Kate Chopin's The Awakening: Struggle against Society and Nature

Topics: Patriarchy, Gender role, Woman Pages: 9 (6427 words) Published: October 4, 2014
Kate Chopin's The Awakening: Struggle Against Society and Nature Kate Chopin’s The Awakening was a bold piece of fiction in its time, and protagonist Edna Pontellier was a controversial character. She upset many nineteenth century expectations for women and their supposed roles. One of her most shocking actions was her denial of her role as a mother and wife. Kate Chopin displays this rejection gradually, but the concept of motherhood is major theme throughout the novel. Edna is fighting against the societal and natural structures of motherhood that force her to be defined by her title as wife of Leonce Pontellier and mother of Raoul and Etienne Pontellier, instead of being her own, self-defined individual. Through Chopin’s focus on two other female characters, Adele Ratignolle and Mademoiselle Reisz, Edna’s options of life paths are exhibited. These women are the examples that the men around Edna contrast her with and from whom they obtain their expectations for her. Edna, however, finds both role models lacking and begins to see that the life of freedom and individuality that she wants goes against both society and nature. The inevitability of her fate as a male-defined creature brings her to a state of despair, and she frees herself the only way she can, through suicide. In the world of Edna Pontellier one can either be defined by men or live a life separate from the rest of society. “Women [can] either become wives and mothers . . . or exiles” (Papke 39). Adele Ratignolle is the epitome of the male-defined wife and mother. She is a “mother-woman.” “[The mother-women] were women who idolized their children, worshipped their husbands and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels” (Chopin 10). Adele is described as being a fairly talented pianist, yet even the very personal act of creating music is performed for the sake of her children. “She was keeping up her music on account of the children, she said; because she and her husband both considered it a means of brightening the home and making it attractive” (Chopin 27). Adele also brings constant attention to her pregnancy in ways Edna finds to be somewhat inappropriate. Adele is very proud of her title of mother, and one might say motherhood is what she was fated for. Edna finds that the life of the mother-woman fails to satisfy her desire for an existence free from definition. She pities Adele and finds herself unsuited for the lifestyle of the mother-woman. “It was not a condition of life which fitted her, and she could see in it but an appalling and hopeless ennui. She was moved by a kind of commiseration for Madame Ratignolle” (Chopin 63). Adele represents all four attributes of True Womanhood as defined by the Cult of Domesticity. The “four cardinal virtues [were] piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. Put them together and they spelled mother, daughter, sister, wife—woman” (Welter qtd. Papke 11). This definition of self in connection with others is what prevents Edna from allowing herself to follow Adele’s example. She tries to explain these reservations about loss of identity to Adele. “I would give my money, I would give my life for my children, but I wouldn’t give myself” (Chopin 53). Adele fails to understand Edna’s search for individuality, and Edna must look elsewhere for empathy. Mademoiselle Reisz is the exile. In her first introduction, she is displayed “dragging a chair in and out of her room, and at intervals objecting to the crying of a baby, which a nurse in the adjoining cottage was endeavoring to put to sleep” (Chopin 28). Mademoiselle Reisz is a woman devoid of motherly tendencies and sexuality. She is physically unappealing and seems to have no romantic past, present, or future. Her primary trait is her extraordinary musical talent, which she, in contrast to Adele, cultivates only for herself. Edna confides in her a desire to become a painter, and Mademoiselle Reisz cautions her...
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