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”The Awakening” by Kate Chopin

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The Awakening was Chopin’s major work and the most recognized in the literary world although added to the list of neglected American masterpieces. The work of an author who, soon after her death in 1904, was remembered, if at all, for the short stories set in New Orleans which she contributed to the local-color movement (e.g., Bayou Folk, a collection published in 1894). The Awakening was long forgotten until Kenneth Eble rediscovered it for a limited American audience in 1956. The rediscovery of The Awakening has been made and endorsed, and in the process the claims voiced for it have been very great indeed. The Awakening is a lightly plotted account of a young woman, Edna Pontellier, and contributes to the viewpoints as to how women were viewed at the time of the writing. Chopin did have a deep belief in the rights of freedom for women but not in the same context as active feminist.  She expressed her interests were more aligned with freedom of self with regard to the roles women’s lives were involved in and the strength women had by standing by their belief in this freedom.

              Set in New Orleans in the summer resort the prosperous Creoles frequent. “A Creole husband is ‘never jealous’ because the fidelity instilled in Creole women from birth ensures that a man’s possession of his wife will never be challenged” (Creole).  According to the Oxford Reference Online, a Creole is a “name applied to American- born descendants of the French and Spanish settlers of Latin America” (Hart). In the essay “The Southern Woman in Fiction” by Marie Fletcher, “…the Creole girl lives to become a Creole wife; she should marry once and once married, she should be a devoted and dutiful wife even though her husband and her life in general may prove anything but ideal” (Fletcher 195).

            Adele Ratignolle epitomizes the ideal Creole woman. She is a devoted wife and mother who epitomizes womanly elegance and charm. Adele idolizes her children and worships her husband, centering her life around caring for them and performing her domestic duties. Even though Adele appears to be proper, she also portrays Creole mannerisms. Creole society imposes a strict code of chastity. Because the rules for behavior are so rigid, a certain freedom of expression is tolerated. The Creole women talk openly the intimacies of life such as pregnancy, undergarments, and love affairs. Adele’s unintentional role in the main character’s “awakening” is the effect of her words which remind Edna of the romantic dreams and fantasies of her youth.

            Another supporting woman character is Mademoiselle Reisz who is characterized as a very eccentric, ugly, irritable woman who lives alone. Her interactions with the other guests on Grand Isle are distant and reserved. She is often called upon to entertain the other guests with her expert piano playing. Reisz recognizes that Edna is touched and truly moved by her music. This love of music and the arts will create an opportunity for the two to bond. Mademoiselle Reisz’s living example of an entirely self-sufficient woman is an inspiration to Edna. Reisz is ruled by her art and her passions rather than the expectation of society. Mademoiselle Reisz could be seen as Edna in the future had she continued her life and remained independent of her husband and children.

            The fourteen-year-old Farival twins are also musically inclined. They too entertain their fellow guests by playing the piano. They represent the destiny of adolescent Victorian girls on the road to chaste motherhood (Literature-study). The twins’ piano playing is used as a way to delight others unlike the means of self-expression which is characterized by Mademoiselle Reisz.

            Another symbol of Victorian society is seen in the lady in black. She is a widow who embodies the conventional expectations of a woman whose husband has died. Her solitude shows a withdrawal from life and passion due to the respect of her husband’s death. She portrays the symbol of the socially acceptable husbandless woman.

            The main character of the book is Edna Pontellier. Her character goes through a series of “awakenings” throughout the book.  As the story opens, Edna is comfortable in her marriage but is unaware of her own feelings and ambitions. Edna is a romantic at heart but sees her marriage to Leonce as the end of her life of passion and the beginning of a life of responsibility. She is bored with her life of domesticity, and through her exposure to the uncontrolled society of Creole woman, she starts to realize the constraints of her own lifestyle. This awakening starts the recognition that she has an identity outside of that of a wife and mother.

            Edna also rebels against the notion of true motherhood. It is clear in the book that she is not the motherly type by several passages. She is described in the book as “not a mother-woman” (Chopin 9). Edna neglects her children throughout the novel. She sees them as a hindrance to her freedoms. A feeling of “relief” comes to her when her children are away. Edna even acts irresponsibly when she leaves them in the care of the pregnant Madame Ratignolle so she can pursue her lover Robert. Throughout the book, her ‘out of sight, out of mind” attitude prevails concerning her children.

            In developing a relationship with Robert, Edna has begun to develop and explore her own identity. She has discovered her own inner power and has begun to rebel against the way society would have her act. Her first swim in the ocean shows that she is no longer dependent upon the help of others which was expected during the time in which she lived. Now she has found strength and support within herself. She has a new “awakening.”

