The Awakening KATE CHOPIN 1899

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The Awakening

When Kate Chopin’sThe 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 persis-tent negative reputation for the author. At the same time, the novel gave voice to a new genera-tion of women, making an important contribu-tion 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 Awakeningis the story of Edna Pontellier’s journey from a sleepy, discontented life to one fully under her own control. The romantic atten-tions of Robert Lebrun and Alce´e 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

KATE CHOPIN

1899

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lover, 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 inclina-tions 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 lib-erated 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 swim-ming out into the ocean. Others contend that the closing scene shows Edna rising above the limita-tions 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 pre-judices of others.

PLOT SUMMARY

Chapters I–III

Annoyed by a squawking parrot, Le´once 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. Le´once decides to go play billiards at a nearby hotel. Robert and Edna talk on the porch.

When Le´once 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,

BIOGRAPHY

KATE CHOPIN

Katherine O’Flaherty Chopin was born on February 8, 1850, in St. Louis, Missouri. Her father died young, and her mother was left to raise four young children alone. She attended the Academy of the Sacred Heart, where she was taught domestic skills, as women then were not expected to do anything else with their lives. She married Oscar Chopin in 1870, and had six chil-dren. Shortly after their marriage, the Chopins settled in New Orleans, where Kate was exposed to Creole society as well as the politics of race and gender that were sweeping through the city and the entire nation in the late nineteenth century. When Oscar died in 1882, Chopin returned to St. Louis.

Chopin began to write poems and short stories for magazines and newspapers. When she failed to find a publisher for her first novel,

At Fault(1890), she had it privately printed. Her

first collection of short stories, Bayou Folk

(1894), received national acclaim. However, as her topics became increasingly controversial— women who did not want to marry, were inde-pendent, or were unfulfilled as wives and mothers—she had difficulty selling her stories.

Her last novel, The Awakening (1899), was

roundly condemned by critics.

Chopin died in St. Louis on August 20, 1904, of a brain hemorrhage.

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Raoul, has a fever and needs her attention. When she argues that Raoul is perfectly well, Le´once ‘‘reproach[es] his wife with her inatten-tion, her habitual neglect of the children.’’ Awake and furious, Edna goes outside and cries, filled with an ‘‘indescribable oppression.’’ In the morning, Le´once 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 Le´once’s praises.

Chapters IV–VI

Edna is ‘‘not a mother-woman,’’ meaning she does not have maternal interest in her children. Ade`le Ratignolle, on the other hand, is a prime example of a mother-woman, a beautiful preg-nant woman who spends her time knitting baby clothes and talking about her children. Listening to Ade`le 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 Ade`le, and this summer it is Edna. As Edna sketches a picture of him, Robert begins to make gestures and comments suggest-ing a familiarity that makes Edna uncomforta-ble. Nearby, Ade`le 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.’’

Chapters VII–VIII

Edna and Ade`le 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. Ade`le responds by saying, ‘‘Pauvre che´rie’’ (poor darling), but Edna is con-fused 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 Le´once lacks passion, and she is only fond of her children in ‘‘an uneven, impulsive way.’’ She tells much of this to Ade`le, and feels flushed and liberated admitting it. Robert, with the women’s children in tow, finds them. As they head back to the resort, Ade`le 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, dis-cuss the trip to Mexico he is planning for the beginning of next month.

Chapters IX–XI

Several weeks after Ade`le and Robert’s talk, there is a party for the families at the resort. Robert entreats Mademoiselle Reisz, an uncon-ventional older woman, to play the piano. The sound of Reisz’s playing conjures feelings of

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The next day at Grand Isle, Victor is making repairs to the main house, and Mariequita is keeping him company. Edna appears unexpect-edly. 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 depres-sion 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 limit-ing 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 Le´once, her chil-dren, Reisz, and Robert. Her strength gone, she thinks back to the endless grass field of her childhood.

THEMES

Sexuality

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. Ade`le pleads with Edna to ‘‘think of the children! Remember them!’’ as Edna pur-sues both Robert and Arobin, but neither of the men is asked to do the same. Robert’s flirtations are generally considered harmless, but Ade`le 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 surren-ders 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.

Class Distinctions

Edna’s husband, Le´once, reveals the importance of class distinctions in theThe 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 visi-tors, Le´once is immediately concerned with how her behavior might affect their social standing: ‘‘we’ve got to observeles convenancesif we ever expect to get on and keep up with the proces-sion.’’ 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 every-one knows they are not in financial trouble or slipping in social standing: ‘‘Mr. Pontellier had saved appearances!’’

As Le´once strains to keep up, Edna relishes the idea of escaping class expectations. She with-draws from her ‘‘fashionable acquaintances’’ and spends time with Mademoiselle Reisz, who is something of an outcast. Not being Creole her-self, Edna always feels like an outsider in the tightly knit society. She draws strength and satis-faction from her decision to remain on the out-side, instead of striving for inclusion.

Gender Roles

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 Ade`le—a paragon of femininity and matronly responsibility, a ‘‘fault-less Madonna’’—that she would ‘‘give up the unessential’’ for her children but would not give up herself. Edna feels that she should have more

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conventions or a defiant assertion of her right to freedom and self-determination.

Isolation

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 initi-ally 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 conversa-tions about subjects that are typically taboo. The others recognize her outsider status as well; as Ade`le 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

intro-duction 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 lan-guage 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 soli-tude 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 involunta-rily 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.

HISTORICAL OVERVIEW

Victorian Values

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’sOn the Origin of Species

(1859) as well as advances in medicine and indus-try. 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 comp-letely, 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 uncom-fortable in the presence of free-speaking Creoles like Robert, Arobin, and Ade`le. 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.

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