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The Awakening – a Feminist Analysis

The Awakening is a novel by Kate Chopin, first published in 1899 , set in New Orleans and the Southern Louisiana coast at the end of the nineteenth century.The plot centers on Edna Pontellier and her struggle to reconcile her increasingly unorthodox views on femininity and motherhood with the prevailing social attitudes of the turn-of-the-century South.It is one of the earliest American novels that focuses on women’s issues without condescension.

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It is also widely seen as a landmark work of early feminism. 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.

All throughout “The Awakening,” Kate Chopin shows examples of how women should and should not act in society, in their homes, and with their husbands. In Edna Pontellier’s adopted society, women are viewed more valuable when they conform into the mother-woman role. The mother-woman role is another form of men control, because it dictates how women should idolize their children, worship their husbands, and honor their isolated but inferior positions    As the novel progresses, Edna begins to make increasingly “open-eyed choice[s] to defy illusions and conventions”.

Throughout the novel Edna becomes increasingly sexual, also becoming aware of her sexuality. Her bond of friendship with Robert seems harmless at first, but when he leaves for Mexico Edna believes she is in love with him: “For the first time she recognized anew the symptoms of infatuation. . . to torture her as it was doing then with the biting conviction that she had lost that which she had held, that she had been denied that which her impassioned, newly awakened being demanded” (Chopin 44).

Edna has never had any sexual encounters with Robert, yet her emotions are so aroused by her close friend she is “infatuated” with him. Until this point, Edna seems to have not realized her feelings for Robert. In time she will call these feelings love, but at this point she is deeply upset because the man she is “infatuated” with is leaving. Edna’s emotions have been stirred for the first time in a long time, and she is unwilling to merely deal with the fact that the man who did this is leaving.

Edna goes into a childlike pout, neglecting the familial duties she previously completed without fail. Edna’s awakening comes in two parts, the emotionally sexual awakening she experiences with Robert and the physically sexual awakening reached with Arobin (Seyersted, Kate Chopin 155). When Robert leaves her the first time, she is upset and broods, unable to believe he left so abruptly, and without saying goodbye. Arobin cannot gain this control over Edna’s emotions, as she distances herself from him and restrains herself from becoming too emotionally attached.

Through her experience with Robert, Edna has learned to keep her emotional distance from men, lest she be hurt again. Edna is definitely a more sexual being now than previously in the novel. Before she recoiled at the touch of her closest friend, and now she is indulging in a forbidden kiss, holding Arobin close to prolong the contact. She is also more reserved. Arobin is quite anxious to see Edna again, but Edna pushes him away telling him she will see him at her dinner party, “not an instant sooner” (Chopin 82).

Edna takes control of the situation, pushing Arobin away when he begs to see her again, having come to an enlightened state of being, learning from her mistakes and being an active force in her own life. Edna now makes decisions (such as moving out of the house) based on what is right for her, choices that will drastically affect her life, doing so with open eyes and a clear head. Edna is feminist in nature, but her feminism comes with a price, and not many people are strong enough to endure social ostracizing to enjoy personal freedom.

Chopin wonderfully illustrates Edna’s dilemma, showing possible consequences of becoming enlightened outside the context of a broader social movement. By the end of the novel, Chopin still refuses to tell us whether Edna’s awakening is liberating, or if it is tragic. They argue that Edna Pontellier’s awakening is one of mental clarity, and her suicide is a triumphant act. By committing suicide Edna is finally freeing herself from social constraints and possession. Her suicide is an act of liberation, therefore Edna is the ultimate feminist.

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