Kate Chopin: The Awakening - A naturalist novel?
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Original cover of 1899
This paper aims at showing that “The Awakening“ by Kate Chopin is in every sense a naturalist novel, as the protagonist, Edna Pontellier, is surrounded by a world, that does not understand her. The effects of society on this character are portrayed in a very realistic way. While she is slowly trying to escape, everyone is closing in and she is forced by her environment to take the steps she does in the novel. Thus a most important feature of a naturalist novel is realized: the determination by personal traits and by social forces in the family, the class and the milieu. As a protagonist in a naturalist novel, Edna is a victim of sociological pressures and, because she cannot get along with the many- fold compulsions, she perishes.
The proof for these statements will be taken from the novel itself and the reception and interpretation of text passages.
Edna Pontellier is, the way she is portrayed in the novel, a very individual figure. She does not exhibit the qualities that are believed to be essential to a loving and dutiful wife and mother. “Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother woman“(1) , it is said at the beginning of the text. This impression is conceived by everyone around her. Her husband believes nothing less and says that “[...] his wife failed in her duty toward their children.“ (p.50). He, as the head of his household, thinks it necessary to scold his wife for her not acting as expected: “He reproached his wife with her inattention, her habitual neglect of the children“ (p. 48). “Such experiences as the foregoing were not uncommon in her married life.“ (p. 49). Edna is already used to these kinds of unfair treatments. She actually is not a less loving mother than any other woman. “I would give up the essential: I would give my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself.“ (p.97). Because “She would never sacrifice herself for her children, or for any one.“ (p. 97) she is seen as an unnatural parent and wife. She has this handicap mostly due to her being different from other women present at Grand Isle. “They were women who idolized their children, worshipped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilige to afface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels“ (p.51). When nature made her female, it established the rhythm of her life. Motherhood enchains women in The Awakening through a combination of pain and love. Although Edna’s sons play only a minor role in the novel, they nevertheless control her destiny and lead her to suicide.
Edna is not ready to give up herself for anyone, especcially not for her husband. She realizes to late that she has married the wrong man:
Her marriage to Léonce Pontellier was purely an accident. […]He pleased her; his absolute devotion flattered her. She fancied there was a sympathy of thought and taste between them, in which fancy she was mistaken. Add to this the violent opposition of her father and her sister Margaret to her marriage with a Catholic, and we need seek no further for the motives which led her to accept Monsieur Pontellier for her husband. (p. 62).
Now her marriage is like a trap that she was led into and she cannot get out. It is impossible for her to break the bond made between herself and her husband.No matter how hard she tries, there is no way out. “taking off her wedding ring, flung it upon the carpet. She stamped her heel upon it, striving to crush it […][it] did not make an indenture, not a mark upon the little glittering circlet […] slipped it upon her finger“ (p. 103). The glittering circlet that once promised her rebellion against her father and sister (and that, at first glance is a symbol for a bright and perfect marriage), turned out to be no more than disguised handcuffs which she cannot take off without society noticing her outragous act.
In a way, Edna Pontellier is a very romantic woman. She accepted Léonce Pontellier because of his courting. But now all romance seems to be gone from her and her husbands’ lives. Now he is solely “looking at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of property“ (p. 44). Property is a very important factor in his life and Edna is a nice ornament for his belongings. He is only a representation of society, though. In the same way that he “was very fond of walking about his house examining its various appointments and details, to see that no- thing was amiss“ (p. 99), everyone else does the same. Moreover, “He greatly valued his possessions, chiefly because they were his“ (p. 99). This, and the following display his businessman- like attitude towards property and appearance. “He was simply thinking of his financial integrity“ (p. 150). Thus, he is the absolute opposite of Edna. She does not comprehend his behavior when it comes to money. Her primary reason for working is not earning money but gaining self- esteem. “I believe I ought to work again. I feel as if I wanted to be doing something.“ (p. 100). Contrarily, society will judge her working as a means of desperately earning money, as she should be absolutely happy with caring for her children. Her self- fullfillment should lie inside her husband’s house. This interpretation of working for want of money is a total misunderstanding. Her utterance: “I would give up the unessential; I would give my money...“ (p. 97) shows how very different she thinks in a society that exclusively looks at money and tries to determine happiness through assets that are piled up.
