Kate Chopin (1850-1904) have become distinguished in the field of literature, especially in feminism and liberalism. She is quite remarkable by her independent spirit, her rebellious desires and her native aptitude for narration. At an early age, Chopin’s initial signs of depression can be easily spotted after the losses of her father, her great-grandmother, her half-brother and her friend Kitty in a short time (wikipedia). The death of her husband and mother aggravated the disastrous situation. Chopin was left alone raising her children and paying off the debts her husband left behind; therefore, her case was quite serious and the depression reached its peak. “Chopin was encouraged by a doctor to write for solace” (Tolentino) For her, writing fiction was the sole therapeutic and restorative means of seeking relief from unpleasant realities and making a living as well since her husband left her deep in debt. Living totally surrounded by women, she acquired distinct, unique and advanced outlook on life and (Chopin V). In fact, Chopin was inwardly unwilling to please society or to be subject to its conventions even though outwardly she seemed the opposite. She efficiently carried the heavy burden of the dual responsibilities of motherhood and manhood as well. As a matter of fact, her writings were too far ahead of her time, wherefore some of them were banned while several others were severely criticized. Sadly, Chopin gained her popularity way after her death.
A Brief overview of the Feminism in the Nineteenth Century
The nineteenth century was characterized by cultural, industrial and social reforms. As a consequence of the French and the Industrial Revolutions, the poor and women, as well as children were left miserably struggling in the bottom of social hierarchy, “they were forced to work for gaining the daily food, … working under bad conditions.” (Srayisah 141).
The role of women during the first half of this decade did not dramatically change. Throughout history, women have been enslaved by men. They were deemed to be the root of all evil, sin and corruption; on that account, men felt the urgent need to oppress and deject women. In such patriarchal societies, women were forced to submit to the laws and regulations imposed upon them by men. Accordingly, the separate spheres ideology started to emerge in the nineteenth century as a cultural idea in which “men and women freely participate in [totally] different [and separate] spheres of society” (Borgida and Miller). In fact, women’s activities were confined to the domestic or private sphere in which women were expected to be home running the household, caring for their children and performing the duties of the ideal wives and mothers. On the other hand, Men’s field was defined as the public sphere. (Srayisah). Moreover, men could enjoyed their political, social, economic and educational opportunities while women “enjoyed few of the legal, social, or political rights [ … ]: they could not vote, could not sue or be sued, could not testify in court, [ … ] were rarely granted legal custody of their children in cases of divorce, and were barred from institutions of higher education.” (Gale). In addition, ‘they couldn’t own property or inherit land and wealth, and were frequently treated as mere property themselves” (Taylor).
As the years progressed toward the second half of this decade, the social, economic, and political roles of women began to change. People started to be aware of the constraints that were imposed by the ideology of separate spheres (SSI). However, due to societal pressures, women went through indescribable suffering and difficulties to overcome obstacles and attain political, economic, personal, and social equality of sexes.
As a matter of fact, feminism was first introduced by the educated class as a reaction against the injustice law. Ever since then, several works held feminist ideas. For instance, “many authors began to focus heavily on traditional, typical Victorian female characters and their interactions” (Srayisah).
The Awakening: A feminist novel
There is the question of whether or not The Awakening is a feminist novel. To determine that, we should first define feminism. Feminism is “a range of political movements, ideologies, and social movements that share a common goal: to define, establish, and achieve political, economic, personal, and social equality of sexes.” (Wikipedia). Similarly, Chopin’s aim in most of her short stories and novels is “to experience life as men’s equals rather than as their subordinates.” (Bommarito 2).
In the nineteenth century, the term of feminism was not yet acknowledged by American or even European societies (Chopin VI). “Kate Chopin, a pioneer in sterner literary realism and an advocate of women’s freedom and opportunity for self-expression, ironically, was known for decades as a local colorist.”(Gannon). Despite her living in a rigidly patriarchal society, Chopin fought societal norms and wanted to provide a much-needed service to women. Her writings were viewed as being misandryist by many, while she merely had a desire to emancipate those women who are suffering from unpleasant marriage and motherhood by providing a profoundly accurate understanding of the female self (Lemke).
Just like all her works, Chopin’s longest novel The Awakening tackles the issues of women’s independence and individual satisfaction; furthermore, she openly sheds the light on her disinterest in bearing children and her regretting being married in the first place. Indubitably, The Awakening gives all Chopin’s readers and critics a terrible shock when the protagonist Edna Pontellier denies her role as a mother and wife and declares what are her priorities: “I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself.” (Chopin 74). It was the first time such a radical, groundbreaking and bold novel offered a vast range of knowledge in the field of feminism and liberalism.
Edna Pontellier depicts her husband, Leonce Pontellier, and children, Raoul and Etienne, as obstacles that block her path to independence. She tries her best to gradually deny any implication that she is engaged in.
