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Ministering Angels

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Freedom serves as a glimmering light of hope and promise, a symbolic representation of a life of complete liberty that allows for individuality and independence from the rest of society. When a culture, however, is plagued with the ideals of misogyny, freedom can be particularly difficult for women to attain. Kate Chopin’s novel, The Awakening, addresses this hardship with the story of Edna Pontellier, a young woman living in the late 19th century United States. Through vivid representations of the sexist culture in which Edna lives, Chopin identifies the numerous adversities and discriminatory attitudes Edna has to face. Though Edna resiliently fights against these prejudiced ideals held by those in her community, she ultimately reaches a state of desperation. Being burdened by her inability to assimilate to the roles of ‘wife’ and ‘mother’ and to achieve her deep-rooted desire of sovereignty that was profoundly suppressed through years of objectification, Edna sacrifices herself in the Gulf as a means to free her soul from the oppressions that tormented her throughout her life. Her attempt to reclaim her lost sense of identity highlights the detrimental effect of a patriarchal society where women are objectified instead of personified, consequently establishing self-destructive feelings of inadequacy and isolation in the world.

Edna’s wish for complete independence is utterly crushed through continual objectification from her husband and other prominent male characters throughout the novel. Edna is persistently seen as a possession, as her husband, Leonce, looks at her like “a valuable piece of personal property;” her husband’s gaze serves to illustrate the sense of ownership that he feels obligated to have over his wife (Chopin 3). Instead of treating Edna as a fully competent human being with aspirations, he views her merely as an object to “care for” and flaunt to others. He sees his wife as a “valuable possession” to which he can add to his own reputation and credibility amongst his peers. The possessiveness that Leonce has towards Edna results in her lack of self autonomy that she so desperately values; according to critic Kwangsoon Kim, her inability to attain this sense of independence causes her immense disdain and results in a firmly held desire to reclaim herself and her sense of identity that was thoroughly oppressed by the patriarchal ideals practiced by her husband and that of others (Kim 75). This reclamation of her individuality takes a stronghold as she celebrates her birthday in the new house she rented without the approval of her husband.

Further contributing to Kim’s idea, Dianne Bunch exemplifies Edna’s effort to reclaim herself by emphasizing Edna’s wearing of the diamond tiara, that Leonce had given to her. In order to “flaunt his attempt to crown her as a possession,” Edna openly mocks her husband’s possessiveness, signifying the start of her “new life of sovereignty” (Bunch 56). Her bold action serves as a strong-willed attempt to eliminate herself from her objectification. What initially was a symbolic representation of Leonce’s dehumanization of his wife, Edna turned into expressive ridicule of not only his possessiveness but of also the objectifying obligations put upon her by society. Her failure to fully submit to these constraints leads to her growing sense of isolation as she is unable to align with the ideals established by the patriarchal community in which she lives. This sense of alienation has detrimental effects on her and her psyche as it ultimately leads to strong feelings of desolation resulting in her desperation to escape it all through her sacrifice at the end of the novel.

Moreover, Edna’s anguish unfolds as she attempts to disavow her marriage to Leonce. The repudiation of her marriage is depicted in her fit of rage, as she takes “off her wedding ring” and “stamp[s] her heel upon it, striving to crush it.” Bunch indicates how the ring represents the “circulatory of her entrapment,” as Edna desperately tries to eradicate it from her life (Bunch 55). The ring, however, is seemingly indestructible as she is unable to destroy it, symbolizing her own captivity within her marriage. This sense of imprisonment hence contributes to her feelings of irreversible hopelessness as she is unable to escape from the life in which she lives. Her anger towards her entrapment of domesticity is further manifested in the displacement of her handkerchief that which she “tore into ribbons” and “flung from her” (Chopin 53???). Unable to repress her emotions any longer, Edna’s long-held feelings of anger become more apparent as she outwardly starts to express her defiant attitude towards the objectification and numerous oppressions society has burdened her with. The act of tearing and throwing her handkerchief serves as another powerful symbol of her effort to dispel the pain the patriarchy has caused her. Consequently, these audacious actions eventually result in feelings of alienation as she is met with disapproval from her community that ultimately lead to her tragic self-sacrifice in the Gulf.