If Edna were a different person genetically, Chopin hints, her life might have been spared. But Edna is especially sensitive - to light, to sound. Thus Chopin introduces a naturalistic, physiological, predetermined aspect to Edna’s fate. Edna suffers from an unnamed malady that throws her into fits of despondency. She needs the sun; she becomes depressed on cloudy, dark days; she is highly susceptible to changes in the weather and the effect of passionate music.(2)
This becomes most obvious when Edna has two visions while listening to Mlle. Reisz play: she notices “... the figure of a man standing beside a desolate rock on the seashore. He was naked. His attitude was one of hopeless resignation as he looked toward a distant bird winging its flight away from him“ (p. 71).This naked, forlorn figure is actually a foreshadowing, as Edna will be standing naked on the beach at Grand Isle at the end of the novel. It is interesting, though, that the person in her vision is male and not female. It represents the expression of her inner self which incorporates traits that usually are only attributed to males. It is her fate to have a mind as free as any male can have it in a society not inclined to grant women any intellect. In addition, this vision is an allusion to something Mlle. Reisz tells her: “The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth.“ (p. 138). The person, looking up from the sky unto a bird, signifies the having tried and having lost, in the end nothing remains to do for Edna but to be looking back and to acknowledge that she was — despite her high dreams – unable to compete in a society not ready to accept her. Mlle. Reisz had warned her and told her that “to succeed, the artist must possess the courages soul […] . The brave soul. The soul that dares and defies.“ (p. 115). Edna had dared to rebell against the socioeconomic and biological boundaries which walled her in but she was not courages enough. “Finally, however, Edna realizes that there is one self she cannot refuse, for this self is a product of her physical being; the only way to renounce biology is to renounce the physical self.“(3)
Edna’s second vision shows “a dainty young woman clad in an Empire gown, taking mincing dancing steps as she came down a long avenue between tall hedges“ (p. 71). Whereas the first vision revealed Edna’s inner self and wishes, this vision is a parable for how she feels at the moment. She is a beautifully dressed person in a cage that does not allow her to take too many steps into any direction. She is enclosed by a wall of growing and unmoving material that is not like herself and does not understand her.
Chopin presents us with a woman as outsider, Edna, whose case is made more complex by her apparent security in and attachment to her husband’s world […] she is accepted in this Creole society as an enchanting if somewhat naive lady. In actuality she is foreign to that society but simultaniously complicit with the social and sexual business of that world. Hers is, then, an extremely unstable position, based on contingency and her proximity to authority. Raised in Kentucky and Mississippi, she is neither Creole nor part of the old way.(4)
Edna’s search for spiritual fulfillment is artificially satisfied by the music of Reisz. She seems to read Edna’s thoughts or feelings, and as Edna listens to Reisz play, she is overcome with passions of solitude, hope, longing and despair.
Knowing the essential irreconcilability of her romantic dreams with reality, Edna carefully avoids any confrontation of the two. Her refrain that she will not think about the future runs like a motif throughout the novel. Attempting to protect her revitalized inner life, Edna physically and psychologically isolates herself, casting off family responsibilities, persuing her solitary thoughts, and finally moving to her own house.“(5)
The difference between Edna and Léonce is already apparent in their looks. Edna is described as a young woman with eyes that are “quick and bright“ (p. 45) which is opposed by her husband having to wear spectacles to correct his vision.
The supposed freedom of the Creole people is in direct contrast with the repression of female self- will. The Creole society forbids women to develop any other talents or interests than motherhood and wifehood. Edna’s friendships are expected to contribute to Léonce’s business. Hence, Edna does not play her ideologic roles well and Léonce finds a reason to accuse her of neglecting the family when she takes up painting.
Another very prominent feature in the society is religion. Particularly married women were required to submit to the thoughts and rituals of the church. However, Edna happens to not have been a very religious person from the beginning. Talking about her childhood, she remembers: “I was running away from prayers.“ (p. 60). She admits that “during one period of my life religion took a firm hold upon me; after I was twelve and until — until — why, I suppose until now, though I never thought much about it — just driven along by habit.“ (p. 61). Through realizing that religion has become merely a habit it is destined to be abandoned by Edna who is now (at Grand Isle) discovering her own self and giving up everything that is not absolutely her own. By doing this she displays “more wisdom than the Holy Ghost is usually pleased to vouchsafe to any woman“ (p. 57). Her break with religion is a very spontaneous reaction while being in service. “A feeling of oppression and drowsiness overcame Edna during the service [...] her one thought was to quit the stifling atmosphere of the church and reach the open air.“ (p. 82/83). By leaving the church she regains her freedom from all moral values favoured by the church. She no longer has to be the loving and caring wife who only lives for her husband and consequently enjoys her day away from social restrictions.
As mentioned before, Edna was a stranger to the Creole society and to society in general, as she did not fit in. This often causes misunderstandings: “the two women did not appear to understand each other or to be talking the same language“ (p. 97) and results in her feeling even more an outcast than she is anyway “Edna’s face was a blaze picture of bewilderment, which she never thought of disguising.“ (p.89).She is not able to comprehend the way of the Creole people: “Edna wondered if they had all gone mad.“ (p. 91) Likewise, her husband found more than once reason to reprimand her for not acting according to the social code: “I should think you’d understand by this time that people don’t do such things, we’ve got to observe les convenances if we ever expect to get on and keep up with the procession.“ (p. 101). Also, he “begged her to consider first, foremost, and above all else, what people would say.“ (p. 150). An important feature of social life was the making and receiving of visits.
