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Henry James’s “Daisy Miller” & Edna Pointellier of Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening”

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  • Pages: 6
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  • Category: Awakening

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Two seemingly disturbing novellas, Henry James’ Daisy Miller and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, are really rather the opposite; they are encouraging portraits of the new American woman. Embedded in both stories are the controversies that crossed classes and cultures in the Late Nineteenth Century and the seemingly small characters emerge as larger than life heroines as a result if their struggles. True to the Realism and Naturalism many writers chose as the genre for their medium, Daisy Miller and Edna Pointellier expose the vulnerability and oppression of ordinary life for American women at home and abroad. In the end we remember that these fearless spirited women broke the rules at all costs, in order to find and be themselves.

The rise of Realism can be attributed to the need to capture, report, and interpret the changing face of America. Cities were developing rapidly as was the new American culture. The close of the Civil War in 1865 affected various elements of American society: conflicts such as the ethical need to abolish slavery and giving black people the right to be full citizens were undoubtedly a sore subject and eventually spawned the Women’s suffrage movement; psychoanalytical studies and psychosexual theories, such as those of Sigmund Freud, were introduced the role of sexuality in personality formation; and entwined with all of this, there was a new capitalist market society spawned by the Industrial Revolution, which granted opportunities of social and economic climbing for the least likely people – quite a tumultuous time of role-changing, who could blame a woman for examining her position and striving to rise above it?

Daisy Miller, although set amongst the upper class of European society, tells the story of a young American woman and the refreshing controversy she brings to its experienced social worldliness. Daisy is introduced through Winterbourne’s eyes and the story revolved around his perception of her “uncultured” behavior; the reader is forced to judge based upon his interpretations of her behavior and the reactions of those around him, but Winterbourne both approves and disapproves of her actions, leaving a very mixed impression at the end of the story. Daisy enters into Winterbourne’s life in the vacation “hot spot” of the time, Vevey. For his American audience, he likens the destination to Newport, Rhode Island or Saratoga Springs, New York. (McMichael 325)

We already see there is a clash of culture issue on the horizon.

Being thrown into a new environment is not difficult for the adaptable American. She wastes no time in making friends with whomever she meets and wishes to absorb all that European life has to offer. This is all new to Daisy, who is considered nouveaux riche and therefore looked down upon by the established wealthy families in Europe. There are certain codes of conduct and etiquette that a fine young woman is expected to adhere to and as Daisy is new to it all, she finds those stuffy rules and ideals trifling and boresome. In chapter one, Winterbourne examines Daisy’s physical attributes. He says that, “it was not at all insipid [dull, blah, characterless], but it was not at all expressive; and though it was eminently delicate Winterbourne mentally accused it – very forgivingly- of a want of finish”. (McMichael 329) It appears that James is revealing the whole purpose of the novella in this sentence – a mental accusation of a nouveaux riche American woman in the late 1800s.

Daisy’s natural appearance needed refinement for the American who had been living amongst the refined European ladies. In chapter two, Winterbourne’s wealthy aunt tells of Daisy’s brow-raising behavior in Rome, “[being] very intimate with third-rate Italians”. (357) She is later described as “un jeune fils qui se passe ses fantasies” – a girl who succumbs to her whims. Ms. Daisy Miller is the Brittney Spears or Tara Reid of the late 1800s. She is constantly partying with, “ever so many people…[and t] he society is extremely select” (348) and she loves it! The tabloid photos provided by Winterbourne’s friends are not very forgiving and ultimately, Daisy is exiled from his social circle. Her demise at the end due to malaria may serve as a cautionary tale to readers but her experience of a romantic evening, looking at the stars through the open roof of the Coliseum, was the result of Daisy embracing her being and making her own choices.

Edna Pontellier seeks embrace her true being in The Awakening, but gives up the fight for freedom that Daisy so effortlessly commands. This novella opens with Pointellier sitting on the porch of his summer cottage in Grand Isle, not far from New Orleans. Edna and Robert Lebrun return from an afternoon swim, which calls “folly!” (McMichael 521) Again we see a distinction being made, but this time it falls between the man and wife. Pointellier comment regarding Edna’s adventure of learning to swim, a new activity for females in he late 1800s, is mockery; as a man, he is probably thoroughly accomplished at the sport and throughout the story he is often too busy in the world of business to participate in Edna’s recreational activities. This sad portrait of an empty marital relationship is not to be mistaken in its intent. The name “Edna” is equivalent to the Hebrew word for “spirit reborn”1. As she returns from her swim she holds out her hand and accepts her rings, which Pointellier held for her and thus assumes her marital responsibilities on land.

Robert shares her love of the ocean and as the rift between Edna and Mr. Pontellier grows deeper and the summer weeks pass, Robert begins to fill the empty space between them. She and Robert have a good report; they have mutual respect and interest in their relationship. Mr. and Mrs. Pointellier treat one another as convenient possessions. By marrying Mr. Pontellier, Edna, “felt she would take her place with a certain dignity in the world of reality; closing the portals forever behind her upon the realm of romance and dreams”. (McMichael 533) Social conventions then – and to a lesser degree now- expected women to marry, bear children and look after the family and home, as that was a lady’s position. The jewelry and delicacies Mr. Pontellier sends from his business travels are of fleeting pleasure to Edna, even her children are of no consolation, and in time she yearns for a more; and why not? Her husband travels the country and leaves her to fulfill domestic obligations.

While he is away, Robert keeps her company and dotes on her, which is surprisingly acceptable in the Creole society. Edna comes from a religious upbringing in rural Kentucky. She is often embarrassed by the sexually explicit conversations that take place in her circle of friends, but eventually becomes more comfortable in her world despite her feelings of insufficiency as a wife and mother. Edna sees her friend, Madame Adele Ratignolle, as the ultimate Creole mother-woman; she is described as almost mythically beautiful, “[with] the spun-god hair that comb nor confining pin could restrain; the blue eyes that were like nothing but sapphires; two lips that pouted, that were so red one could only think of cherries”. (McMichael 535) Poor Edna feels completely out of place!

With no one she can relate to, she succumbs to her feelings for Robert, but as he knows he cannot act on them he runs away to Mexico without a word of explanation. Edna falls into a deep depression for several months and retreats further and further from society and her family. She dabbles in art and music to keep herself busy, but it does not keep her satisfied. She begins to neglect her duties to Pointellier, potentially jeopardizing his business relationships, and finally moves to a tiny cottage with her own money; she no longer cares about what the neighbors will say. Just when she gets comfortable Robert returns, but ironically, just as they express their forbidden desires for one another and are just about to consummate their love, Madame Ratignolle calls for her to bear witness to her childbirth. Robert escapes again. With her broken dreams swimming through her mind all night, she rises in the morning and walks out into the ocean, never to return.

Both women have extraordinary stories within their ordinary lives – a staple of the Realist and Naturalist movements in the Late Nineteenth Century. With all the changes in social end economic expectations and the clashes in cultures due to the ease in travel and immigration to the States, it is no wonder these characters found themselves pondering and challenging their positions in the world. Despite the fact that both women ultimately die in the end, Henry James’s and Kate Chopin’s passionate criticisms of these two women are constructed in a way that make them appear more as victims of their surroundings than as miserable losers.

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