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.