Mrs. Pontellier, attired in a handsome reception gown, remained in the drawing- room the entire afternoon receiving visitors […] This had been the programme which Mrs. Pontellier had religously followed since her marriage six years before. (p. 100)
Everyone was supposed to pay attention to these expositions of „domestic harmony“ (p. 107). By not returning visits, Edna insults everyone around her but she is not willing to give up her newly found independence from social requirements.
Edna is described as a person that starts changing at the beginning of the novel. „An indiscernible oppression , which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar part of her consciousness, filled her whole being with a vague anguish“ (p. 49). Gradually, her perception of what happens to her grows. Moreover, it is explained that this changing is not an act of will but rather something that she cannot influence or stop even if she wanted.
That summer at Grand Isle she began to loosen a little the mantle of reserve that had always enveloped her [...] There must have been influences, both subtle and apparent, working in their several ways to induce her to do this. (p. 57).
She could only realize that she herself — her present self — was in some way different from the other self. That she was seeing with different eyes and making the acquaintance of new conditions in herself that colored and changed her environment, she did not yet suspect. (p. 88).
Edna’s first steps at being independent are not an act of will but are the natural steps of a person that — after having been prisoner to other people’s commands — for all her life suddenly is cast into freedom. “She was blindly following whatever impulse moved her, as if she had placed herself in alien hands for direction, and freed her soul of responsibility.“ (p. 79). Although the first steps into freedom are not reflected on, her first step into rebellion is explicitly described and at the same time her until then lifelong conforming is justified.
Another time she would have gone in at his request. She would, through habit, have yielded to his desire; not with any sense of submission or obedience to his compelling wishes, but unthinkingly, as we walk, move, sit, stand, go through the daily treadmill of the life which has been portioned out to us. (p. 77 /78).
Following this first incident, “She began to do as she liked and to feel as she liked“ (p. 107). She has acquired her own identity and no longer depends on other people. She knows her mind and is determined to do whatever she believes to be right. “I’m not going to be forced into doing things. I don’t want to go abroad. I want to be let alone. Nobody has any right...“ (p. 171). When she finally is questioned by the doctor, her answer “But I don’t want anything but my own way. That is wanting a good deal, of course, when you have to trample upon the lives, the hearts, the prejudices of others...“ (p. 171) has actually two dimensions. One is, that she expresses her wishes, which she so far did not tell anyone except those people very close to her. The other thing conveyed is everyone’s attitude towards her as a wife living all by her own in a house not provided by her husband, receiving male visitors, going to the races and working as a painter. They are prejudiced and do not accept the way of life she chose which they consider to be an “outspoken revolt against the ways of Nature“ (p.170). In addition to that she emphazises, how a family is almost unthinkable to exist without a loving wife and mother being present. Edna is not dispositioned to be kept in this place against her will and inclination. “In short, Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her.“ (p. 57).
The thing that her acquaintances think to be worst about her they at one point actually admire. “How handsome Mrs. Pontellier looked! […] The city atmosphere has improved her. Some way she doesn’t seem like the same woman.“ (p. 113).Of course, they do not know that Edna’s new advance towards life and her own self is the reason for her appearance. Still, it proves that this is the only possible life for her. Her old way of handling life or any other approach would eventually signify her physical and psychal destruction.
She had all her life long been accustomed to harbor thoughts and emotions which never voiced themselves. They had never taken the form of struggles. They belonged to her and were her own, and she entertained the conviction that she had a right to them and that they concerned no one but herself. (p. 96/97).
Edna had from childhood on been predisposed to pursue the individual, or exceptional, rather than the socially determined or sanctioned. “Even as a child she had lived her own small life all within herself. At a very early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life — that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions.“ (p. 57) Consequently, she has always been both receptive to the sensuous and intuitively aware of her determined existence. Therefore it is not clear for her husband that this change is an improvement:
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. (p. 188).
The extracts from the text provided here obviously prove the assumption that Kate Chopin’s The Awakening is a naturalist novel. Edna Pontellier was caught inside the pitfall of her own character caught in the respective society around her. From the beginning on she was determined to fail the way she did.
Kate Chopin. The Awakening and selected stories. 1984. Penguin Books USA Inc. 1986.
Mary E. Papke. Verging on the Abyss — the social fiction of Kate Chopin and Edith Wharton. Greenwood Press: New York; Westport, Connecticut; London, 1990
Kate Chopin. Ed. Harold Bloom.Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.
Kate Chopin reconsidered — Beyond the Bayou. Ed. Lynda S. Boren and Sara deSaussure Davis. Louisiana State University Press Baton Rouge and London. 1992.
(2) Boren, Lynda S. “Taming the Sirens - Possession and strategies of art in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening“ Kate Chopin reconsidered — Beyond the Bayou. Ed. Lynda S. Boren and Sara deSaussure Davis. (Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1992)