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Chopin is one of the writers who changed forever the image of the American
literature. She was harshly criticized by her contemporaries for her wish to
write about the desire of woman to be perceived as a human being with dreams
and plans, not just as an object owned by husband.  This essay will focus on the feminist nature
of the novel, as well as on the process of evolution and “awakening” of the
main character.

Awakening” mainly centers on the open treatment of the feminine sexuality which
marked a turning point in a time when women had no rights. Dissatisfied with
her role of mother and wife, the main character, Edna Pontellier, experiences a
process of awakening of her true self which remained latent in a world
dominated by social conventions.

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in 1899, “The Awakening” takes place during a time when a woman was considered
her husband’s property. By the 19th century, access to formal
education and an emerging democratic culture made young American women
surprisingly self-reliant; however, their conjugal tie was as strict as in the
Old World. After the Civil War, women’s movement focused on the right to vote;
nevertheless, by the end of the century, only a few western states granted
women full voting rights, though women had made significant legal victories,
gaining rights in areas such as property and child custody. Louisiana, where
the action takes place, was a largely Catholic state. Women were expected to
remain devoted to their husbands and children until death, no matter what
happened. The novel’s depiction of a young wife and mother discovering her own
identity outside familial roles by which society defined her, helped her create
a new image of womanhood. In this time, the right to vote, own property and
work in most professions were denied. Moreover, the feminist movement, just
beginning to emerge in other parts of America, was entirely absent in the
conservative state of Louisiana. 

            Feminism is portrayed within “The Awakening” through the
character of Edna Pontellier, mother of two children and wife to Leonce Pontellier.
Typical for this kind of novel, the theme of restraints and limitations is
obvious from the first pages, in which Edna is depicted as a lifeless
embodiment of social roles.  The
omniscient narrator looks at the scene with Leonce Pontellier’s eyes, as he
notices his wife’s approach to the beach as” a
valuable piece of personal property”. Edna fits the pattern
of the society she lives in; she is a respectable wife and mother of the late
1800s. Although, her conception of motherhood is quite atypical:” In
short, Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother-woman”. Edna shows little interest in
the conversations with her husband and in the immediate needs of her children:” Mrs. Pontellier’s mind was quite at rest concerning the
present material needs of her children, and she could not see the use of
anticipating and making winter night garments the subject of her summer

The character’s inner struggle is a
process of finding herself and understanding her place as human being in the
universe, disregarding the social roles which held her captive. In this process
of awakening, she starts to neglect her responsibilities as mother and wife, in
the sense that she ignores her housekeeping duties, she no longer receives the
usual visitors on Tuesday night and gives in to any whim. Leonce is disturbed
by Edna’s carelessness and believes that his wife is losing her mind:” It
sometimes entered Mr.Pontellier’s mind to wonder if his wife were not growing a
little unbalanced mentally. He could see plainly that she was not herself. That
is, he could not see that she was becoming herself and daily casting aside that
fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the
world. What her husband could not see is that Edna had dropped the veil of reluctance
and begins to see the world with a fresh perspective, ignoring the consequences
of her unconventional actions. It is noticeable that the main character leads a
double life. Her outside existence complies and is dedicated to social roles;
the inside life is the one who asks questions and sets her imagination free
through unrealistic and romantic dreams.

The people Edna meets on Grand Isle
awake desires and urges for music, sexual satisfaction, art, freedom. The woman
rediscovers her latent sensuality through extra-conjugal relationships.
Breaking through the label given by society, she tries to discover her own
identity independent of husband and children. She starts to paint more often,
goes to horse racing, pays visits to Mrs. Reisz, takes long walks in the
evenings, she leaves her children in the care of their grandmother. She rebels
against the role imposed on her, especially when she declares to Robert that:” “You
have been a very, very foolish boy, wasting your time dreaming of impossible
things when you speak of Mr. Pontellier setting me free! I am no longer one of
Mr. Pontellier’s possessions to dispose of or not”.

Contrary to the illusion of
independence promised by the rebirth of the self, Chopin portrays the release
of Edna’s inner life in terms of passivity. She follows blindly any impulse, as
her life was in someone else’s hands.  In
the middle of this passivity, there is the woman’s attempt to escape the
objective world, as autonomy is impossible without taking into account the
realities of human existence-time and change.

