Kate Chopin’s The Awakening: The Adulterous Hero

Kate Chopin

Kate Chopin

Kate Chopin’s The Awakening is an interesting narrative that tells the story of a young mother, Edna, who navigates a an aristocratic society that is somewhat foreign to her, though not economically foreign, as Edna is born into an aristocratic family, but rather culturally alien as she is a southern woman transposed into the Creole society of New Orleans via marriage.  Through this conflict, Chopin explores the how women function within a patriarchal context, whilst also incorporating conversations on mental health, pushing past dismissive and chauvinistic diagnosis that seldom extend beyond the word ‘hysterics’.  There are even ecocritical elements to the work as Chopin aligns Edna with nature.  These layers help to enhance the tradition of narratives centered on adulterous women and explores the topic with critical empathy, lifting the novel high above similar works that are far more dismissive of the feminine experience.

 

 

Edna Pontellier as portrayed by Keely McGillis in the film adaptation of the film.

Edna Pontellier as portrayed by Keely McGillis in the film adaptation of the film.

When Edna develops romantic interests in a man other than her husband, what followings is an interesting exploration into matrimonial obligations in a patriarchal world that illustrates how Edna’s husband sees her in terms of how she suits her patriarchal expectations, and cares little for her emotional well-being.  Edna gives up on entertaining company, much to her husband’s disappointment.  He feels his business relations may be hurt by this introverted behaviour, but expresses no concern for the well-being of his wife, demonstrating his concern for her role as wife, and not her emotional health.  Edna has two children and loves them deeply; much like Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina loves her children, but Edna is torn.  When her children are away visiting their paternal grandmother in the country, and her husband is away on business in New York, Edna indulges in her desires, eventually deciding that she wants to live on her own and tells her husband as much via letter, informing him that she is moving out of the house and into a smaller one.  Her husband shows no concern with her motives, and does not think to even consider whether or not there may be another man in her life; his concern is only with the perception of others.  He does not want people in the community assuming that the move is based on finances.  He wants people to know that he is doing well financially, and so arranges to have renovations made to the house during his wife’s absence, and announces also that the family will be taking a vacation in Europe upon his return from New York.  It is not the loss of love that concerns Edna’s husband, but rather “his financial integrity” and the fear that an unflattering perception of his “financial integrity… might do incalculable mischief to his business prospects”.  It is clear that this is a marriage that is not defined by love.

 

 

Frederic Chopin: Though not apparently related to Kate Chopin, it is his music that serves to awaken Edna in the novel.

Frederic Chopin: Though not apparently related to Kate Chopin, it is his music that serves to awaken Edna in the novel.

The novel’s exploration of mental health serve to add a depth that is not present in novels that deal with similar issues.  Like other novels on aristocratic women who indulge in their desires, as can be seen in Daisy Miller, Anna Karenina, and Madame Bovary, the protagonist in The Awakening juggles social obligations with desire and ultimately meets a death brought on by her own actions.  We see in Chopin’s Edna though as a portrayal of a woman who struggles with mental illness (the character seems to perhaps suffer from bi-polar disorder, or depression, or perhaps sporadic anhedonia).  We see this especially when Edna confesses that there “are periods of despondency and suffering which take passions of me”.  Edna ultimately abandons her children and the reader may be tempted to judge her for such an action, but at the same time we must recognize that her actions may be the result of her illness, or may be influenced by the fact that she grew up without a mother herself.  Is Edna selfish?  Is she concerned about how society will look on her children? Or her?  Are her actions dictated by the nature of her illness?  Or the nature of society?  Edna is not entirely sympathetic, as she does live a life style that many would consider extravagant.  She does not work, and her servants do most of the work we would associate with the rearing of children, so perhaps the mother in this society is simply a peripheral character, or that is what perhaps Edna feels.  Though she loves her children, her views of them do not indicate it in the final passages of the novel: “The children appeared before her like antagonists who had overcome her, who had overpowered and sought to drag her into the soul’s slavery for the rest of her days.”  Is this Edna’s thoughts?  Or is her illness speaking?  The work, like all great works, does not lecture the reader, or close the novel with a moral lesson, but rather encourages the reader to ask questions.

 

Keira Knightley as Anna Karenina, the title character of Tolstoy's novel who shares many of the characteristics of Chopin's novel

Keira Knightley as Anna Karenina, the title character of Tolstoy’s novel who shares many of the characteristics of Chopin’s novel

Chopin does a great job of aligning nature with Edna.  At one point, when Edna is speaking to Mademoiselle Reisz, Reisz says: “The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings.  It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth.”  We are reminded of this again when Edna approaches the coast for the last time and she sees a “bird with a broken wing [that] was beating the air above, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water.”  It is clear upon reading this where Edna’s destiny rests, and as she approaches the water she sees her other option and she hears “the barking of an old dog that was chained to [a] sycamore tree.”  She is not strong enough to fly, and so must either agree to crash into the water like the bird, or live, an old woman chained to custom, barking for freedom.  It is a tragically beautiful scene.  There is also other commentary on the natural world. The family doctor for example tells Edna: “Nature takes no account of moral consequence, or arbitrary conditions which we create, and which we feel obliged to maintain.”  Chopin seems to suggest that there is an arbitrary nature to society which works against nature.   There is also an inversion of the pathetic fallacy, where nature usually reflects the moods of the human world; for Chopin it is the other way around.  Edna reflects nature’s whims: “Each morning she awoke with hope, and each night she was a prey to despondency.”  Edna’s spirits move with the sun.  Likewise, Chopin notes that when “the weather was dark and cloudy Edna could not work.  She needed the sun to mellow and temper her mood.”  Edna is overtly tied into to the natural surroundings about her, and Chopin uses nature as a metaphoric language that offers insights into her protagonists.

 

 

Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau

Chopin’s career was cut short by this work.  Many considered the work too sexual or immoral.  It was likely seen much as D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, but publishers did not want to touch Chopin after the response to this work, which is ironic considering how tame the book is.  If one is hoping for a late Victorian version of Fifty Shades of Grey, one will be disappointed as there is little, if any, sexual scenes in this book, simply subtle allusions.  It is a tragedy with a flawed female protagonist who likely isn’t even a candidate for recruitment into the feminist canon (though she could be).  Instead, she is human and flawed; a victim perhaps, a villain to some, but one that is well worth reading.  For me though, Edna is a hero, a brave person and this is made clear when she states: “it is better to wake up… even to suffer, rather than remain a dupe to illusions all one’s life”.  I am reminded of the lines of Henry David Thoreau from his work ‘On The Duty Of Civil Disobedience’: “millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life… I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?”  Chopin has clearly created a woman who meets the criteria that, according to Thoreau, is not achieved by more than one in a million men.  If that isn’t a hero, I don’t know what is.

 

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Great lines:

“There are some people who leave impressions not so lasting as the imprint of an oar upon the water.”

“The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings.  It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth.”

 

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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