce that "women are moody and whimsical" and that whatever has gotten into her will eventually pass. Léonce arranges for Mandelet to come over on Thursday evening and observe Edna. The doctor wonders if another man is causing these changes in Edna.
Edna's father, the Colonel, comes to New Orleans to buy a wedding gift and new clothes for Janet's wedding. Edna entertains him by sketching him and taking him to a gathering at the Ratignolles'. When Mandelet comes for dinner, he finds Edna radiant and full of life. She and her father recount their day at the race track, where she has met Alcée Arobin. The guests all exchange stories, and Edna tells a story about a pair of lovers that escape to an island to live together. Mandelet suspects that Edna is having an affair with Arobin.
The Colonel tries to convince Edna to attend Janet's wedding, but she refuses. Léonce is headed to New York for business, and he plans to stop in Kentucky for the wedding and to "endeavor by every means which money and love [can] devise to atone somewhat for Edna's incomprehensible action." Edna is left alone; her father and Leonce depart and her children go to Madame Pontellier's for an extended visit. Edna explores her empty house as if she had never been there before and enjoys the solitude of eating alone in her peignoir (nightgown).
Edna increasingly feels "as if life [is] passing her by, leaving its promise broken and unfulfilled." She frequents the race track and often sees Arobin and Mrs. Highcamp there. Arobin is drawn to Edna's knowledge of horses, which she acquired as a child in Kentucky. Arobin escorts Edna home after she dines with them. Edna finds herself agitated after he leaves, wanting "something to happen—something, anything; she [does] not know what." Several days later, Arobin takes Edna to the races, just the two of them. Arobin makes a guarded advance toward Edna, an act that both excites and repels her. She tells him to go away. She thinks about Arobin and wonders what Robert would think if he knew.
Arobin sends Edna a note apologizing for his behavior. Fearing that she may have overreacted, Edna invites Arobin to call on her any time he is free. He begins to visit often, and Edna finds herself attracted to him. Edna visits Reisz and tells her that she is going to move into a small house by herself, seeking the "feeling of freedom and independence." Reisz asks for the true reason behind Edna's decision, and Edna realizes that she does not want to "belong to another than herself" anymore. Edna decides to throw a dinner party before she moves out. Reisz gives Edna another letter from Robert and tells Edna that Robert is in love with her. Edna discovers that Robert is coming back to New Orleans. For the first time, she admits that she loves him.
Arobin senses the improvement in Edna's mood when he visits that evening. He also tells Edna he can sense that she is preoccupied. They kiss: "It was the first kiss of her life to which her nature had really responded. It was a flaming torch that kindled desire." Edna is conflicted Page 119 | Top of Articleabout the kiss but does she not feel remorseful or ashamed. Instead, she feels that she is seeing things clearly for the first time. She recognizes that she responded to Arobin largely because he was accessible and realizes with regret that it was not love that enlivened her this way.
Edna moves into a small apartment around the corner from her house. She takes along only the things she purchased herself, leaving behind everything Léonce has bought for her. Arobin arrives, but Edna refuses to be alone with him and makes sure her maid is always in the room. Edna tells Arobin to stay away until the dinner party she is throwing two days later to celebrate her move.
Ten guests come to Edna's party, at which Edna reveals that it is her twenty-ninth birthday. Though surrounded by friends, Edna once again finds herself depressed and filled with "a sense of the unattainable." Robert's brother Victor begins to sing a song that Robert once sang to Edna; his singing unnerves her and she begs him to stop. After the guests leave, Arobin remains. Edna closes up the house and leaves for her apartment with Arobin escorting her. Inside the house, Arobin makes advances toward Edna and they make love.
Léonce disapproves of Edna's decision to move into the apartment, worrying that people will think financial difficulties are forcing the Pontelliers to take a smaller home. To save face, he arranges to have their house remodeled and announces that he and Edna are summering abroad, demonstrating that they have plenty of money. Edna feels as though she has lost social status but has gained spiritual understanding and individuality. Edna goes to see her children and is happy spending time with them.
