Essay, Research Paper: Awakening By Kate Chopin

Literature: Kate Chopin

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“Every step which she took toward relieving herself from obligations added to
her strength and expansion as an individual” (93) The Awakening by Kate Chopin
introduces the reader to the life of Edna Pontellier, a woman with an
independent nature, searching for her true identity in a patriarchal society
that expects women to be nothing more than devoted wives and nurturing mothers.
In this paper I will describe Edna’s journey of self-discovery and explain why
her struggle for independence is no easy task. I will also discuss the
relationship Edna has with two other main women characters and describe how
these women conform or rebel against a society with many social constraints.
Finally I will discuss how the issues brought up in Chopin’s novel are still
relevant today. The Journey The Awakening begins in the vacation spot of Grand
Isle. At first we believe that Grand Isle is a utopia, wealthy families relaxing
at oceanside, but it is here where Edna first begins to realize her unhappiness.
The first sign of dissatisfaction is when Edna allows herself to feel that her
marriage is unsatisfying; yet she must agree with the other women that Leonce
Pontellier is the perfect husband. Edna can now ask herself if she has a good
husband and is not happy than should marriage be a component of her life. Edna
has two close relationships with other males in the book but both prove
unsatisfying, and a block to her independence. The first relationship is with
Robert Lebrun. They swim, they chat on the porch and offer each other
companionship. This is a flirtatious relationship; a relationship similar to
those Robert has had previous summers with other married women; but different
because Edna, being a “foreigner” allows herself to take Robert seriously
and she falls in love with him. This proves tragic because during the course of
the novel the two will pine for each other but Robert not wanting to mar his
reputation as a “gentleman” moves to Mexico. Even after his return the two
meet for a short time and then again Robert flees before anything happens. The
second role Edna begins to question is her role as mother. Edna’s husband
scolds her for her unattentiveness to her children. Although Edna is fond of her
children she, unlike the other women on Grand Isle, would rather have a nurse
look after them. Edna says that she would “give up the unessential; I would
give my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give
myself.” Edna needs more out of life. She is moved by music. During that
summer Edna sketches to find an artistic side to herself. She needs an outlet to
express who she is. Edna sees art as important and adding meaning to her life.
“She felt in it satisfaction of a kind which no other employment offered
her.” After the summer is over and they are back to the city Edna is a changed
woman. She makes many steps towards independence. She stops holding “Tuesday
socials;” she sends her children to live in the country with their
grandparents; she refuses to travel abroad with her husband; she moves out of
the Lebrun house on Esplanade Street; and she starts selling her sketches and
betting the horses to earn her own money. She also starts a relationship with
another man Alcee Arobin. He meant nothing to her emotionally but she used him
for sexual pleasure. Edna evolved above her peers she did not believe that
sexuality and motherhood had to be linked. The last step of her “awakening”
is the realization that she can not fulfill her life in a society that will not
allow her to be a person and a mother. Edna commits suicide in the ocean at
Grand Isle. Analysis “To a certain extent, The Awakening shows Edna at the
mercy of a patriarchal husband, a hot climate, a Creole lifestyle, and the
circumscribed expectations of a particular class of Louisiana
women.”(Taylor,p.195) Edna questions these wife and mother roles because they
are roles she was forced into. She married Leonce not because she loved him but
because she could not refuse his admiration and persistence. This marriage
thrusts Edna into a foreign culture. She questions her role as a mother because
she is different from the typical Creole “mother-woman.” Edna defies “the
central perception of her century that women are mothers first and individuals
second-or not at all. She never denies the value of motherhood...But she does
deny its supremacy over larger truths of human existence.”(Dyer, p.106) This
is what leads to her suicide. “Edna refuses to return to a world that values
only her performance as a mother, whose highest expectations for women are
