A Type of Woman
Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening” is the tale of Edna Pontellier’s emotional, intellectual, and sexual awakening. In the novel, she falls in love with a man that is not her husband and is determined to become independent from her family in order to bask in her own identity; however, because she lives in a 19th century southern aristocracy, all her efforts of controlling her own life are in vain and she takes her own life in the end of the book. In the beginning, Edna struggles to decide whether she wants to be the type of woman society dictates her to be, or whether she wants to be a woman independent and self-thinking.
These two types of women are depicted in two side characters in which Edna interacts with: Adele Ratignolle, who is the epitome of society’s definition of “woman”, and Mademoiselle Reisz, a scorned and independent woman. Both women provide an example to Edna as to what she can become, and as Edna teeters between both women, caught between her desires for independence and the constrains of society, she finds her own place in which she hopes to reside (“The Awakening Kate Chopin”). Edna’s profile and the suicide in the end of the book are directly linked to Chopin’s own problems facing the same type of society. “The Awakening” was written during the late 19th century, a period when women were looked down upon as mothers and wives, nothing more. Kate Chopin had been raised by her smart, independent, and single grandmother and great-grandmother.
They oversaw her education and she was not around many married women as she matured; therefore, her upbringing was a major source of her characters liberated personalities. Chopin herself became very independent when her husband died and she was left to take care of her seven children. To support both her and her family, she began writing and she was immediately successful; however, when Chopin published The Awakening in 1899, its content caused major protest and she was bashed for her novels message. Her main character, Edna, was looked down upon because of her scandalous thoughts and the actions that she took. Society at that time thought that Edna was a failure because of her independency and demanded that the character be brought to justice.
Because of the public’s immense dislike, Chopin cowered to the masses and ended her book with Edna’s death. The people felt that was justification, and left it at that. Perhaps, though, if it were not for the public, Chopin might have ended Edna’s tale differently. Regardless, Chopin’s popularity dropped: similar to Edna, Chopin was on a quest for artistic acceptance but ended up paying the price for defying societal rules (Wyatt). Adele Ratignolle is known as the motherly woman, or as the societal version of what a woman should be. Throughout the book, Adele serves as a role model to Edna as to how she should act according to society.
However, Edna is nothing close to how Adele is and is, perhaps, almost the opposite. In “The Awakening”, Adele is described as “the embodiment of every womanly grace and charm…. There were no words to describe her save the old ones that have served so often to picture the bygone heroine of romance and the fair lady of our dreams”( 10). Adele believes that it is unthinkable should a woman have her own desires, save serving her husband and children: this is portrayed through her constant actions in which she only thinks and does for her family. When Edna strays from the womanly path, Adele reminds her of her role in society. Mademoiselle Reisz, however, represents the independent woman.
She is the exact opposite of Adele, does as she pleases, and speaks her mind regardless of what people think. For that, she is shunned by most of the aristocratic society because they believe her to be a failure as a woman. She is described in “The Awakening” as a “disagreeable little woman…owing to a temper which was self-assertive and a disposition to trample upon the rights of others”(33). When Edna attempts to make contact with her, and she asks around if anyone has seen her, most everyone dislikes her and just about everyone does so because of not only her blunt attitude, but also because she didn’t meet society’s standards of what a woman should be. Instead of finding a husband and having children, she followed her heart and became a professional piano player; however, her work is not appreciated because she is such a woman. Edna, at the beginning of the novel, is close to neither of these women in personality.
She is neither motherly, like Adele, nor is she completely independent, like Reisz. Instead, she is awkwardly in between the two and undecided on what she truly desires. The book begins with her as a non-motherly figure, just as it is stated that she was “not a motherly woman”(Chopin 10): all of her indifference towards her children, considering her lack of time spent with them and blunt attitude towards them, only highlights her difference from Adele. However, she is still not completely independent from her husband, such as when she complies to his demands to comfort the children. But she is released from that hold when she falls in love with a young Creole by the name of Robert Lebrun, and she awakens to her sensuality and place in society.
From there she transforms throughout the book from the compliant and brooding wife to the sovereign and sensuous woman. This is where Edna is most like Reisz: she is fleeting and does what her heart desires. This includes moving out of her home and into her own, where she pursues her artwork and passionate side as she goes out with whomever she likes whenever she likes. She is ready to completely break from society’s grip on her by the end of the novel, however, Robert still see’s her position as a married woman and him a man and thus ignores his love for her and her love for him, and leaves her when she proposes they disregard her husband and be together. Edna, facing the realization that she cannot break from society’s moral standards, see’s no other way free but to take her own life. This is where she breaks from Reisz, because instead of “possessing the courageous soul that dares and defies” (Chopin 155), Edna bows before the strength of societal pressures and gives in by taking her life.
Edna did not want to be completely like one woman or the other; instead, she wished to combine the two, for she wished to “be needed and loved, like Adele, but would also like to pursue her own interests, like Reisz. The idea of having to remain in her marriage, with all its reasonability’s and restrictions, smothers her. On the other hand, she does not wish to pay the price for freedom with loneliness, like Reisz” ( “Themes and Construction”). Edna never finds that middle ground, and her journey to happiness is cut short by her death. Regardless of “The Awakening’s” infamy in the past, it is now the topic of many scholarly discussions due to its “complex treatment of diverse characters and the topics of its subject”(Adams xxix).
Chopin is now recognized as a woman ahead of her time because of her evaluation on sexuality and individual freedom (Bourgoin), not to mention she was the first woman writer in America to accept the differences between the sexes as a major subject to write about. Chopin was very much like Edna in that she defied society by opening herself to herself, allowing her emotions to influence her actions even though it was frowned upon.