The Awakening by Kate Chopin (Feminine Agency)

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In the mid nineteenth century, feminine agency was a term considered alien to American society due to constricting patriarchal autonomy. For the heroine in Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening, feminine agency is the portrayal of her emergence as a subject of societal patriarchy into an agent of her own free will. The title of the novel is a significant symbol of Edna Pontellier’s gradual awakening to the oppressed reality of her existence, thus her self-quest for feminine agency. Before Edna’s ‘awakening’, she is portrayed as a caged bird in the sense that she, living in a constricting oppressive environment, has no other perspective of the world in which she inhabits, but only one of which is greatly influenced by a patriarchal society. It is not until a summer which she spends at Grand Isle where she, upon discovering her love of the Arts and develops a budding relationship with Robert Le Brun, begins a journey of inquisition about her place in the world and starts to rebel against the conformities of society. Ultimately, she comes to the realization that she will never be an agency of her own self and concludes, albeit arguably, to commit suicide as a medium of allowing her true self the freedom to discover agency. Chopin employs key motifs considered to be romantic in nature such as a woman’s awakening to sexuality, sensuality and autonomy to portray the romantic conflict between that of female self-assertion and society.

The Romanticism movement is defined as a belief that imagination and emotions are stronger than reason. “A conviction that poetry is superior to science… belief that contemplation of the natural world is a means of discovering a truth that lies behind reality.” (Holt) Classic American authors such as Ralph Waldo Emerson with “Self Reliance” and Walt Whitman’s renowned “Songs of myself”, are works of literature prominently associated with literary romanticism and are direct influences of The Awakening. Chopin’s constant quest in her fictions to portray what it was for a woman to have agency, or more importantly, what it meant to be a female self (Ewell) arguably stemmed from the novel idea of the “American dream” first presented by a French observer of the American life. Emerson in addition reaffirms this sovereignty, that to be a self and to define oneself as a subject with an inner life was a goal of “human consciousness” (Ferguson, Life and letters in New England). Given the significance of this paradox, The Awakening is Chopin’s attempt to create the female-self in opposition to the male-self proposal. The creation of her protagonist Edna was a means of exploring and articulating what life was, particularly those of women and their inevitable struggle to achieve self-hood, the sacred entity that Emerson and others saw as the “American dream”.

Like many others of Chopin’s main characters, Edna is a typical nineteenth century woman in the sense that a patriarchal society sought to confine women to the home as ‘mother-women’, and regarded them only through their relationships with men, often as mothers, sisters and wives; to put it simply they were seen only as mere properties belonging to men. The first chapter of the story encapsulates Edna’s “caged” existence and emphasizes the point of view of her conventional husband. To Leonce, his wife is nothing but an inanimate object which he introduces onto the setting as a “white sunshade that was advancing at snail’s pace” and chastises her as one might “a valuable of personal property which has suffered some damage” (Chopin). An important imagery which encompasses this firstly the image of caged parrots whose “fluty notes… which nobody could understand” (Chopin) presents an image of isolation, confinement and lack of communication, in another sense these birds together prefigure Edna’s restlessness and her irony, her desire for freedom and her sense that freedom may ultimately be meaningless, her yearning for solitude and her worries about loneliness...
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