The length of time for which Western society
, and much of the world as a whole, has kept women weighted under traditional notions of servility, obligation, and restriction
is staggering. It took a critical mass of artistic, political, and moral vision
to turn the tide against these forces of inequality and injustice, a process that is still undergoing internationally. Chopin was one of the leading American voices
at the close of the Victorian
era passionately advocating for a world in which men and women could maintain equal freedom and self-sufficiency. In her seminal novel The Awakening
, Kate Chopin
illustrated a rampant cultural attitude
that expected women to abandon any sense of individuality or solitude and devote themselves to the point of subservience to their husbands, children, and fashionable society. She expresses this traditional view through multiple different perspectives juxtaposed
with Edna's own, then persuades the reader as to its injustice by use of symbolism
and foil character
"Why can't you see it my way?" - Manipulation of Point of View
Bewildered and angered by Edna's hectic, erratic behavior
, so different from her 'exemplary' conduct as a wife of before, other figures in Edna's life typify the cultural paradigm of female subservience
to 'hearth and home
' that Chopin wishes to alter. The author manipulates point of view and throughout the novel to provide their perspective on Edna's awakening
, contrasting it with Edna's own thoughts and exhibiting the dominant mindset of society while simultaneously arguing against it
. Edna's husband provides much of the outside perspective on Edna's new realizations. He, "[looks] at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property," (7) a possession that he certainly cares for and cherishes, yet nonetheless views as under his ownership
. In his mind, however briefly, Edna is an object to be controlled. This is an acceptable view by the standards of society, but hard to justify when the reader is privy to the frenzied and very human activity of Edna's own mind
Even Robert, the focus of Edna's affection, shares this same perspective
. "Recalling men who had set their wives free
," (178) he remains trapped within the pattern of ownership and possession even as he risks breaking social codes by pursuing Edna as a married woman. His own admission illustrates the omnipresence of the opinion throughout society, a concept which surrounds and oppresses Edna ever increasingly as she pursues self-actualization.
Beyond passive acceptance of possession, Victorian culture
also expects Edna to assume her obligations as mother, wife, and member of society, even if she never chose to take on these responsibilities
. It's natural for Mr. Pontellier to think, "if it was not a mother's place to look after children, whose on earth was it
?" (13) His point of view jars with Edna's own, which puts distance between herself and her children. They are not cherished obligations to her, as Mr. Pontellier expects, but "antagonists who had overcome her
Likewise, from the perspective of those around her, her individuality and desires are to be preempted by the need to maintain appearances with fashionable company. Her husband, "begs
her to consider first, foremost, and above all else, what people would say," (155) when she decides to abandon their cumbersome home for a smaller, yet less claustrophobic pigeon house. Her own individual feelings and thoughts are irrelevant in the face of concerns over face. She is expected to submit to the views of fashionable company before her own
. These multiple perspectives, typifying the view of society, stand in dissonance with Edna's own thought processes and emotions, sketching out the dominant social attitude while also drawing a defiant line through it by Edna's rebellion and self-realization.
Between worlds, the abyss - Foil Characters
By use of foil characters, Chopin highlights the limited nature of Edna's awakening, hemmed in from all sides by the expectations and obligations put upon her by tradition
. The contrast between the total compliance and even reverie of Mrs. Ratignolle with society's expectations and the total defiance of Ms. Reisz puts a spotlight on the unjust, unstable middle ground which the dominant social attitude forces Edna to occupy. Physical comparisons between Edna and Mrs. Ratignolle lay the groundwork for the contrast. Mrs. Ratignolle, "possessing the more feminine and matronly figure
," (27) serves as the classical model for a respectable Victorian woman. "The graceful severity of poise and movement, which made Edna Pontellier different from the crowd
," (27) marks Edna's individuality and effectively communicates the feeling of being fundamentally out-of-place that haunts Edna.
Mirroring this difference with her behavior, Mrs. Ratignolle's domestic bliss
only serves to cast in starker contrast the unsuitability of traditional feminine rolls for Edna. "The Ratignolles understood each other perfectly. If ever the fusion of two human beings into one has been accomplished? it was surely in their union" (93), but "Edna felt depressed rather than soothed
after leaving them" (93).
On the opposite end of the perspective, Ms. Reisz severs herself entirely from society, living independent of popular opinion, traditional notions of femininity, and patriarchy
. She has, "the brave soul
. The soul that dares and defies" (106). Ms. Reisz is successful in her defiance, presenting a somewhat unpleasant, but nonetheless refreshing vision of the possibilities for an ambitious woman. This is not a path that Edna may easily pursue, however. When Ms. Reisz asks, "Why do you love him when you ought not to?" (135), the question highlights an essential chain
that binds Edna to tradition. She is helplessly under the control of the men in her life, whether that be Mr. Pontellier, Arobin, or even Robert. She cannot pursue solitude and individuality without first escaping their possession. The foil characters of Mrs. Ratignolle and Ms. Reisz mark the boundaries within which Edna slowly tears herself apart.
Seamurmurs - Symbolism
Symbolism throughout the novel represents the call of solitude, individuality, and freedom after which Edna aspires, but may never reach due to the restrictions of society that Chopin hopes to change. To escape, Chopin tragically asserts that the only path is the ultimate solitude; death by one's own hand
. The sea, throughout the novel, exerts a powerful pull on Edna
equivalent to her strong attraction toward solitude and its accompanying traits of self-sufficiency and freedom from unjust obligations. Robert, appropriately, issues the first call to Edna's mind much as he issues a call to her heart. "You mustn't miss your bath. Come on. The water must be delicious
; it will not hurt you" (24). He further reinforces his roll as the symbolic catalyst for Edna's awakening among the waves of the sea by the song "si tu savais," the French
for, "if you only knew
." The power of knowledge is what frees Edna, opening her senses to the true reality of woman's absurdly unequal place in society.
As she gains further independence and self-confidence, the song becomes her own. "While Edna worked she sometimes sang low the little air, "Ah! Sit tu savais" (96). This knowledge is a double-edged sword
. As the true gravity of the restrictions holding her firmly in place as a Victorian wife dawns upon her, the song is painful to her ears. "Don't sing that. I don't want you to sing it
" (150). The symbolic meaning of the song has run full circle, returning Edna to the same place as she began, under the control of the men in her life and her obligations to society.She is a bird yearning for flight
, her soul grown wings eager to soar through the open air. But moments from her suicide, she observes "a bird with a broken wing was beating the air above, reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water" (189). Edna is defeated, her wings clipped
and the readers' hopes for her self-actualization crushed. By means of these significant symbols, Chopin expresses the awful force of traditional notions of a wife's place upon Edna's psyche.
Passionately committed to the end of inequality and a future world in which women enjoyed the same freedoms and opportunities as men
, Chopin skillfully evoked the dominant social attitudes disregarding women's need for solitude and control over their own lives by manipulating the perspectives of characters around Edna, then tried to influence the reader's view on these attitudes through use of foil characters and symbolism. The novel, predictably if unfortunately
, met fierce criticism upon its publishing. With a modern perspective on the progression of the equal rights movements, however, The Awakening has undergone a resurrection of critical attention and praise as a prophet of women's literature several decades later. It holds a message still relevant to modern times, one that asserts the essential human dignity of women
and demands an equal place for their desires and needs.