Clothes appear to have significant meaning in The Awakening, enough so that they are mentioned at almost every description of the characters. Edna Pontellier starts the novel fully dressed and appropriately dressed for a woman of her responsibilities, however, at her final moment, she is naked on the beach. Other women in the story also represent their ‘position’ and the way they feel in the way they dress. For example, Madmoiselle Reisz never changes her clothes.
This could possibly symbolize her physical detachment from anything around her, including nature and any suppressed feelings. In contrast, Edna’s clothes represent her physical attachment to society. She sheds her clothes the way a snake sheds its skin when it is time for a new one and it does not fit into the old one any longer. Edna doesn’t feel like she can fit into society any longer. Madmoiselle Reisz, on the other hand, does not seem to have any desire to be more than what she has been given in the society in which she lives.
Therefore, she does not change her clothes, because she does not feel the need for change in her life. Other characters, such as Madame Leburn always have new clothes to cover their bodies. This could, perhaps, represent the constant need to cover their sexuality as women in suppressed roles as wives and mothers. Ednas’ nakedness at the end of the novel symbolizes her freedom from any claims her children may have on her and shows how her lack of clothes is equal to her lack of ‘responsibility’, of her family and the 1890s’ society.
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Through the motif of clothes, Kate Chopin suggests that although society can be restricting, in order to have discipline, rules can be necessary. Can be destructive, lack of rules can lead to destruction of self. The symbol of clothing in the story shows the development of her freedom from the harsh rules of the Creole society. In the beginning of the novel, Edna is accustomed to wearing the same clothes as the Creoles. Throughout the story, she is found loosening her collar and trying to remove articles of clothing.
After her awakening, Edna becomes restless and starts to neglect the rules placed upon her. As Edna progresses throughout the novel, she discards more and more layers of the confining clothing that surrounds her body and soul. By taking off her clothing, one piece at a time, she is disobeying the rules placed upon her, and in doing so, she exerts her independence. The clothing symbolizes the constraints on the social behavior of women in this era. It restricts Edna and doesn’t allow her body to move. At the beginning of the novel, Edna is fully dressed and in proper clothing.
However, when Edna and Adele walk together on the beach, Edna wears less clothing In one example of rebellion, Edna begins to care less about her duties as a woman in a Victorian society and chooses to not wear what society expects of her. “Mrs. Ponteiller did not wear her usual Tuesday reception gown; she was in ordinary house gowns. ” (59) The house gown are less elaborate and involve wearing less clothing than reception gowns, and to Edna, is more comfortable. Although those around her do not approve, she chooses to do what she feels and does this witho5ut hesitation or guilt.
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