Edna goes to Reisz's house. She lets herself in and meets with Adèle, who is late in her pregnancy. Adèle says Edna is acting like a child, "without a certain amount of reflection which is necessary in this life," and tells her that there are rumors about Arobin's visits to her home. Adele leaves; while Edna waits for Reisz to return, Robert arrives. She did not know he was back, and their meeting is awkward. Edna asks him why he never wrote to her. Robert walks her home, and she invites him to stay for dinner. He is jealous when he discovers Arobin's picture, which Edna has been using to sketch from. After dinner, Edna and Robert begin to recover some of the intimacy they had known at Grand Isle. Robert leaves when Arobin stops by, and Edna tells Arobin not to stay. She feels that she and Robert have drifted apart, and she is jealous of the Mexican women he spent time with while he was gone.
The next morning, Edna wakes with a feeling of hope and thinks about Robert. She receives three notes: one from her children, one from Léonce, and one from Arobin. She responds to the first two but tosses Arobin's in the stove. Robert does not come to visit her. She continues to see Arobin, who, detecting her "latent sensuality," has become enamored with her. She stops hoping for Robert's visits.
Edna discovers a secluded garden in the suburbs and begins spending time there. While eating a picnic lunch there one day, she sees Robert. She demands to know why he has been avoiding her. He tells her she is cruel for asking these questions because nothing can ever come of their relationship: "as if you would have me bare a wound for the pleasure of looking at it, without the intention or power of healing it." They return together to Edna's apartment, and Edna kisses him. They declare their love to each other. Edna leaves to go to Adele, who is in labor, but makes Robert promise to stay and wait for her, no matter how late she returns.
Adèle is delirious with pain during her labor, and Edna wishes that she had not come. She perceives Adèle's delivery as a "scene of torture." As Edna is leaving, Adèle tells her to remember her own children before making any decisions. Mandelet walks Edna home, and she tells him that she will not be going abroad with Léonce this summer because he can no longer tell her what to do. The doctor appears to sympathize with her. Back at her apartment, she thinks about Robert and how she really should consider her children before making any decisions. She decides to think about them later. Robert is not there when she goes inside. She finds a note that reads, "I love you. Good-by—because I love you." She lies down on the sofa but does not sleep.
The next day at Grand Isle, Victor is making repairs to the main house, and Mariequita is keeping him company. Edna appears unexpectedly. She tells them she has come alone to rest and is going for a quick swim before dinner. On her walk down the beach, she recalls the depression she felt the night before. Robert is the only person she wants near her, but she realizes that her feelings for him will fade one day, "melt out of her existence, leaving her alone." She feels that she can never be happy because of her children. She knows she must consider them first, but this means that she can never live the life she wants. If she did so, people would disapprove of them as well as her, staining their reputations and limiting their future. They have thus "overpowered her and sought to drag her into the soul's slavery for the rest of her days." She stands naked on the empty beach, then enters the cold water and begins to swim. She grows tired as she swims out, but continues, thinking of Leonce, her children, Reisz, and Robert. Her strength gone, she thinks back to the endless grass field of her childhood.
At the turn of the century, respectable women were generally seen only as wives and mothers. They were believed to lack sexual desire, even in the relatively down-to-earth Creole society of New Orleans. Female sexuality was solely a means to an end: motherhood. It was scandalous for a woman to desire a man who was not her husband, but it was even more outrageous for her to act on that desire. Polite society shunned such women, though men were not subject to the same scrutiny. For example, it is well known at Grand Isle that Robert attaches himself to a new woman every summer, but when one of them begins to return his affections—the married Edna Pontellier—she is the one judged to be irresponsible. Adele pleads with Edna to "think of the children! Remember them!" as Edna pursues both Robert and Arobin, but neither of the men is asked to do the same. Robert's flirtations are generally considered harmless, but Adéle warns him not to mislead Edna: "She is not one of us; she is not like us. She might make the unfortunate blunder of taking you seriously." Edna's relationship with Arobin, however, is what truly begins to awaken her sexuality. For the first time, she feels genuine desire and even love. As she explores these feelings and surrenders herself to a new-found sensuality, she begins to feel "a flaming torch that kindled desire." Her sexuality becomes a gateway that leads her to reconsider her life.
