In The Awakening, Kate Chopin uses Adèle Ratignolle to illustrate the social conventions of the 19th century, helping us understand where Edna initially stands in the novella. Adèle Ratignolle’s character and values represent Edna’s origin of displacement. Madame Ratignolle clearly represents a “mother-woman”, or, in other words, a woman defined for her role as a mother. She is a responsible mother to her children, already preparing their winter wear, whereas Mrs. Pontellier is not even concerned about such an issue:
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 garments the subject of her summer meditations. (Chopin 8)
Edna’s priorities greatly differ from Adèle’s, given their different cultures. In fact, it is their differences that contribute to Edna’s cultural displacement and to her social displacement as well. Concerning the societal issue, there are the expectations of a wife’s role. On the one hand, Madame Ratignolle is not only a successful mother-woman, but also a devoted wife to her husband. She is attached to him and remains loyal: “The Ratignolles understood each other perfectly. If ever the fusion of two human beings into one has been accomplished on this sphere it was surely in their union” (56). On the other hand, “[Edna’s] marriage to Léonce Pontellier was purely an accident” (18). There is no romance in the Pontellier’s marriage, and definitely no passion. Madame Ratignolle is simply the model wife of their era. As a Creole woman, she also talks with an absence of prudery that Edna is unaccustomed to:
Their freedom of expression was at first incomprehensible to her, though she had no difficulty in reconciling it with a lofty chastity which in the Creole woman seems to be inborn and unmistakable. (9)
Edna feels uncomfortable with certain aspects of the Creole culture given that it is not her natural place. Adèle Ratignolle’s character, along with her values, clearly depicts what Edna is trying to get away from. The societal expectations and cultural norms are Edna’s source of displacement.
Edna Pontellier finds herself in a world unknown to her, and thus attempts to overcome her displacement. However, she is unaware of the requirements or the consequences of her desire to escape her displacement. Kate Chopin then uses Mademoiselle Reisz to represent a woman who copes well with her displacement. This character shows what it takes to free yourself from the social conventions. She guides Edna through her “awakening”, advising her throughout the novella. According to Mademoiselle Reisz, “to be an artist includes much; one must possess many gifts – absolute gifts – which have not been acquired by one’s own effort. And, moreover, to succeed, the artist must possess the courageous soul” (63). Mademoiselle Reisz questions whether Edna is cut-out for her personal mission, because without “a courageous soul”, Edna’s desire to become independent will not be achievable. Taking on the...