Furthermore, Edna feels a form of oppression from her children as well. From the very beginning of the novel, it is established that Edna “was fond of her children in an uneven, impulsive way” (Chopin 25). This characterization of Edna sets the tone for the inconsistency of affection for her children. The diction of “uneven” and “impulsive” connotes that Edna only shows tenderness to her children when she feels like it. Her irregular devotion sparks bitterness towards her children leaving her with a brooding sense of oppression as she is unable to show the same affection that is expected of her from society. This feeling is further depicted later on in the novel when she spots “the street, the children, the fruit vendor, the flowers” and views them all of some part “of an alien world which had suddenly become antagonistic” (Chopin 72). While her children were firmly laid as a foundation for her sense of entrapment, the very idea that such mundane things like a “street” or a “fruit vendor” could cause such torment on her soul, reveals the misery that is insidiously consuming her. The mundane imagery paired with an outlandish adjective highlights Edna’s feeling of self-alienation from that of the place she lives. This isolation hence strengthens her notion of viewing her children and ordinary matters as being “antagonists” since they make Edna feel as though she is being stripped of her sense of freedom. Her objectifying obligation to have complete devotion to her children suppresses her intent desire for her own liberation resulting in her feelings of inadequacy for not being fully united with the ideals of society, subsequently leading to her sacrifice in the Gulf.

Edna’s sense of individuality is also threatened with societal expectations of her to submit to her husband. While lying outside, Leonce orders Edna to come inside for he cannot “permit [her] to stay out all night” and commands her to “come in the house instantly.” His derisive words spark deep reflection within Edna as she wonders “if her husband had ever spoken to her like that before, and if she had submitted to his command;” Edna realizes that she has indeed submitted to his command before and that her submissiveness towards her husband has taken on a regular occurrence in her life (Chopin 42). Her husband’s authority over her is further portrayed when Edna leaves in the middle of the day without telling Leonce where she has gone. Upon her return, he tells her that she “should have left some suitable explanation for [her] absence,” implying that he must know his wife’s whereabouts at any given time (Chopin 68). Though Edna acquiesces initially to the commands of her husband, Kim indicates that she soon “starts to recognize herself as a privatized individual” who detests the obligation of submitting to the demands of being a “the hostage in the home,” a place Leonce would much rather see her in (Kim. 73).

Her utter rejection of submissiveness to others takes form in the rental of a new small house a couple of blocks away from the house she lives in with Leonce. Edna writes to her husband to share her joy of moving into this new house, to which he replies with “unqualified disapproval and remonstrance” of her seemingly impetuous actions (Chopin 126). Though met with condemnation from Leonce, Edna follows through with her plans anyway, exemplifying a defiant protest against the authority of her husband; however, she later experiences the reproachful objections and questioning of others in her community about her decision, Edna takes on an aura of despondency. She becomes aware of her place of isolation in society and comes to the unfortunate conclusion that she will most likely never be able to achieve the complete and utter freedom and independence that she so desperately desires, hence contributing to her final resolution of sacrificing herself in the Gulf in order to end the loathsome life that she feels held captive in.