self-sacrifice and self-effacement. She refuses to return to a world in which
this idea is pervasive and inescapable-and unavoidably colors even her own
thinking. For Edna, there is, ideally, a truth greater than that of motherhood.
Motherhood, compared with it, becomes yet another illusion that Edna must
dispel. That final truth, that greater truth, can not coexist with the social,
the moral, or even the biological obligations of motherhood.(Dyer, p.105)
Edna’s suicide is tragic and victorious. Tragic, because Edna could not become
the person she wanted to be because of the restrictions society placed on
mothers; victorious, because Edna did not conform to a patriarchal society.
Women Characters In The Awakening two women characters are presented in sharp
contrast to each other. These women introduce Edna to new ideas and influence
Edna’s perception of womanhood. First we are introduced to Madame Ratignolle,
the perfect “mother-woman”. Adele is perfectly content and happy conforming
to society. Adele keeps up her piano playing not for her own artistic outlet but
for her children. She lives for her husband and her children and encourages Edna
to do the same. Adele introduces Edna to female love. Edna was enamored by
Adele, “She had long wished to try herself on Madame Ratignolle. Never had
that lady seemed a more tempting subject than at that moment, seated there like
some sensuous Madonna,”(14) Adele is the first woman Edna feels comfortable
with confiding in and being caressed by. “In some respects, the motherless
Edna seeks a mother surrogate in Adele and looks to her for nurturance. Adele
provides maternal encouragement for Edna’s painting and tells her that her
‘talent is immense’(18).”(Showalter,p.74) Mademoiselle Reisz is the
opposite if Adele. She is an unmarried musician and she is considered eccentric
for her outspoken views. She is very fond of Edna. She introduces Edna to the
world of art. Mademoiselle Reisz’s piano playing “sent a tremor down Mrs.
Pontellier’s spinal column.” As Edna compares herself to these women she is
not fully satisfied with either of them as a role model. Adele, although loved,
lacks an independent life. Reisz is independent but she lacks love. Edna is
searching for a middle ground between the two. Relevance today The main question
Chopin ponders in this novel is can a woman have both a marriage and children
and a fulfilling independent life outside of that realm. That is a question
still relevant today. Today a woman can have both a career and a family. The
question is will a woman with children excel in her career as far as she would
have if she was childless. Also, will her children suffer if her career is her
first priority. I have witnessed two scenarios that exemplify these questions.
My Aunt Cathy quit a fulfilling career that offered her travel, excitement , and
a good salary to be a stay at home mom. She is happy but she admits to often
wondering “What if?”. She also cautions me to postpone marriage until I have
accomplished my goals. My Aunt Michele barely took a breath after giving birth
before returning back to work. My grandmother raised her daughter and now at age
seven her daughter is much closer with my grandmother than her own mother. I
often wonder what the long term affects are going to be. Edna’s journey is one
that everyone goes through. Edna attempts her journey of self discovery after
she assumes the unsatisfying roles of wife and mother. I am on that journey now,
at twenty-two, childless, husbandless, and in school-trying to give my life
direction. The journey would be more difficult if I had the responsibilities
that Edna has. Edna’s journey is also more difficult because it occurred
during the time period where a woman was a second class citizen. Conclusion I
enjoyed and connected to The Awakening. I am at a period in my life where I want
to start moving towards a goal. When I weigh my career choices I often ponder
how a family will fit into that choice. Edna’s struggle made me realize the
universality of this dilemma and I realize how lucky I am to have women like
Kate Chopin come before me and make my struggle a little easier.

Dyer, Joyce.(1993).The Awakening A Novel of Beginnings. New York:Twayne
Publishers. Elfbein, Anna Shannon.(1989).Women on the Color Line.
Charlottesville:University Press of Virginia. Papke, Mary E.(1990).Verging on
the Abyss The Social Fiction of Kate Chopin and Edith Wharton. New
york:Greenwood Press. Showalter, Elaine.(1991).Sister’s Choice Tradition and
Change in American Women’s Writing. Oxford:Clarendon Press Taylor,
Helen.(1989).Gender, Race, and Religion in the Writings of Grace King, Ruth
McEnery Stuart, and Kate Chopin.Baton Rouge:Louisiana State
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