Marriage in “The Awakening” Novel by Kate Chopin

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Leonce and Edna Pontellier live in the United States during the 1800s. During those days, men dominated the patriarchal society while women were considered inferior to them. Leonce faithfully follows societal norms by dominating his wife and restricting her freedom. In one instance, when she returns from the beach with sunburn, her husband Leonce Pontellier looks at her “as one looks at a valuable piece of property which has suffered some damage” (Chopin, Chapter 1, para.11) meaning that women were considered possessions of their husbands with no right to indulge in independent thoughts, expressions or actions. In a second example, Leonce describes women in general as “mother-women who idolize their children and worship their husbands and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels” (Chopin, Chapter 4, para.3), meaning that women were only fit to do the jobs of mothers and wives, rendering service to their children and husbands, and they should be proud of being allowed to perform such a role in life. Even Edna’s father {the Colonel} adds to her misery by telling Leonce, “authority, coercion is what [is] needed. Put your foot down good and hard; [it is] the only way to manage a wife” (Chopin, Chapter 24, para.4), meaning that women must be constantly subjected to authority, strictly scolded and reprimanded by their husbands.

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As the years of her marriage go by during which Leonce and Edna have children, the accumulating frustration in Edna builds up due to the snowball effect, with the overall result being a direct assault on her autonomy, which is accompanied by a ballooning feeling of self-perceived inadequacy. She feels compelled to rebel against the feeling. Edna’s friendship with Adele Ratignolle sparks her real awakening. Adele has very open-minded views about many things in life. She shares her views with Edna, discussing supposedly private subjects like underwear, pregnancy and love affairs while “withholding no intimate detail” (Chopin, Chapter 4, para.12). As Edna assimilates this information, in its narrow as well as wider perspective, she begins looking at her inner self for the first time. Edna realizes she has been living under a cloud of self-perceived inadequacy and has not been living a life as she wants to. Her feeling of self-perceived inadequacy begins to disappear as she begins to believe in herself and understand “her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her” (Chopin, Chapter 6, para.4). Strengthened by her self-discovery, Edna blatantly refutes societal norms by doing the unthinkable for most women in those days, namely, leaving her family, moving into an independent apartment, and having a sexual affair (Smith). Edna begins indulging in physical sex with Arobin. She does this after honestly admitting to herself that she has “devilishly wicked” (Chopin, Chapter 27, para.4) sexual desires that are physical and not related to love. She also develops a romantic relationship with Robert Lebrun. This relationship brings great excitement to Edna’s life, making her feel “like one who awakens gradually out of a dream” (Chopin, Chapter 11, para.18). She is overjoyed when Robert returns to New Orleans and openly declares his love for her, gleefully anticipating that Robert and she can defy society and live together openly “loving each other” and being “everything to each other” (Chopin, Chapter 36, para.49).

However, society’s traditional expectations of women go on intruding inexorably into her life, gradually deflating her feeling of independence and self-discovery and bringing back the feeling of self-perceived inadequacy in increasing volume. She becomes increasingly depressed and starts believing she will never achieve total freedom from societal expectations (Smith). The increasing pressures ultimately force Edna to take her own life due to the motherhood element {Edna is constantly bombarded by advice from Adele and Dr. Mandelet to stop her affair with Arobin as it could ruin the reputation of her children and spoil their future [“Think of the children, Edna. Oh think of the children” (Chopin, Chapter 38, para.15)]}, the betrayal by Robert {thereby shattering her dream of living openly with Robert “loving each other” and being “everything to each other” (Chopin, Chapter 36, para.49)}, and the pressure to stop her physical affair with Arobin {thereby overriding her right to seek physical pleasure as she wants}. Edna becomes fed up with life and takes the only way out: committing suicide to liberate herself.

There are many similarities between the life of Edna and her creator, American author Kate Chopin {1850 – 1904}. Both were choked by the stifling discrimination of the Victorian era. Just as Edna slowly succumbed to the ever-increasing societal pressure and was forced to take her life, Kate was greatly disappointed at the way ‘The Awakening’ {published in April 1899} was called ‘unrefined’ and ‘unsound’ by critics both for the immoral character of Edna Pontellier as well for Chopin daring to write a story having such a prurient theme. Just as Edna was looked upon as the epitome of the New Woman of the latter part of the 19th century when the Feminist Movement started gaining pace, Kate Chopin was hailed for epitomizing the social goals (Sprinkle) which women of those days were struggling to achieve.

References used

Chopin, Kate. “The Awakening.” About.com. 2009. Web.

Smith, Nicole. “Character Analysis of Edna in ‘The Awakening’ by Kate Chopin and Discussion about Conflict & Climax.” Article Myriad. 2009. Web.

Sprinkle, Ross. “Kate Chopin’s ‘The Awakening’: A Critical Reception.” Womenwriters.net. 1998. Web.

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