Edna's husband, Léonce, reveals the importance of class distinctions in the The Awakening. His concerns with outward signs of wealth and class, and with improving their social station, recur throughout the novel. He constantly worries about making a social error, lest it be held against him. He also fears being looked down on by the social elite, or—worse yet—excluded from New Orleans society. These fears motivate many of his actions. When Edna begins leaving the house at the time she normally receives visitors, Léonce is immediately concerned with how her behavior might affect their social standing: "we've got to observe les convenances if we ever expect to get on and keep up with the procession." Later, when he learns that Edna moved out of the house, he is not concerned about why she left. Instead, he focuses on how others will perceive her move, "and above all else, what people would say." He begins remodeling their house to justify Edna's relocation, and he announces in the newspaper that they will spend the summer abroad to ensure that everyone knows they are not in financial trouble or slipping in social standing: "Mr. Pontellier had saved appearances!"
As Léonce strains to keep up, Edna relishes the idea of escaping class expectations. She withdraws from her "fashionable acquaintances" and spends time with Mademoiselle Reisz, who is something of an outcast. Not being Creole herself, Edna always feels like an outsider in the tightly knit society. She draws strength and satisfaction from her decision to remain on the outside, instead of striving for inclusion.
Edna openly acknowledges that she is not like the other women at Grand Isle or those in her social class. While they bask in the role of motherhood, Edna declares that she is "not a mother-woman." She tells Adelè—a paragon of femininity and matronly responsibility, a "faultless Madonna"—that she would "give up the unessential" for her children but would not give up herself. Edna feels that she should have more Page 121
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typically motherly feelings toward her young sons, but those feelings arise only occasionally. For the most part, she feels relief when the boys are away from her. She compares witnessing Adèle's delivery to watching torture. Adèle admonishes Edna to remember her children when considering her affairs with Arobin and Robert, but Edna comes to resent her sons, feeling as though they possess her, "like antagonists who had overcome her."
Edna senses that she is different from typical women in other ways, as well. She has no interest in being a wife, feeling that Léonce keeps her as a possession. Their bond is a loveless one, and as she comes to know herself she sees that he will never understand her real needs and desires. When Robert confesses his love and tells her that he wants to marry her, she scoffs at the idea of belonging to any man, even a man she truly loves:
I am no longer one of Mr. Pontellier's possessions to dispose of or not. I give myself where I choose. If he were to say, "Here, Robert, take her and be happy; she is yours," I should laugh at you both.
In The Awakening, respectable women of the nineteenth century have only two options: become a blameless wife and mother like Adèle Ratignolle, or a spinster like Mademoiselle Reisz. A woman could reject domesticity only at the risk of becoming a social outcast. Society offered no middle ground, and Edna is ultimately stuck in the middle, unable to be her true self. She recognized this feeling in herself as a young girl, seeing a "dual life—that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions."
Mademoiselle Reisz recognizes Edna's dual life as well, telling her "The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings." Edna is connected to or compared with birds several times in the novel, but the ultimate strength of Edna's wings is revealed when she returns to Grand Isle alone, and sees a bird with a broken wing "reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water." Shortly thereafter she steps into the water a final time. The novel ultimately leaves the reader to decide whether Edna's suicide is an admission that she was wrong to defy social Page 122 | Top of Articleconventions or a defiant assertion of her right to freedom and self-determination.
There are two types of isolation in The Awakening: that which is imposed on Edna by the upper-class Creole society, and that which Edna imposes on herself in her quest of self discovery. The first sort of isolation makes her feel uncomfortable, but the second kind is initially a comfort and later a burden. From the beginning, Edna feels "different from the crowd" because she is the only non-Creole among the vacationers at Grand Isle. She is not used to the way they act or their open conversations about subjects that are typically taboo. The others recognize her outsider status as well; as Adele reminds Robert, "She is not one of us."
