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Feminism Before it was Cool

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In The Awakening, Kate Chopin presents a woman, Edna, living within a patriarchy, a system of society in which the father or the eldest male is the head of the family. Its scandalous story line of a woman who neglects her household duties to pursue a relationship with a younger man caused an uproar in Chopin’s society. The novel fell into obscurity for 70 years, and her career as a writer was tainted. At the time of its publication, the suffrage movement was in full swing, and women were just beginning to question their roles in society. Male readers condemned the novel because they feared it would influence women to follow in Edna’s footsteps and shift the social order. The novel was simply too pro feminist, advocating a culture in which men and women are viewed as intellectual equals, for its time. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the novel was re evaluated and appreciated for its feminist qualities among readers. Much like Kate Chopin, herself, Edna’s actions demonstrated that a woman should be able to love and pursue her dreams just as freely as a man could. By exploring her own self interests, deciding to independently seek a fulfilling life, and maintaining her position as an independent woman, rather than falling back into the role society chose for her, Edna exemplifies feminism in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening.

Taking place in the 19th century, the novel opens with Edna’s family vacationing in The Grand Isle. The reader immediately gets the sense that Edna’s husband, Leonce is distant and takes little interest in his relationship with his wife as he secludes himself to read a newspaper in peace and leaves his family for a night of playing billiards. The distance he creates between he and his wife leads Edna to feel a severe sense of isolation. This is exemplified when she leaves her bed to sit outside crying until the bugs force her to retreat indoors. It is explained that Edna has felt unsatisfied before, but this time around, it is a much deeper sense of loneliness that she felt she can not shake. Perhaps this loneliness was amplified by the introduction of Robert Lebrun, a young flirtatious man who begins to give Edna an extra amount of attention. In the beginnings of their encounters, Edna does well to keep Robert in his place, but she cannot help but feel a bit flattered by his attentiveness. His determination to spend time with Edna juxtaposed with Edna’s husband’s resistance to spending time with her explains why Edna feels so unsatisfied with her marriage and life as a housewife. Not only is Leonce distant, but he is very critical of Edna’s ability to mother their children. After a long night of billiards, her husband returns home only to tell Edna that one of their children has a fever and that she had done a poor job of paying attention to such ailments. After checking in with her child, Edna no longer wishes to lay with her husband, but instead she retreats outside to be by herself for awhile. The neglect of affection partnered with the immense criticism of her capacity to act motherly are the two beginning causes of Edna’s desire to leave her life with her family to become an independent woman.

As time goes on, Edna becomes more and more of an independent spirit. She no longer does exactly as Leonce tells her, in fact, in some instances she is outright defiant. In one event, her husband orders her to return to bed. After simply replying “no” a few times, she finally breaks her composure and states “Leonce, go to bed. I mean to stay out here. I don’t wish to go in, and I don’t intend to. Don’t speak to me like that again; I shall not answer you” (Chopin 42). This leaves her husband in utter awe. It is around this point in the novel that Leonce is becoming painfully aware that he is losing control of his wife and he tries desperately to maintain it. In yet another instance of defiance, Edna experiences a fit of courage as she goes out into the deep water to swim alone. Onlookers watch and applaud as she makes her way back to shore and begins walking home. Her husband desperately tries to retain her, but she refuses and continues to walk away. Instead of her husband’s presence, she accepts Robert’s instead as he walks her home and listens to what she has to say. It is this action that pushes her even further away from her husband and closer to Robert. At this point in her life, Edna is beginning to realize that the marriage she chose has not freed her from her fantasies of passionate love, and because she still craves a life filled with passion, her satisfaction with the life she has now is deteriorating at an exponential pace, specifically because she is acquiring a small taste of what passion might feel like with Robert.  Her time spent with Robert helps distract her from the lack of satisfaction she feels with her life as a stay at home mother and wife temporarily, but it is intensified when she is not with him. Upon discovering Robert’s plan to leave for Mexico, Edna cannot help, but to feel as lonely as she has ever been. His abrupt decision to leave, and his poor attempt to bid Edna goodbye breaks her heart. Upon his departure, Edna asks him to write her, and he simply replies with “I will, goodbye”(Chopin 60). This reply is intended to create distance between himself and Edna because he is fully aware that being with a married woman would ruin his reputation, and revealing his feelings would only lead to conflict, not only in his life, but in Edna’s as well. In her wandering thoughts of fantasies, Edna is just beginning to experience her “awakening”, or more so her realization that she has been trapped into a monogamous life without ever being offered another option, and this prompts her to take more drastic action in seeking out a satisfactory life.

