In The Awakening, Kate Chopin creates a novel where the main character, Edna Pontellier, struggles to define her identity and assert her independence because of the dominance of men in her society. More specifically, Chopin writes a set of male characters into her novel who assume prominent positions and are unable to conceive of any alternatives to their presumed natural right to power. Despite this flaw, Chopin portrays these men as benevolent rather than tyrannical figures. Men restrict Edna’s freedom to establish independence within society through their benevolence and flawed nature. Consequently, men lead Edna to suicide, the only way Edna believes she can achieve independence. Chopin later sets up her own protagonist for failure: in order to gain some degree of freedom, Edna gives up her real goal of fostering societal change. Even though the way Chopin portrays the male characters leads Edna to failure, the creative choices the author makes are important in order to effect change herself.
Firstly, through their benevolent nature, men are able to seamlessly assign women inferior roles, usually associated with the domestic sphere. Adèle Ratignolle is a good example: she represents a culture of women that embrace the role of the devoted wife and mother. Peter Ramos examines Adèle’s identity in his critical essay, “Unbearable Realism: Freedom, Ethics, and Identity in The Awakening” and claims that Adèle “does not seem unaware of herself” (Ramos 155) as she assumes her role. However, this is not entirely true. In fact, one of the first elements that Chopin notes when introducing Adèle is that she is “sitting there the afternoon” that Edna receives a box of pastries from her husband (Walker 30). Chopin points to Adèle’s inclusion in the women’s “declaration” that Mr. Pontellier is “the best husband in the world.” (Walker 28) Here, the women, including Adèle, translate the husband figure’s act of kindness to superiority. In doing so, they unwittingly devote themselves to men, and influence each other to do so as well: Edna is “forced to admit” the greatness of her husband (Walker 28). By being benevolent rather than directly oppressing women to inferiority, men create a culture in which women subconsciously give up their independence and keep each other in check. Therefore, men restrict women’s, and thus Edna’s, identity, to the role of a submissive wife and the responsibilities of motherhood that this implies.
Furthermore, even when women do step out of these restrictions, men set clear limits to that independence through their benevolent nature. The most prominent example is the case of Mademoiselle Reisz, a woman who refuses to confine herself to her ascribed societal role. She is described as a “self-assertive woman” who “had…no taste in dress” and “a disposition to trample upon the rights of others.” (Walker 46,47) In the beginning of the novel, Mademoiselle Reisz plays the piano for Edna at a social gathering, a scene which reveals the limitations of her individuality. When she is done playing, one of the men in the audience exclaims: “That last prelude! Bon Dieu! It shakes a man!” while others agree that “no one could play Chopin like Mademoiselle Reisz” (Walker 48). Though kindhearted and genuine, the first compliment serves as a reminder that men hold the highest power in society, and that they are the force to be “shaken.” Similarly, the observation that “no one” can play like her praises Mademoiselle Reisz’s exceptionality, but also marginalizes her. She is defined as an “other,” separate from the broader community. Thus, through benevolence, men indirectly control women and remind them of male authority, marginalizing them when they over-step.
In addition to shaping and maintaining restrictions in women’s societal roles, men also deny all acts of rebellion against this social structure through their inability to fathom a societal organization in which their superiority is challenged. When Edna begins to slowly assert her autonomy, Mr. Pontellier visits Doctor Mandelet to discuss the change in her behavior. He attributes the issue to “some sort of notion in her head concerning the eternal rights of women” (Walker 87). The fact that he visits a doctor for a matter that does not concern physical health, as well as his diagnosis of Edna defining women’s rights not as a real issue but as a “notion in her head,” show his inability to see past his dominant position in society. Because of this flaw, Mr. Pontellier invalidates Edna’s concerns and reduces them to mere fabrications, ultimately denying her rebellion. Doctor Mandelet’s response is even more alarming, as he assumes that Edna is having an affair outside of her marriage: “Is there another man in the case?” (Walker 90) With this statement, Mandelet demonstrates a complete inability to recognize the alternative societal structure that Edna is calling for. Instead, he further reduces her struggle by replacing it with a scenario in which men constitute a strong, irresistible force capable of overpowering women who lack reason and self-restraint. In both cases, men’s incapacity to acknowledge the possibility of a challenge to their right to power undermines Edna’s rebellion.
Men shape and maintain women’s societal inferiority through their benevolence and deny Edna’s rebellion against this societal structure through their ignorance. To achieve independence, Edna resorts to suicide. Still, this final scene constitutes a failure rather than an achievement for Edna, as it reveals her true wish of establishing autonomy within society, which she is unable to do. Edna takes her own life by swimming out into the ocean, a location which Chopin ties to ideas of freedom and independence early on in the novel. When Edna first learns how to swim, she feels “as if some power of significant import had been given her to control the working of her body and her soul.” (Walker 49) By drowning, Edna finally asserts the control that her community denies her. However, her final thoughts do not celebrate this autonomy, but instead focus on the people she is leaving behind: “She thought of Léonce and the children…they need not have thought that they could possess her, body and soul” (Walker 139). She also thinks of how Robert “did not understand” and “how Mademoiselle Reisz would have laughed […] if she knew!” (Walker 139) These reflections reveal that even as Edna finally achieves independence, she wishes everything were different. She regrets her husband and kids constraining her identity, Robert not sharing her views, and that she does not have the “courage” to “defy” society as Mademoiselle Reisz wants her to. It is clear that Edna’s true goal is to resolve these issues: she is not simply seeking independence from society, but rather independence within society. By committing suicide, she fails in realizing this goal, no matter how free or autonomous she becomes.