The isolation that she feels because she is not a Creole, a mother-woman, or a loving wife eventually leads to a self-imposed isolation in which Edna shuns society's dictates to follow her own heart. The ocean, which begins and ends Edna's awakening, invites her to "wander for a spell in abysses of solitude." Having chosen to do so, in both the water and her life, Edna seeks her own company and advice. In her introduction to The Awakening, Nancy A. Walker notes that the novel was originally to be called A Solitary Soul. Finding herself alone after her children, husband, and father eventually leave, "she breathed a big, genuine sigh of relief."
Though she revels in her solitude, what she truly desires is to be with Robert, on her own terms. She is attracted to Mademoiselle Reisz's freedom, but not her loneliness; Edna wants love to be part of her life. She explores the kind of woman she is becoming and contemplates the possibilities her new freedom holds, but those around her find her decisions perplexing and suspect. In "'A Language Which Nobody Understood': Emancipatory Strategies in The Awakening," Patricia S. Yaeger notes that in her solitude, "Edna finds herself speaking a language as impenetrable to others as the parrot's babble [at the beginning of the novel]." But when she finds she cannot control others after Robert leaves a second time, she realizes that her solitude is much deeper than she had imagined and no longer necessarily of her choosing. Solitude implies agency and choice, but Edna's solitude becomes isolation, in which she feels involuntarily separated from everything and everyone. She returns to Grand Isle and strips naked when she realizes she is "absolutely alone" on the beach. Her aloneness here is both literal and figurative, as Edna has decided to end her life. The word "alone" recurs throughout the novel, underscoring Edna's desire to pursue her passions without interruption, but also reflecting the social and spiritual alienation she experiences.
The reign of Queen Victoria in England is known as the Victorian Era, which lasted from roughly 1837 through 1901. The Victorian culture was British, but its strict morality quickly spread to the United States. It was a time of increasing interest in scientific discoveries, marked by the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859) as well as advances in medicine and industry. As science moved forward, religious beliefs were questioned. Developing technology and industry brought many farmers and their families into the city, shifting populations from rural communities to urban centers. Some urban areas became slums, full of those who were unable or unwilling to take advantage of the prosperity offered by urban living. This, in turn, led to the development of distinctive social classes in urban areas, with a small upper class, a middle class striving to better itself, and a large working class.
These changes in daily life created a desire to protect that which was human from the rising tide of science and industry. A strict moral code was thought to be part of the solution, one which clearly defined gender roles and expectations. Women's clothing covered their bodies completely, and discussions about body parts such as legs and arms were considered inappropriate. Any mention of sexuality was strictly off-limits, and kissing during courtships was considered indecent. The word "prudish" is often used to describe this time period. In such an atmosphere, it is easy to see why Edna was initially uncomfortable in the presence of free-speaking Creoles like Robert, Arobin, and Adele. It is also clear why Edna's conduct with Arobin and Robert was scandalous and controversial, both to other characters and to readers of the novel.
The Women's Rights Movement
In early nineteenth-century America, women were often portrayed as fragile and dependent on men. Adèle Ratignolle exemplifies the traditional nineteenth-century woman who delights in being a wife and mother and who appears wholly focused on serving her husband and children. At this time, the law did not allow women to get a divorce, vote, or manage their own money. Women who worked outside the home—generally middle- and lower-class women forced to help support their families—had only a few job options, including factory worker, secretary, maid, teacher, and nurse. Women who were not married by twenty-five were generally considered spinsters.
As time passed, women's rights steadily increased. In her introduction to The Awakening, Nancy A. Walker writes that Fanny Fern, a popular New York Ledger columnist in the 1860s, "argued for political, economic, and even clothing reform for women." In 1890, Susan B. Anthony and fellow suffragists founded the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) advocating equal pay, the right to vote, and the right to divorce. They campaigned vigorously for women's suffrage, and by the time The Awakening was published in 1899, Colorado, Utah, and Idaho had granted women the right to vote. Two decades later, national women's suffrage was granted with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Though Kate Chopin herself was not a suffragist or an active participant in social reform, many of her female protagonists act unconventionally, defying social standards to pursue individual freedom.