A point that is interesting to note is that women in The Awakening automatically fall under one of two categories. The first type is the ideal woman who cultivates all four attributes of True Womanhood which are: piety, purity, domesticity, and submissiveness. This type is represented by Adele Ratignolle who is typified as a foil for the main character since she is “the embodiment of every womanly grace and charm” (Chopin 13). Unlike Edna, Adele is proud of her title as a wife and mother. She idolizes and adores her children, revers her husband and devotes her time, energy and even talents, as she is a gifted pianist, to satisfy her family. (Kaplon) Edna states that Adele “was keeping up her music on account of the children, she said; because she and her husband both considered it a means of brightening the home and making it attractive” (Chopin 27). Edna was once like Adele but she did not indeed feel a satisfaction of being a mother-woman. She is now “awake” of herself and plucks up her courage to reject men’s influence and control and to pursue her newly discovered passions and desires instead.
The artist-woman is the second type. Mademoiselle Reisz represents this type. Regardless of being a talented pianist, Reisz is the antithesis of Adele. She deeply believes that solitude is bliss and dedicates her extraordinary musical talent simply to herself. It seems quite brave of her, living a life that is entirely devoid of “motherly tendencies and sexuality.” (Kaplon). Edna is inspired by this exceptional woman who absconds “to an area of sexlessness” (Kaplon) and tries to live similar life but Reisz clearly states that “I do not know your talent or your temperament. To be an artist includes much; one must possess many gifts—absolute gifts—which have not been acquired by one’s own effort. And, moreover, to succeed, the artist must possess the courageous soul” (Chopin). The differences, Reisz has in mind, between them is revealed when Edna admits that she cannot stand living asexual life.
Due to the lack of options and her murderous hatred of the previous two lifestyles, Edna creates a new lifestyle that suites her needs. She Thinks that acting like man may help. In fact, Edna enjoys her own masculine lifestyle by painting, earning money, gambling, and buying her ‘pigeon house, as she calls it, as well as having an affair. She utterly escapes everywhere that reminds her of her intense and serious job of being a mother and wife. Actually, she obtains a type of freedom that does not last long. Her maternal instinct doesn’t leave her in peace. She cannot help but longs and concerns for her children; still her intense craving for her children doesn’t mean that she is ready to nurture her offspring. Additionally, Adele’s childbirth “is what brings Edna’s realization about motherhood to its full development.” (Kaplon). Thanks to Adele’s delivery, Edna is exposed to the ruthless power of nature, she finds the process of childbirth terrifying. Hence, she recalls her enervated memories of giving birth and how this affect her physical and psychological health.
The inner conflict reaches its peak when Edna figures out that all her desperate attempts and efforts were in vain. She exceedingly seeks out freedom from exhaustion, physical pain and mental anguish. Culturally, there are not many choices for women to entertain and notions like freedom or even equality was far more rejected throughout society at this time. She knows full well that turning her back on social constraints and defying nature will give rise to disastrous and adverse consequences. The fact that Raoul and Etienne once shared her body and they will be a constant present in her life pushes her to the edge. Hence, she accepts the belief that death is a rebirth and eventually commits suicide.
Kate Chopin delves deeper into the liberation and the repression of marriage and uses many literary elements to convey her message. For instance, Chopin’s ironic side is clearly shown when she writes: “Then Edna sat in the library after dinner and read Emerson until she grew sleepy.” (Chopin 115). Falling asleep while reading Emerson’s work of Self Reliance is quite cynical. The ability to do things and make decisions by one’s self, without needing other people to help you is not attainable for women at this time. “By having her fall asleep, Chopin suggests that such an idea is a dream for women.” (Rennemo 4) .
The resemblance between Chopin and Edna can be easily seen in their parallel circumstances and traits. Therefore, it should be no great surprise that Chopin perfectly describes the very detailed case of Edna.
Narcissism Vs. Feminism
Edna Pontellier is considered one of the most extreme feminist and narcissist woman in literature. Regardless of how society treated women during that period, she has no sufficient reasons to meander down the path of self-destruction and commits suicide. Leonce Pontellier represents the perfect husband in his time. He is a sociable, kind, loyal and faithful man as well as a successful businessman. The problem Edna can’t Edna solve is the he treats her as his own property. She admits that he treats her well but in the same way you treat your adorable pet.
It is clearly understood that Edna needs to be recognized and accepted as a human being first but again this is not an adequate reason to completely transform into a vulgar and despicable person who does not care about her reputation by having an affair, committing adultery and abandoning her children.
In the end, despite the previous flaws in depicting feminism, so many people admit that if there ever was a Feminist Manifesto, it truly is Kate Chopin’s The Awakening.