Unbearable Realism Freedom, Ethics and Identity in the Awakening

Topics: Gender role, Role, Woman Pages: 28 (10551 words) Published: January 7, 2012
Unbearable Realism: Freedom, Ethics and Identity in The Awakening Peter Ramos


ike the last lines of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the ending of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening seems always to be read in the context of gender inequality at the turn of the last century. Both texts repeatedly establish the extent to which the patriarchal pressures of that period posed severe obstacles for even the most privileged women. In regard to each text’s ending, however, the same set of questions tends to arise: is Edna’s suicide, like Gilman’s speaker’s descent into madness, a triumph—the best possible achievement of independence and agency under the circumstances? Or are her final actions a defeat—the fatal, inescapable result for any woman who tries to assert autonomy in the face of such debilitating, insurmountable patriarchy? Though critical responses have varied since The Awakening was first published in 1899— when the majority argued that Edna’s ulti-

Peter Ramos is assistant professor of English at Buffalo State College. He has criticism in The CEA Critic, The Faulkner Journal, and Mandorla. His first book-length collection of poems, Please Do Not Feed the Ghost,was published in 2008.


College Literature 37.4 [Fall 2010]

mate fate is only cosmic justice for her moral deviation throughout the novella—most readings have fallen into either of these two categories.1 There are, of course, a few slightly different readings; Robert Treu, for example, along with a few other critics, suggests that Edna’s final swim does not necessarily lead to her intentional (or even unintentional) suicide (2000, 23). But for the most part, these two interpretations of the novella’s ending remain the most enduring and prominent. A third, though far less popular, reading of Edna’s final actions insists they are inconsistent with her character and, as such, flaw the novella as a whole. George M. Spangler claims that The Awakening’s conclusion “undercuts the otherwise superb characterization of the protagonist and thus prevents a very good novel from being the masterpiece its discoverers claim that it is” (1970, 250). Strangely enough, even one of Chopin’s staunchest defenders comes to this same conclusion—though from a slightly different perspective. Biographer Emily Toth has suggested that Chopin had Edna commit suicide in order to accommodate the moral demands publishers and readers would place on a woman who committed such transgressions.2 Such a reading necessarily implies that Chopin, succumbing more or less willingly to outside pressures, produced a compromised piece of literature. But these seemingly different readings share a common view of the society a woman like Edna faced, for each inherently suggests that the patriarchal-social pressures forced upon such a woman were either inescapably deterministic or, somehow, entirely avoidable through a kind of mythical rebirth achieved through the act of suicide. Even critic Marta CamineroSantangelo, whose book, The Madwoman Can’t Speak, argues against treating insanity or (presumably) suicide as a viable form of agency for women, makes the following concession regarding Chopin’s (as well as Gilman’s) text: It is surely no coincidence that “The Yellow Wallpaper” . . . and The Awakening . . ., appearing within less than a decade of each other at the turn of the twentieth century, both depict female protagonists who retreat from a world of insurmountable obstacles into madness and suicide, respectively, nor that, in both cases, the retreat is highly ambiguous. (CamineroSantangelo 1998, 181; my emphasis)3

Such readings, though problematic, are understandable. We care about Edna and feel justifiable sympathy for her plight. It’s far easier to see her either as an innocent victim crushed by a merciless, absolute patriarchy, or as having the last laugh by ducking out of life’s impassible and unfair obstacles. But these readings implicitly overlook the courage and...
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