Though the term "Creole" has evolved over centuries, when Chopin was writing it identified people with a mixed Spanish and French heritage living along Louisiana's gulf coast. Creoles were white and born in America; they were typically upper class and spoke both French and English. They used the term to distinguish themselves from Cajuns and foreigners moving to the gulf area. There was also a group known as Creoles of Color, which traced its roots back to the African and Caribbean influences in Louisiana culture and were either black or of mixed race. Until the Civil War, free Creoles of Color enjoyed many rights and freedoms that were virtually unknown to blacks and mixed-race people elsewhere in the South.
As Chopin's novel reflects, the Creoles in New Orleans lived principally in the French Quarter while non-Creoles lived on the other side of Canal Street in the "American" section of town. France's refusal to side with the Confederacy during the Civil War ruptured Creole New Orleans's connection to what it considered its mother country. Nonetheless, French influence remained strong in New Orleans throughout the nineteenth century.
The criteria that identify Louisiana Creoles have long been the subject of debate and continue to be disputed. For example, some reserve this label exclusively for white French-speakers, while others seek a more inclusive definition. In addition, there are other groups that describe themselves as Creole but which are unrelated to the Louisiana Creoles, such as the Creole populations of Portugal and Latin America.
Prior to Kate Chopin's publication of The Awakening, she was best known for stories of local culture and color. Her collection of short stories Bayou Folk (1894) received favorable reviews but was routinely dismissed as merely depicting the eccentricities and lifestyles of a specific region. In her introduction to The Awakening, Nancy A. Walker writes that "Reviewers emphasized the quaint foreignness of her Louisiana characters as though she had described exotic butterflies observed under a microscope, and the word most frequently applied to the stories in the collection was 'charming."' Undeterred, Chopin continued writing short stories and was published in prestigious magazines such as Vogue, Harper's, and Atlantic Monthly. When Chopin's second collection, A Night in Acadie (1897), was published, it met with the same response as Bayou Folk, and was relegated to the categories of lightweight women's fiction and local color. Determined to prove herself more than a regional writer, Chopin published The Awakening in 1899.
Aside from two positive reviews—one from a writer who was also a reader for Chopin's publisher and the other from her hometown newspaper, the St. Louis Republic—response to Page 124 | Top of Articlethe novel was overwhelmingly negative. Edna's behavior was criticized, but Chopin was blamed as well for the immorality she seemed to embrace. An unnamed reviewer for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat declared that The Awakening was "not a healthy book," saying that "it cannot be said that either of the principal characters claims admiration or sympathy." Many critics of the time took exception to Edna's sexual affair with Arobin. Emily Toth, one of Chopin's biographers, is quoted in Walker's introduction, pointing out that "reviewers of The Awakening virtually ignored a number of potential targets for their disapproval, concentrating instead on Edna's sexual liaison with Alcée Arobin." Though the novel was never officially banned, its negative reception may have contributed to its being largely ignored as literature until the mid-1950s.
Modern critics have been kinder. In her essay "Tradition and the Female Talent: The Awakening as a Solitary Book," critic Elaine Showalter calls the novel a "revolutionary book," but notes that critics in Chopin's time panned the book as "'morbid,' 'essentially vulgar,' and 'gilded dirt."' In "'A Language Which Nobody Understood': Emanipatory Strategies in The Awakening," Patricia S. Yaeger calls the book "one of the great subversive novels." In a modern review of The Awakening for Herizons under the heading "Feminist Classics," Stacy Kauder writes that the novel "stands the test of time," providing modern readers with two positive role models: Edna Pontellier and Chopin herself, "who chose to write in opposition to conventional society."
