“Awakening” (In Chopin C. “Awakening and Other Stories” Random House, New York, NY: 2000) involves issues of feminism whereby Edna Pontellier, the center of the American Creole/New Orleans story, often and perplexedly reflects on her role of mother-of-two who is married to a well-off and often traveling (for business or pleasure) brokerage-business husband (Leonce Pontellier). The book garnered a lot of controversy for many decades after it was written in 1899, but eventually became and has endured as Kate Chopin’s most famous work.
The community views Leonce as the epitome of the ideal husband, for Leonce greatly adores and provides for wife and children, he is quite consistently concerned about the welfare and happiness of his household. Yet Edna does not look at Leonce as her choice of husband, she says their marriage was accidental, that as she was growing up there are particular men that came around her that she would have wished to take her hand. Leonce is disciplined, insistent and low-toned, often dissatisfied about Edna’s attention to the children and other household issues, more so because he is often away on business and Edna has a lot of help, Leonce sometimes causes Edna to walk off and cry.
Perhaps Edna was the precursor of the modern era American woman…one who is prevalently independent (or at least longs to be), one who has more power in making decisions about what she prefers, one whose identity is not predominantly defined by wealth, looks, family, husband, or children. In her state of psychological disillusionment (“An indescribable oppression, which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar part of her consciousness, filled her whole being with vague anguish” ), Edna’s love for the two boys she gave birth to is uncharacteristically distant, the mother’s instinct seemingly weak, the kids have more fondness for their father. “If one of the little Pontellier boys took a tumble whilst at play, he was not apt to rush crying to his mother’s arms for comfort….Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother-woman…” (181).
The author Chopin hence paints a picture of a soul plagued by a mixture of feminist and psychological issues. It is to be remembered, that even in this age of feminist liberation, providing men who love and care for their wives and children are still held in high esteem and are still in high demand. Chopin implicitly displays that female emancipation and longing can be of numerous forms. Further, Chopin often compares and contrasts main characters in terms of their beauty and body textures/ forms, illustrating that this issue has been strong in the United States for centuries.
“[Edna] was rather handsome than beautiful…face…captivating by reason of a certain frankness of expression and a contradictory subtle play of features” (174). Chopin writes of Edna’s companion and friend Adele Rattignolle (as somewhat contrasted with Edna) that, “…her beauty was all there, flaming and apparent…two lips that pouted…the grace of every step, pose, gesture… (182). Many writers have noted that Kate Chopin was not a suffragist and did not join any feminist movements; and indeed, many feminist writers reduce the value of the aesthetic features and comparisons of women, aspects that can remind of Hollywood vagueness.
Eventually, Edna wants to leave her family big house and settle “…in a four-room house along the corner” (294). A woman who had great difficulty at learning how to swim, one who is still sophomoric at it, Edna will ultimately find disturbing comfort in introspectively walking alone to the sea, in taking off all her clothing, reflecting on her life and swim into and allow herself to be swallowed by the sea, a fatal blow to the self-possession and psychological emancipation that she sought. Edna was born a reserved child, she was miserable and felt stifled, her marriage and sketches did not reach the standards she wanted them, there was something lacking in her “ideal, loving family; her comfort and big house,” the lustful affair with the lad Robert the conspicuous and philandering son of Madame Lebrun the property owner was full of gaping holes and would not last. Edna did not fit in the conventional mode of the beginning of the 20th Century American dream woman. She instead provides a window into what the woman, over the numerous decades to come, would perhaps evolve into as the individualist and the emancipated female.
In “Awakening,” Edna Pontellier is supposed to be one of the most fortunate women in the world. She has a present, fidel, hardworking and earning, capable, loving husband, who sired with her two male kids, she does not have to go outside of home to work. Yet, she is dissatisfied with her status quo, a rich homely situation that many women crave to be in. The narrator is telling us that women are complex persons, each of individual personality, one size does not fit all; needs and interests, and ambitions of each woman vary. Edna is horrifyingly distant from the two boys she gave birth to. “If one of the little Pontellier boys took a tumble whilst at play, he was not apt to rush crying to his mother’s arms for comfort….Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother-woman…” (181). But indeed women (and female animals) have been known to neglect and even kill their children, reasons for which vary from psychological to dislike for tending to offspring. Women have been known to chase down and drown their children in bathtubs (Andrea Pia Yates, in 2002, drowned all five offspring in a bathtub; she has had a history of post-partum depression and psychosis), or let a car-full of their children roll into a river and get them drowned (Susan Smith, in 1994 did this to her two sons).
Edna Pontellier had two sons, she drowns herself in the end. Women have been known to leave their enviable husbands and children in a comfortable life, and fall for top-notch criminals who are locked up in prison. Edna mentions wanting to leave her comfortable home and enviable family, and living in a smaller habitation down the street “…in a four-room house along the corner” (294). Post-partum depression has been mentioned about women, and in Edna’s case it seems to have become indefinite. Many women, even in the contemporary times long for biological or at least adoptive motherhood. Still, there are those who opine their biologically begetting children as one of the most unfair ways a woman is exploited as a painstaking residence of a baby during gestation. Human gestation is a trying experience, compared to that of most other species (consider squirrels and rabbits). Human fetuses comparatively have many defects, miscarriages are common. At the same time the man does not have the burden of carrying the child to childbirth and keeping a sleep-ridden eye on the child. The fathers of the child sometimes wander away, abandoning their offspring.
Edna portrays that a woman can want much more than a family of children and a husband, perhaps she was a lesbian who had not discovered herself as one. She was at least discontented with her husband Leonce who comes off as conventional, disciplined, and inflexible. This discontentment is understandable…it happens. But why the distance from her offspring, and then the lustful interest in the young man Robert, eventually adultery? Edna will always be an enigma! Perhaps Edna suffered from multiple-personality disorder, something psychological irked her. Perhaps she longed to be the independent free woman, one who had the freedom to love or have sex with her choice of person, the precursor of the 20th and 21st Century independent and upstanding woman free to express her sexuality and stick to her preferences. Edna, many times in subtle ways, brings forth into question, feminism in the context of individuality, sexuality, marriage, freedom and choice, reproduction and child-rearing, spousal attachment and power, and the context and role of marriage in a woman’s life. Edna brings it out that each female is of unique individuality, of personal talent and likes that beg to be fully uncovered so she need not be comfortable with how society compartmentalizes women, more so as wives, mothers, home-makers, and as cherished articles of beauty and ownership.