Even though the benevolent nature that Chopin ascribes to her male characters pushes Edna to suicide, it also pushes her to adopt qualities associated with the male identity, allowing the author to expand the definition of a woman. In seeking to gain autonomy, Edna cannot align herself with other women because they lack agency and are part of the system of inferiority that Edna is fighting against. Elaine Showalter, in her essay “Tradition and the Female Talent: The Awakening as a Solitary Book,” recognizes this issue in the case of Adèle Ratignolle, the first woman that Edna turns away from. “Adele’s story suggests that Edna will give up her rebellion” (Showalter 215). Instead, Edna has to embrace male qualities which are free of the limitations she aspires to transcend. First, she takes on the role of the artist, an occupation largely dominated by men. In “The Masculine Sea: Gender, Art, and Suicide in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening,” Molly Hildebrand points to the way in which Edna adopts the “masculine paradigm of the artist” and links herself to “the masculine world of representation and power” (Hildebrand 194,197). Hildebran goes on to criticize Edna’s behavior, but in reality, her behavior is not unplanned. By moving Edna into a traditionally male space, Chopin introduces a new female identity, expanding the definition of a woman. Likewise, Edna begins to express her sexuality, though her relationship with Arobin, in a time when, as Showalter points out, literature “ignored” women’s sexuality “or spiritualized it through maternity” (Showalter 211). Chopin thus presents identities that do not exist yet in society for a woman, expanding the characterizations that fall under that term.
Moreover, the ordinarily benevolent (rather than villainous) nature that Chopin ascribes to her male characters draws attention to the limitations of roles available to women and highlights the universality of this condition. In his essay, Peter Ramos recognizes that all the societal roles available to Edna present limitations, but then criticizes her for dismissing them. He argues that, rather than rejecting “in succession the various roles available to her,” Edna should embrace these identities “to actively and creatively transform them” (Ramos 148,149). Chopin’s choice to refrain from presenting such compromised roles as real options for Edna, leaving the issue unresolved, is important; it places the focus of the novel on the extent of the limitations, rather than on how a single character is able to overcome them. In the process, Chopin highlights and extends the issue to a broader audience. Similarly, when she writes of men who are benevolent and relatable rather than evil, Chopin does not allow the reader to consider that Edna is limited by a particular individual’s evil qualities. Instead, Chopin pushes her readers to recognize the limitations and their universal nature as they originate from ordinary men.
The flawed nature that Chopin attributes to the male characters, in which they cannot conceive of any challenge to their authority, restrains Edna but also allows the writer to undermine men’s authority in the mind of her readers. When trying to discern the causes behind Edna’s change in behavior, Mr. Pontellier and the Doctor propose various explanations such as the possibilities of a “passing whim”, a “hereditary” issue, and even an association with “a circle of pseudo-intellectual women — super-spiritual, superior beings” (Walker 88,89). Here, Chopin creates a disparity between the views of the men in the novel and those of the readers who have a better understanding of Edna’s motives. While the men are convinced that they are effectively working their way through the issue, the readers recognize that the proposed explanations are not only false, but also absurd and illogical. The scene takes on a comical nature in which the readers no longer regard the men with seriousness, painting the two men as foolish and unqualified to hold a position of power since they are unable to effectively deal with the situation. In this manner, Chopin effectively mediates the connections between her characters and the readers to undermine men’s claim to authority.
Ultimately, the qualities of the male characters in Chopin’s novel lead Edna to suicide, which prevents her from fostering change in her society. However, these qualities are necessary in order for Chopin herself to do so. Through their benevolent yet flawed nature, men indirectly but unforgivingly restrict Edna’s identity and her ability to fight for change. She then resorts to suicide in order to gain freedom, which constitutes a failure since suicide does not satisfy her true goal of gaining autonomy within society. Chopin, however, makes use of the benevolence of men and their flaw of unwavering investment in their claims to power. She uses these qualities and the way in which they shape the novel’s narrative to extend the definition of a woman, highlight the universal nature of the limitations in women’s societal roles, and undermine male authority. Edna’s story is not one that female readers must try to emulate: Chopin’s novel does not offer women an instruction manual for attaining freedom through Edna’s character. Instead, with this novel, Chopin contributes to the discourse which seeks to foster societal change and lays the foreground for her readers to realize their own “awakening” and join the long and arduous process of effecting institutional change.
Hildebrand, Molly J. “The Masculine Sea: Gender, Art, and Suicide in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening.” American Literary Realism, vol. 48, no. 3, Spring 2016, pp. 189-208. Project MUSE.
Nancy A. Walker (ed.). Kate Chopin: The Awakening: Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism. 2nd Edition. Boston & New York, Bedford/St.Martin’s, 2000. Print
Ramos, Peter. “Unbearable Realism: Freedom, Ethics, and Identity in The Awakening.” College Literature, vol. 37, no. 4, Fall 2010, pp. 145-65. MLA International Bibliography.
Showalter, Elaine. “Tradition and the Female Talent: The Awakening as a Solitary Book”. Walker 202-222