Cynthia Griffin Wolff
In the following excerpt, Wolff examines the social conditions that restricted Victorian-era women, and how Edna's choice to escape from these constraints was ultimately doomed.
Critics admire the "modernism" of Chopin's work, the strong spareness of the prose and the "minimalism" of a narrative whose absences are at least as important as its action and whose narrator maintains strict emotional and moral neutrality. What we may not fully appreciate is the relationship between these elements and Edna Pontellier's personal tragedy, a relationship whose terms are announced by the apparent disarray of the novel's brilliant beginning. This is a tale about not speaking, about disjunction—about denials, oversights, prohibitions, exclusions, and absences. Not merely about things that are never named, but most significantly about stories that cannot be told and things that can be neither thought nor spoken because they do not have a name.
After about 1849, the notion of a "woman's sexual awakening" became, by definition, an impossibility—a contradiction in terms—because the medical establishment in America began to promulgate the view that normal females possessed no erotic inclinations whatsoever (and one cannot awaken something that does not exist). William Acton, the acknowledged expert on the nature of women's sexuality and author of "one of the most widely quoted books on sexual problems and diseases in the English-speaking world," wrote:
I have taken pains to obtain and compare abundant evidence on this subject, and the result of my inquiries I may briefly epitomize as follows:—I should say that the majority of women (happily for society) are not very much Page 125 | Top of Articletroubled with sexual feeling of any kind. What men are habitually women are only exceptionally. It is too true, I admit, as the divorce courts show, that there are some few women who have sexual desires so strong that they surpass those of men, and shock public feeling by their consequences.
Acton's work elaborated a comprehensive system of women's "inequality" to men; and it was so universally respected that his sentiments can be taken to represent opinions that were held throughout much of America during the second half of the nineteenth century.
The official "scientific" and "medical" view can be stated quite simply: an average woman (a "decent" woman) possesses no sexual feelings whatsoever. Thus it is not enough to say that The Awakening is a novel about repression (that is, about a situation in which a woman possesses sexual feelings, but is prohibited from acting upon them). It is, instead, a novel about a woman whose shaping culture has, in general, refused her right to speak out freely; this is, moreover, a culture that construes a woman's self-expression as a violation of sexual "purity" and a culture that has denied the existence of women's libidinous potential altogether—has eliminated the very concept of sexual passion for "normal" women.
The consequences are emotionally mutilating (in the extreme case, some form of mental breakdown would result). In such a culture, if a "respectable" woman supposes herself to feel "something," some powerful ardor in her relationship with a man, she can draw only two possible inferences. Either her feelings are not sexual (and should not be enacted in a genital relationship), or she is in some (disgraceful) way "abnormal." Moreover, because there is presumed to be no such entity as sexual feelings in the typical woman, a typical (i.e. "normal") woman will literally have no words for her (nonexistent) feelings, will have access to no discourse within which these (nonexistent) passions can be examined or discussed, will be able to make no coherent connection between the (unintelligible) inner world of her affective life and the external, social world in which she must live. Finally, if she feels confusion and emotional pain, her culture's general prohibition against speaking out will make it difficult, perhaps impossible, to discuss or even reveal her discomfort.
Medical and psychological experts concluded that although women had no sexual drives per se, they often possessed a passionate desire to bear children: such ardor was both "normal" and (inevitably) sexual. On these terms, then, sexual activity—even moderate sexual "desire"—was appropriate in "normal" women. However, a profound displacement or confusion was introduced by this accommodation: the language of feminine sexuality became inextricably intertwined with discourse that had to do with child-bearing and motherhood.
Scholars have accepted almost as cliché the fact that in late Victorian America "motherhood" was exalted as an all-but-divine state. However, if we do not also understand the oblique (and contradictory) sexual implications of this cultural ideal, we may be unaware of the confusion and conflict it engendered.
Any woman would find this concatenation of denials and demands unbalancing; however, in Edna's case, the already vexed situation is heightened by a severe conflict of cultures. In a society where the actual experiences of women were diverse and the normative pronouncements were stringent, Chopin has constructed a novel where extremes converge to demonstrate the malignant potential of these normative attitudes, and she marks the summer at Grand Isle as the moment when crisis begins.