Additionally, Edna’s inability to assimilate to the roles of ‘wife’ and ‘mother’ results in the lack of unity between her and the rest of society. Bunch depicts Adele Ratignolle is seen as the complete antithesis of Edna (Bunch 51). Adele is portrayed as being one of the women “who idolized their children, worshipped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels” (Chopin 10). By illustrating Adele’s attitude to her ‘duty’ of being a mother as a “holy privilege,” Chopin characterizes Adele as having her complete and utter identity in the sole idea of raising her children. The mere idea of motherhood being considered “holy” or of mothers being “ministering angels” paints society’s perspective of motherhood as a divine opportunity and honor for women to have. However, Edna asserts deep animosity towards this idea as she aspires to feel her own sense of sovereignty; Emile Toth highlights how Edna hence begins to take ownership of herself and refuses to give up her individuality for the ‘duty’ of being a “wife and mother” (Toth 117). This is further illustrated when Edna is asked if she would ever sacrifice herself for her children, in which she says that she would “give up the unessential” like her money and life, but she “wouldn’t give [her]self” (Chopin 64).

The distinction Edna makes between her life and herself is significant in establishing the basis of her values. She seemingly places no importance on her life itself as she finds her ‘duties’ taxing and oppressive in nature. This creates an aura of dissatisfaction in Edna as she is unhappy with the current life in which she lives. However, the fact that she refuses to give up herself symbolizes the separation she makes between her as an individual and her roles of ‘wife’ and ‘mother.’ She rejects the very notion of giving up her sense of identity which later develops into her firmly held wish to “never again to belong to another than herself” (Chopin 108). Edna’s mindset directly contrasts that of Adele’s and of the rest of society, who is completely willing and encouraging of women to give up their sense of individuality for her children, exemplifying a form of objectification. Furthermore, this contributes to Edna feelings of alienation and inadequacy as she is unable to assimilate into these roles that others so desperately want to force upon, and as Donald A. Ringe points out, it ultimately results in unresolved conflict creating disunion between herself and that of reality (Ringe 588). This further contributes to her feelings of anguish and dissatisfaction in her heart, as well as her ultimate sacrifice at the end of the novel.

This sense of imprisonment ultimately results in her suicide in the Gulf. As Toth characterizes Edna as having an “inward life of questioning,” Edna is unable to conform to the dehumanizing obligations placed upon her society (Toth 115). Furthermore, as seemingly the only resolution for her torment, Ringe acknowledges how Edna is lured to the sea to find a sense of what once was an unattainable sense of freedom (Ringe 587). For Edna, the Gulf becomes “seductive, never ceasing, […] inviting [her] soul to wander in the abysses of solitude,” a feeling that her heart so desperately yearned for (Chopin 155). As Edna approaches the sea, a bird with a broken wing flies overhead “beating the air above, reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water (Chopin 156).” This bird serves as a symbolic representation of Edna’s inability to reach complete freedom. The broken wing is an allusion to the brokenness and pain the patriarchy has caused Edna. As the bird begins to fly, it initially is able to soar, symbolic of Edna’s assertive and bold actions to live a life of her own, rejecting and destroying any object that represented her entrapment; however, the realization that this desire to escape her objectification is unattainable, Edna goes through a catastrophic spiral towards her own demise in the Gulf. The water for both Edna and the bird serves as a last resort for an escape from the torment and pain they have experienced on earth. It is the only way Edna could achieve complete and utter freedom in her life, as she had suffered through years of isolation and worthlessness from the misogynistic culture in which she lived in; this torment of never fully reaching what she desired in life, leads to her ultimate sacrifice as she finds peace in the sea.

Chopin vividly exemplifies Edna’s strongly held values of independence and individuality as Edna’s inability to have a sense of identity leads to a deeply rooted sense of anguish as she lives her life under the misogynistic ideals of her society. Her failure to assimilate into her ‘duties’ contributes to her feelings of oppression that torment her throughout her life. Furthermore, since her personal values do not match that of her community, it creates a lack of unity between her and the reality in which she lives, creating a sense of isolation and inadequacy within Edna. Her self-alienation leads to severe internal suffering as she tries to find a way to escape it all. Under captivity of a sexist culture, Edna’s only way of escape is through her suicide in the sea; the Gulf is the only place that she could find true freedom from her enslavement, Edna sacrifices herself in order to relieve herself from the profound amount of objectification and pain that a patriarchal society creates for women and their psyche. 

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