The novel The Awakening focuses on a woman who experiments with her own sexual desires as well as her social roles. This woman puts out an effort to affirm an individual distinctiveness past the bounds the patriarchy dictators had inscribed. Mrs. Pontellier's interest in art portrayed and brought to life her desire to deviate from the existing social values and be her own entity. ,
The various changes in the novel link to the confusion created by Edna Pontellier’s role, as a female artist and these are comprised of the opinions of the people around her, the decay of her relationships, her ignited romantic desires, and lastly her growth.
Kate Chopin received sharp criticism for the story of The Awakening. . Part of the reason for this was that the woman protagonist was a white American Protestant. .. When Kate Chopin created an American Protestant woman who rebelliously married a Catholic New Orleans Creole man, then became aware of her sexuality and artistic desires the critics howled. In doing this, she created opportunities for other writers. This made her a part of the general societal awakening that was taking place all through European and American society at the turn of the last century.
In the start of The Awakening Kate Chopin orchestrates the scene with the songs of caged birds, a mocking bird and a parrot. The birds belong to another woman so he cannot control them, he is only free to enjoy them or remove himself from their presence. His relationship with his wife is much the same. This plays out further in how he tempts her with gifts and grants her freedom by traveling to Mexico. His behavior is in sharp contrast to how other men treated their wives in society at that time and he is seen as an exceptional husband. The other ladies and children are appreciative of the small gifts he gives his wife and she shares them freely. In this sense, she is less appreciative of the small pleasures she receives from her husband than the rest of her society is. On the other hand, she is sharply critical and disturbed when he wakes her up to check one of the children for a fever, which the child does not have. .
As the story evolves, we are introduced to the characters of Adele Ratignolle, and a mulatto nurse. The mulatto nurse never speaks throughout the book. The children tolerate her and the family needs her to do like comb and part the children’s hair, which must be parted. . At the beginning we are also introduced to Robert whose custom it is to pay court each summer to one of the ladies It is generally known in that society that he will form a harmless courtly attachment to a married lady.
For the previous two years, it had been Adele, this year it is Edna. Adele speaks of it freely likening him to an annoying cat, always underfoot, while he sees himself as an adoring puppy dog, always ready to serve. , This conversation and Edna’s reaction, illustrates the strangeness she feels in her new society. From that opening scene, the events tumble on through this short but event filled novel.
Although Adele tries to warn Robert away from Edna, because of the cultural differences he does not understand how she could take him seriously. At the same time her artistic desires and expressions awaken, their growing friendship and affections deepens into a more loving passion. Both he and her husband retreat from increasing self-growth essentially driving the two loving men in her life away at the same time her children are visiting relatives. This allows her to explore her passionate side, artistically at first; and then physically with Victor Lebrun. She shares physical passion with Victor, but no love. . Increasingly she realizes that she also does not love her husband and is only living a comfortably, socially acceptable life. Her response is to move into her own residence.
During this period, Edna also makes the acquaintance of Mme. Reisz a pianist who plays passionately for herself. This opens Edna up to a whole new awareness of what art is all about. The self-expression driving art does not need an approving audience to justify its existence. The artist herself is the driving force and the work need only appeal to her alone. This too is a new revelation and an additional awakening of Edna’s artistic soul. However, when Robert returns and refuses to establish a loving long-term relationship, living with her she is heartbroken. He departs from her home leaving only a brief note of explanation behind.
The closing is, for that place and time inevitable, such a woman cannot survive in society, so she must die. She returns to where they met, and to the seashore where she first learned to swim. Finding her bathing costume pricks and annoys her she sheds it before she strikes out to sea and stands naked outdoors in the light and wind for the first time. As she does that, a broken winged bird flutters to earth. . Some reviewers have though the falling bird represent Edna’s failure to survive and soar as an artist. However, it could also be a subtle imagery of society’s inevitable failure to continue to suppress all artistic women like Adele. Nevertheless, Edna’s devotion to her children is greater that her devotion to art; so, true to the dictates of her society she surrenders herself and her life to the sea.
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. Chicago & New York: Herbert & Stone & Company, 1899.
Elfenbien, Anna Shannon. "Kate Chopin's The Awakening: An Assualt on American Racial and Sexual Mythology." Southern Studies (Winter 1987): 304 - 312.
Stone, Carole. "The Female Artist in Kate Chopin's The Awakening: Birth and Creativity." Women's Studies (1989): 23 -32.
"When lovely woman stoops to folly"
WHEN lovely woman stoops to folly
And finds too late that men betray,
What charm can soothe her melancholy,
What art can wash her guilt away?
The only art her guilt to cover,
And wring his bosom, is—to die.
Francis T. Palgrave, ed. (1824–1897). The Golden Treasury. 1875
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