Creoles permit themselves an extraordinary freedom of sensual expression. Thus a lusty carnal appetite in men is taken for granted. However, the case of Creole women is different, for their sexuality may exist only as a component of "motherhood." Nevertheless, so long as they accept this model, women, too, may engage in a sumptuous sexual life. Mme Ratignolle, the "sensuous Madonna," embodies the essence of ardor and voluptuary appetite thus construed.
The Creole world is more densely erotic than any community Edna has encountered. It revels frankly and happily in the pleasures of the flesh—not merely enjoying these delights with undisguised zest, but discussing them in public with no shame at all.
This strange world, with its languorous climate and frankly sensuous habits, is a world where "normal," "respectable" women openly vaunt pleasures that are unfamiliar to Edna Pontellier. She is fascinated, stimulated, Page 126 | Top of Articleeventually profoundly aroused. And although she is bewildered by these new sensations, once having been touched by them, she becomes unwilling to pull away.
Edna's easiest option is "collusion," to become a "mother-woman"; however, she rejects this role violently because of the displacements and forfeitures that it would impose. If, like Adele, she were willing to disguise her erotic drives in the mantle of "motherhood," she might indulge the many delights of the body as Adele patently does. However, such a capitulation would not allow her really to possess her own feelings—nor even to talk about them directly or explicitly. It would maim the "self," not unify and affirm it: like Adele, Edna would be obliged to displace all of her sexual discourse into prattle about "the children" or her (pregnant) "condition," fettering her carnal desires to the production of babies; and part of what was really inside (that is, her sexual drive) would have been displaced on to something outside (society's construction of female appetite as essentially "maternal"). In the process, the authority and integrity of her identity would have been compromised, and instead of making contact with the outside world, she would be merged into and controlled by it. Edna loves her children and is happy to be a mother; however, she refuses to define her sexuality in terms of them.
In some primitive way, silence also is Edna's only appropriate reaction to society's way of defining female sexuality: for if women were imagined to have no sexual feelings, not to speak would (ironically) be the way to "communicate" this absence. Yet not to speak has an annihilating consequence: it is, in the end, not to be—not to have social reality. One can never affirm "self" merely through silence and fantasy—can never forge that vital connection between the "me" and the "not-me" that validates identity. (Even the "fantasy" of art is embedded in an act of communication between the "me" and the "not-me".) A "self" can mature only if one strives to articulate emotions; learning to name one's feelings is an integral component of learning the extent and nature of one's feelings, and what is undescribed may remain sways "indescribable"—even to oneself—"vague" and even "unfamiliar."
Indeed, the dispassionate tone of Chopin's novel may be related to the complexity of Edna's quest, for Edna cannot "solve" her problem without an extraordinary feat of creativity. She must discover not merely a new vernacular with which to name her feelings—not merely a new form of plot that is capable of containing them—but also an "audience" that both comprehends and esteems the story she might ultimately tell. Thus the true subject of The Awakening may be less the particular dilemma of Mrs. Pontellier than the larger problems of female narrative that it reflects; and if Edna's poignant fate is in part a reflection of her own habits, it is also, in equal part, a measure of society's failure to allow its women a language of their own.
When Leonce begins to discern the differences in Edna's manner and takes his concerns to Dr. Mandelet, their conversation is uncannily similar to these nineteenth-century discussions of woman's nature.
"She's odd, she's not like herself. I can't make her out…. She's got some sort of notion in her head concerning the eternal rights of women."…
"Woman, my dear friend," [the Doctor responds,] "is a very peculiar and delicate organism—a sensitive and highly organized woman, such as I know Mrs. Pontellier to be, is especially peculiar…. Most women are moody and whimsical."
Mlle Reisz and Alcee Arobin (characters in Edna's nascent narratives and audiences for them) both hold out the possibility that Edna might resolve her dilemma by usurping the prerogatives of men. Yet each offers a "solution" that would constrain Edna to relinquish some significant and valued portion of herself.