            By the end of the novel, Edna has begun to realize that she has no place in the world around her. Her increasing interest in independence shows her that there is no real place for her in that particular society. The sea will ultimately call upon her to end the loneliness.

            As the author, Kate Chopin, developed the main character’s quest for independence and departure from the norms of that day, the readers were shocked at Chopin’s sympathy for her main character Edna. When The Awakening was published in 1899, the public scorned Chopin’s writing due to its support of the actions and emotions of the sexually aware and independent female.

            To understand the rejection of Chopin’s book one must look at the cultural norms of that day. The accepted career for the women of that day was marriage. A young woman was groomed for that goal from an early age. Some of the acceptable grooming included singing, playing an instrument, and learning a little French or Italian. The qualities of a young lady were to include innocence, virtuousness, duty, and ignorance of intellectual opinion (Fashion-era).

            Whether single or married, a young woman of the 1800’s was expected to be weak and helpless. She was to portray a fragile, delicate flower who was incapable of making decisions beyond selecting the menu or instilling moral values to her children. A gentlewoman ensured that the home was a place of comfort for her husband and family. All of these qualities were not embraced by Chopin’s Edna Pontellier.

            It was a time of apparent inequalities between men and women. A woman’s prime job was to bear a large family and maintain a smooth family atmosphere. The husband was not to be bothered concerning domestic issues. A wife was to be faithful to her husband at all times even though the husband might have a mistress. A woman would be cut by society if an affair were to be discovered (Victorian web).

            Until late in the 1800’s, a married woman could own no property. In 1887, the Married Woman’s Property Act gave women rights to their own property (Shepherd). Previously all property belonged to her husband upon marriage. During this era, if a wife separated from her husband she had no rights of access to see her children. A divorced woman had no chance of acceptance in society again.

            The above views of women were the prevalent feelings when Kate Chopin published her book in 1899. She originally entered a career in writing only because she needed the money as she was widowed at age 32 with six children. Her first novel, At Fault, was published in 1890, followed by two collections of her short stories, Bayou Folk in 1894 and A Night in Acadia in 1897. These books helped Chopin to be recognized as a local colorist and a woman writer. Over one hundred stories, essays, and sketches were published in literary magazines.

            Upon the publication of The Awakening, a great uproar over the theme of the book erupted. Based upon its publication, Chopin was denied admission into the St. Louis Fine Art Club. She was terribly hurt by the reaction to the book and in the remaining five years of her life only a few of her short stories were published. Like Edna, she paid the price for defying societal rules. Author Lazar Ziff concluded “Chopin learned that her society would not tolerate her questionings. She was alive when the twentieth century began, but she had been struck mute by a society fearful in the face of an uncertain dawn” (Ziff 305). A review of Chopin’s work from May, 1899 had the following criticism of the novel.

It is not a healthy book; if it points any particular moral or teaches any lesson, the fact is not apparent. But there is no denying the fact that it deals with existent conditions, and without attempting a solution, handles a problem that obtrudes itself only too frequently in the social life of people with whom the question of food and clothing is not the all absorbing one. Mrs. Pontellier does not love her husband. The poison of passion seems to have entered her system, with her mother’s milk. (Notes)

            Kate Chopin, as well as Edna, was on a journey for artistic acceptance. This journey ended in a frustrated manner when Chopin died of a cerebral hemorrhage on August 22, 1904. At the time of her death, The Awakening was still considered a controversial and dismal piece of literature. Chopin died believing her novel a failure. The Awakening is wedged between the social conversation of the nineteenth century and dealing with sexual themes too questionable for that era. It was not until the early 1970’s that her work became esteemed due to the resurgence of women’s rights.

            The different and varied personalities of women in The Awakening show both the conservative and accepted women of the 1890’s and those striving for independence. Adele Ratignolle, the lady in black, and the Farival twins represent the accepted norm for the 1890’s. Mademoiselle Reisz and Edna Pontellier desire independence and sexual awareness which the Victorian era was not willing to accept. Even today, there are varied opinions as to the woman’s place in society and the acceptance of Chopin’s characters.

Works Cited

Hart, James. “Creole” The Concise Oxford Companion to American Literature. Oxford

            University Press, 1986. Oxford Reference Online. Monroe County Comm.

            College. 27 March 2006.

Flynt, Wayne. “Populist Era.” The Oxford Companion to United States History. Oxford           University Press 2001.

“Notes from Bookland”. St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat 13 May 1899: p5.

Pontuale, Francesco. “ ‘The Awakening’: Struggles Toward L’ecriture Feminine.” The    Mississippi Quarterly v50 n1 (1996):  p37.

Shepherd, Anne. “Overview of the Victorian Era.” April 2001. 25 March 2006

Ziff, Larzer. The American 1890’s: Life and Times of a Lost Generation. New York:

Viking, 1966.

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