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Relationships and Dialogues. “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin

Edna Pontellier, the heroine of “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin, lives in the United States during the 1800s. During those days, men dominated U.S. society while women were considered inferior to them. The Feminism movement that demanded women should be treated equally as men, having the same political, economic, and social rights began only in the 1900s, starting with suffrage or the right to vote, before gradually intensifying during the mid-1900s as more and more women began entering the labor force. The suppressive attitude of society during Edna’s lifetime forces her to rebel against it. Not caring about society’s approval, she follows her heart and her instinct by entering into a series of life-changing relationships in an attempt to find new meaning and happiness in life. Although she succeeds for a while, in the end, contemporary society’s expectations of women become so overpowering that Edna is forced into choosing either to follow societal norms and restrictions {thereby betraying her own beliefs, thoughts, emotions, and desires} or to leave society forever. She chooses the latter way out by committing suicide.

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There are several examples in the novel that reflect society’s discriminatory attitude towards women. When Edna 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, 7), 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, 16), 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 such a role. In a third example, Edna’s father, the Colonel, tells Leonce, “authority, coercion are what needed. Put your foot down good and hard; the only way to manage a wife” (Chopin, 119), meaning that women must be constantly and strictly scolded and reprimanded to always be under the control of their husbands.

Edna’s rebellion against society’s restrictions begins with her romantic relationships – with a cavalry officer, a man who visits the lady on a neighboring plantation, and an actor who specializes in tragedy roles (Chopin, 31/32). Her friendship with Adele Ratignolle ignites her awakening in life. Adele shares her views with Edna, discussing supposedly private subjects like underwear, pregnancy, and love affairs while “withholding no intimate detail” (Chopin, 19). As Edna assimilates this information, she begins looking at her own inner self for the first time, and under Adele’s tutelage, she gradually becomes aware of her own views, feelings, emotions, views, and desires – things she was bottling up inside her just to please society and adapt herself to what it considers women should be like or what women are supposed to do. At this point, Edna realizes she has not been living a life as she wants to and begins to 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, 25).

Strengthened by her self-discovery, Edna {who by this time is married to Leonce and has children}, enters into two fresh relationships – a physical one and a romantic one. Edna begins indulging in physical sex with Arobin. She does this after honestly admitting to herself that she has “devilishly wicked” (Chopin, 137) sexual desires that are physical in nature and not related to love. Edna is totally in control of the relationship with Arobin, making sure she gets sexual satisfaction while at the same time not being dominated by him. By doing this, Edna proves to herself that just as many men who have wives and mistresses do, a woman too can indulge in purely physical sex while continuing to love one man. In the eyes of the conservative society during those times, she has flaunted societal rules of family and womanhood. Her romantic relationship with Robert Lebrun brings great excitement to Edna’s life, making her feel “like one who awakens gradually out of a dream” (Chopin, 53). She becomes awakened to a feeling of independence and an awareness of her sexuality, emotions, and desires. She is overjoyed when Robert returns to New Orleans and openly declares his love for her, gleefully anticipating that she and Robert can defy society and live together openly, “loving each other” and being “everything to each other” (Chopin, 179).

The pull and tug of her familial, romantic, and physical relationships ultimately take their toll on her life. The first reason for her suicide is 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, 182)}. As stated by critic Joyce Dyer, society calls upon mothers to give up their lives for their children – figuratively. But Edna takes it further by giving up her life for her children – literally {“I would give the unessential, I would give up my money, I would give my life for my children” (Chopin, 188)} because she finally realizes the bitter truth that her children were in danger of losing their good reputation and future prospects because of her actions, and as motherhood and selfhood were irreconcilable in her days (Wyatt), she decides that suicide is the only way to solve the two problems pressing her down in relation to her family: preservation of her children’s reputation and future, and prevention of selfhood.

The second reason for her suicide is the betrayal by Robert. As pointed out by critic Peggy Skaggs, Edna, who was overjoyed at finding her selfhood with the apparent fairy-tale ending {living openly with Robert “loving each other” and being “everything to each other” (Chopin, 179)} is suddenly faced with having the process and victory at attaining selfhood denied by her supposedly faithful lover (Wyatt).

The third reason is the societal pressure {epitomized by the constant and urgent advice of Adele and Dr. Mandelet} to stop her physical affair with Arobin. Edna feels that it is her right to seek physical pleasure as she wants, and such restrictions amount to unfair pressure. Critic Helen Emmit agrees on this point, calling Edna’s story a tale of ‘female development and liberation’ (Wyatt). Unfortunately, the struggle for development and liberation in Edna’s case {the First Wave of Feminism began only a century after her time} is too one-sided and has no chance of contending against the overwhelming and antagonistic pressure of society.

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Edna becomes fed up with life {“despondency had come upon her and had never lifted” (Chopin, 188)} because, as stated by critic Joseph Urgo, she realizes that her ‘sense of self’ is ‘unacceptable in her culture.’ Critic Peggy Skaggs agrees, stating Edna is denied by her family, Arobin and Robert, the right to be what she wants and must adapt her life and sense of self within the roles expected of her (Wyatt). She finds herself in a situation where, as agreed by critic Joseph Urgo, if she toes the line as required by them and society, she will compromise what she has struggled to achieve. She decides the only way out is suicide by drowning to liberate herself, in the words of critic Helen Emmit, from the stifling bondage of marriage, societal rules, and family. Critic Joseph Urgo agrees with her on this point, saying suicide is Edna’s way of eluding all those who were pressurizing her, a way that ‘rejects this muting of her voice,’ enabling her to ‘write her own end’ and save herself from ‘an ending others would write.’ About Edna’s choice of suicide by drowning, Emmit has an interesting viewpoint. She says that in the case of males, water is self-reflecting, but for females, the sea is an ‘embrace of self-fulfillment’; Edna, who has been craving for love all her life, finally gets the engulfing fulfillment she seeks by diving under the waves – the water becomes her perfect lover, ‘speaking to her soul while caressing her body’ (Wyatt).

References

Chopin, Kate. “The Awakening.” New York: Avon Books. 1982.

Wyatt, Neal. “Ways of Interpreting Edna’s Suicide: What the Critics Say.” Virginia Commonwealth University. 1995. 2008. Web.

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StudyCorgi. "Relationships and Dialogues. “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin." October 25, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/relationships-and-dialogues-the-awakening-by-kate-chopin/.

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