Mlle Reisz holds out the independence that men can achieve in a career. Yet Edna chooses not to follow this avenue; and Mlle Reisz's admonition that the artist "must possess the courageous soul" may have been less of a deterrent than a statement about the example of that lady's own life. Fulfillment through aesthetic creativity appears to offer authentic expression to only one portion of the self. Mlle Reisz "had quarreled with almost everyone, owing to a temper which was self-assertive and a disposition to trample upon the rights of others"; having no sensuous charm or aesthetic allure ("a homely woman with a small weazened face and body and eyes that glowed"), she presents a sad and sorry prospect of some future Edna-as-successful-artist. What woman seeking sexual fulfillment Page 127 | Top of Articlewould willing follow the pathway to such a forfeiture of feminine sensuous pleasure as this?
Arobin offers the opposite. Something simpler, but equally wounding. Lust. Sex divorced from all other feelings. The expression of that raw libido that was presumed to be part of men's nature (as "virility"), but categorically denied as a component of the normal female. Yet Edna finds that limiting sexuality to this form of expression imposes a distortion fully as destructive as society's construction of "maternity."
Female sexuality had been falsified by the construct of "maternity"; however, there was one barbarous component of femininity, one consequence of feminine sexuality, that even the mother-woman could never evade.
In the nineteenth century, with its still-primitive obstetrical practices and its high child-mortality rates, she was expected to face severe bodily pain, disease, and death—and still serve as the emotional support and strength of her family. As the eminent Philadelphia neurologist S. Weir Mitchell wrote in the 1880s, "We may be sure that our daughters will be more likely to have to face at some time the grim question of pain than the lads who grow up beside them…. To most women … there comes a time when pain is a grim presence in their lives."
She concludes with a narrative gesture of sorts—a concatenation of the parlance of "maternity." Perhaps it is a tale of the son, Icarus, defeated by overweening ambition: "A bird with a broken wing was beating the air above, reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water." Perhaps a tale of babies: "Naked in the open air … she felt like some new-born creature, opening its eyes in a familiar world that it had never known." Most likely, it is a tragic inversion of the birth of Venus: "The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace."
So Edna has failed. Or rather, being a woman with some weaknesses and no extraordinary strengths, Edna has chosen the only alternative she could imagine to the ravaging social arrangements of her day. However, we must not overlook the fact that if her heroine faltered, Kate Chopin fashioned a splendid success. The Awakening is the new narrative that Mrs. Pontellier was unable to create: not (it is true) a story of female affirmation, but rather an excruciatingly exact dissection of the ways in which society distorts a woman's true nature.
Source: Cynthia Griffin Wolff, "Un-Utterable Longing: The Discourse of Feminine Sexuality in The Awakening," in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 24, No. 1, Spring 1996, pp. 3-23.
Chopin, Kate, The Awakening, in Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism: Kate Chopin: The Awakening, edited by Nancy A. Walker, Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1993, originally published by Herbert S. Stone, 1899.
Kauder, Stacy, Review of The Awakening, in Herizon, Vol. 18, No. 3, Winter 2005, p. 44.
Review of The Awakening, St. Louis University, pages.slu.edu/student/mercurrm/doc8.html (November 10, 2005), originally published as "Mrs. Chopin's Surprise Novel," in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, May 13, 1899.
Showalter, Elaine, "Tradition and the Female Talent: The Awakening as a Solitary Book," in Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism: Kate Chopin: The Awakening, edited by Nancy A. Walker, Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1993, p. 170.
Yaeger, Patricia S., "'A Language Which Nobody Understood': Emancipatory Strategies in The Awakening," in Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism: Kate Chopin: The Awakening, edited by Nancy A. Walker, Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1993, pp. 271, 291.
Walker, Nancy A., "Introduction: Biographical and Historical Contexts," in Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism: Kate Chopin: The Awakening, Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1993, pp. 4, 10, 13, 16.