In The Awakening, Kate Chopin invites the reader to question society’s conventionality, using her characterizations of Edna and her foils. From the start of the novel, Edna is never presented as someone who is happily married. She immediately appears disconnected from her husband and children, though she still cares for them. When talking with her friends, they “all declared that Mr. Pontellier was the best husband in the world. Mrs. Pontellier was forced to admit that she knew of none better” (p. 8). This passage shows the sense of indifference Edna has towards him. Then, Edna is described as, “not a mother woman” (p. 9), furthering our idea of her disconnection from her family. When examining Edna next to Mme. Ratignolle, we can see the clear contrast. Serving as one of Edna’s foils, Adèle is warm, feminine, and “delicious in the [mother-]role” (p. 9). She is someone who believes that, “a woman who would give her life for her children could do no more than that” (p. 56), contrasting to Edna, who says, “I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself” (p. 56). Chopin uses Mme. Ratignolle to depict the societally conventional woman: an excellent wife, loving mother, and devout catholic. She seems pleased with and admired for her conventional lifestyle, leading us to wonder if this is the best route.
Edna’s other foil, Mlle. Reisz, lies on the opposite side of the spectrum. She is an independent, single woman who lives separate from social expectations. For these reasons, she’s often characterized as unfeminine, such as the diction presenting her as “strikingly homely” (p. 73), with “strong wiry hands” (p. 73) and a “disagreeable” (p. 29) disposition. People don’t like Mlle. Reisz as much as they do Mme. Ratignolle. Due to her lack of conformity, she’s somewhat shunned from society, leading us to believe that traditionalism is not only the best option, but the only one. As the novel progresses, so does Edna’s radicalism. Her mind and body awaken, leaving her at odds with society’s expectations of her. Suddenly, we’re surrounded by questions about priorities: should we relinquish our radicalism to be embraced by society, or should we abandon society to stay true to ourselves? Can radicals and conventionalists exist harmoniously, or must they remain divided? Kate Chopin utilizes these contrasting characters to accentuate the differences between traditional and progressive, allowing us to explore how each side of the spectrum upholds our society.
Along with questions about conventionality, Chopin uses Edna’s romantic relationships to open discussions on the question, What is love?. From her marriage to her affair with Robert, Edna experiences love in several capacities. At the start of her relationship with her husband, Léonce, Edna realizes that she must give up all her dreams of romance, due to the fact that there is “no trace of passion” (p. 21) between the two of them. Edna grows to resent marriage and the restrictions that accompany it. Not only are we shown this indignation through Edna’s words, but also through Chopin’s symbolism. The beginning of the novel showcases an encaged bird, speaking “a language which nobody understood” (p. 1), representing Edna’s captivity in her conventional marriage. This idea is reiterated when Edna awakens from her previously oppressed state, seeking independence rather than confinement. This is what I believe provokes her subsequent affairs: her desire to self-control, and relinquish herself from society’s hold. As she tells Robert, “I am no longer one of Mr. Pontellier’s possessions to dispose of or not. I give myself where I choose” (p. 128). Due to this resistance to confinement, it may seem counterintuitive that Edna is falling in love with Robert as she experiences her feminist awakening. However, we soon realize that her love for Robert is completely unrelated to marriage and promise. Love, to answer the initial question, is a disguise for what the characters truly want from life. Edna sees Robert as an escape from conventional life. He’s exciting and new, and she has no obligations to him. When Robert dreams about Edna, he dreams about marriage. But when Edna dreams about Robert, she dreams about self-governance and freedom. Edna has experienced marriage, and it did not equate to love. She “grew fond” (p. 21) of Léonce, but marriage is a failed experiment in Edna’s mind. Therefore, when Robert tells Edna about his “wild dream of [Edna] becoming [his] wife” (p. 127), she is put off. Chopin has written Robert as a conventional character—one that almost resembles a younger Mr. Pontellier. By doing so, Chopin is accentuating Edna’s ideas about love and marriage. To Edna, those two words are not synonymous. Marriage is a prison that detains, oppresses, and suffocates her. Contrarily, love is an escape; a reflection of Edna’s liberation, a release from conventional society. Does this—the desire to break free—make Edna selfish?
Rather than selfish, I argue that Edna is exploring her identity, self-ownership, and place in society. The word “selfish” has a negative connotation, portraying her as a villain for being unhappy and curious. Through her awakening, Edna becomes more in touch with her mind and her body. She begins to make her own decisions, rather than complying to the subservience that society and her husband ask of her. For instance, when Edna chooses to stay outside one night, Mr. Pontellier orders her to come inside. But instead of “submitt[ing] to his command” (p. 36), Edna doesn’t yield, and asserts herself by saying, “Don’t speak to me like that again” (p. 37). From then on, she decides where she goes and what she does, giving herself where she chooses. Personally, I appreciate this self-exploration. Through several means, Edna is getting in touch with her radicalism, and is fighting against the patriarchal, conventional society. Nevertheless, she has made commitments to her husband and children, which complicates the scenario. Edna’s foil, Mlle. Reisz is able to live an independent, radical lifestyle, because she never makes any commitments to other people. Ultimately, this commitment is what restricts Edna. She cannot continue living as a mother and a wife, but she also cannot live independently without causing scandal. Once again, we see this depicted by bird symbolism: her marriage is compared to a birdcage, and her independent home is referred to as a “pigeon house” (p. 101). She is left with no good options; trapped in between the radical and the conventional—the birdcage and the pigeon house. Once she is exposed to the ideas of self-ownership and independence, how is she expected to return to oppressive mundanity?
I was immensely moved by this novel. Not only does it examine a woman’s role in society, but also her obligations to herself. Edna lives in a society where conventionality is prioritized over self-ownership. Women didn’t have the option to control themselves, making Edna’s resistance to societal norms so radical. Edna doesn’t want the conventional life that has been placed onto her, and instead desires freedom to do as she pleases. Her fight against conventional entrapment correlates with her awakening, leading me conclude that radicalism originates from awareness of yourself and the world around you. Throughout my education on societal standards and the oppressive systems that dominate society, my own radical values have increased. In many ways, my education has “awakened” me, like Edna awakened through her emotional experiences. This novel has allowed me to question my values in relation to conventionality; how I want to conduct my lifestyle and continuously progress.