In her search for freedom and
individuality, Edna meets Robert Lebrun on Grand Isle and falls in love with
him. She tries to satisfy the aspirations of her soul by putting on the
classical shape of love. However, her attempt in this regards are deceiving. Despite
Edna’s unrealistic dreams and declaration of love, Robert is ruled by his moral
and conventional principles that limit his actions and disregards Edna’s claims
of independence and self-ownership. She sees in Robert the chance of true love
and passion that have been missing in her life since she married Leonce.
Nevertheless, when he recognizes his feelings for Edna, he decides to walk away
because he is fully aware that he may never act on his love. On the other hand,
Edna begins a love affair with Alcee Arobin; through this extra-conjugal
relationship, she tried to get rid of her old self. But this doesn’t give her a
new identity to allow her to lead an independent life. Edna’s growing feelings
are encouraged by the libertine Arobin over a relationship that deceiver her,
as it is devoid of love. When she is faithful to her romantic dreams, Edna
becomes the lifeless instrument of her own feelings; when she tries to follow
the rules of the society she lives in, she becomes the lifeless instrument of
men-husband or lover.

The character is influenced and
inspired by two other characters, as well, both true catalysts of Edna’s
awakening: Adele Ratignolle and Mademoiselle Reisz-the mother above all and the
artist. Adele is the perfect example for the 19th century womanhood.
A devoted wife and mother, she is incessantly engaged in taking care of her
children, in her housekeeping duties and in the needs of her husband. Edna is
enchanted by Adele’s sincerity and maternal ardor which make her open up her
soul. The conversations with Adele remind Edna of her romantic youth dreams and
wake up buried and dormant desires. The character sees in Ms. Ratignolle what
she is supposed to be and what is expected of her: a subject to familial roles
and society. On the other hand, Edna is inspired by Mademoiselle Reisz; her
pianist musical abilities awake in Edna an overwhelming, spiritual and sensual
revelation. She is so overcome by the awakening of her body that confuses the
first thrill of desire with the feeling of love for Robert.

It is worth noting that, by the end
of the novel, Edna unravels her relations with people by alienating from them
until the point it becomes unbearable. She sends her children to their
grandmother, moves into the “pigeon house” seeking for peace, but her perpetual
yearning for independence only leads to loneliness.  In the last chapter of the book, Edna goes
back to Grand Isle and kills herself by drowning. Her suicide may be, on the
one hand, an act of supreme liberation, a way of finally freeing herself from a
world dominated by conventional forces. On the other hand, Edna’s suicide may
be a final attempt to escape her children, her lovers, her husband, but
especially time and change, as she could remain faithful to her inner life only
by total isolation of the self. If we are to look at Edna’s death from a
political point of view, her gesture may be seen as being too extreme; her
suicide may represent social and political pessimism and hopelessness and may
have suggested that the idea of balance and equality between the sexes is

In “The Awakening”, Chopin aspired
to picture the life of women in a way which contradicted the dominant and
powerful opinions of the epoch. These alternatives are embodied in three
enigmatic characters- the young couple and the melancholic widow in mourning.
The two lovers, like the Ratignolle couple, are a happy, fulfilled pair. The
lady in black , whose perpetual devotion 
suggests a possible allegiance to a religious system, is always alone.
The mysterious presence of those characters emphasizes the dilemma Edna deals
with. These characters can be interpreted as representing the radical
limitations of experience of women. Even if the young lady who adores her lover
and the mourning widow have a different experience concerning love, they are
both still tied to this notion-one of them is ceaselessly enjoying love and the
other one is grieving her loss.

Conclusively, “The Awakening” by
Kate Chopin is a fine depiction of our permanent confrontation with our
humanity as individuals and community and 
keeps on engaging ourselves in the debate of grand ideas concerning the
nature of the self, freedom, of the significance of adultery and suicide, the
balance between biological determination and personal choice. The dramatic
nature of this conflict makes Kate Chopin’ “The Awakening” a masterpiece of the
American feminist literature.

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