Edna’s attempts to distance herself from her husband become more and more obvious. In Robert’s absence she must go out and find hobbies to occupy her time. Instead of reverting back to the life of wifely duties, Edna involves herself further in artistic expression. She even confides in Mademoiselle Reisz, her pianist friend, that she intends to become an artist. When Edna and her family return to New Orleans, she becomes even more bold as she decides that she no longer wishes to sleep with her husband. This sparks a major concern in Leonce, and he expresses this to Dr. Mandelet, his family’s physician. For the time being, they both accept her actions as a passing whim. Another example of Edna’s changing priorities is when she decides that she no longer wishes to dress up and receive visitors on Tuesdays. Leonce is beyond frustrated at this point because he feels that he cannot control whether or not Edna performs her societal duties and it reflects badly on him. His lack of control over Edna becomes even more obvious when she refuses to go to her sister’s wedding. After resigning to his wife’s will, Edna’s father, the Colonel states “You are too lenient, too lenient by far, Leonce” (Chopin 96). Edna’s entire family is beginning to realize the change in Edna’s attitude, and they fear for her reputation as she might step too far out of line in her independence. Although Leonce is making more efforts to spend time with his wife, Edna is too far gone, and would rather perform activities that cater to her own selfish wants, for instance, visiting with her close friends Adele and mademoiselle Reisz to chat and listen to piano and creating art. When Leonce leaves for New York with the kids, Edna feels even more liberated and is overtaken by an immense sense of peace. She cannot help but long for a life without the everyday duties of a mother.

Around the time of Leonce’s departure, Chopin introduces the character Alcee, a single man who takes a severe interest in Edna. Edna notices this interest as she spend more time with him while her husband is away. Although Edna feels nervous around Alcee because he presents a source of temptation, it is not because she is concerned about Leonce, it is because she still has lingering feelings for Robert. It is around this time that Edna tells Mademoiselle Reisz that she intends to move out of her house and rent a small house around the corner. Upon further discussion, Mademoiselle Reisz gets Edna to admit that she only wants to move out in order to feel free and independent. Edna states “I know I shall like it, the feeling of freedom and independence” (Chopin 107). Edna’s decision to leave her house is the major tipping point of her transformation into an awakened free spirit. One important aspect of Edna’s decision is that she does not rely on the approval of anyone. When she writes to her husband, it is to inform him that she is moving, not to ask him for permission. Later that night, Alcee catches Edna off guard by giving her a passionate kiss. Chopin explains “It was the first kiss of her life to which her nature had really responded. It was a flaming torch that kindled desire” (Chopin 112). Not only is Edna liberated in the aspect of being away from her motherly and wifely duties, she has now experienced a taste of sexual liberation. The only regret she has about kissing Alcee is that it was not motivated by love. However, she does not regret being disloyal to her husband, which demonstrates how she has experienced a major change in her character’s priorities and outlook on life. The more time Edna spends with Alcee, the more open she is to being affectionate with him. Although Alcee is not the man she wishes to be with, he is her first taste of passion and she cannot resist the temptation of feeling true emotion for the first time in her life. Not long after she moves to her own house, Robert comes back into town. Every emotion Edna had felt back in the Grand Isle is awakened when she sees his face. Part of the reason Robert has left such an impression on Edna, even though they have not yet shared any physical affections, is because he was the one to make Edna realize how desperately she wanted more out of her life. His return, unfortunately, does not offer much of any closure for Edna. Instead she finds herself frustrated and jealous when she cannot revive the way they used to talk and the way they used to act towards each other. In the next few days, Edna will hope for Robert to visit again, but he will let her down. Again, Robert does not wish to be with a married woman, and he is fully aware that his reputation is at stake if he were to entertain his affections toward Edna. Robert, unlike Edna, is still confined to society’s opinion. Edna, however, has freed herself from the constraints of society and feels free to love as she chooses, but without the reciprocation of that love, her hopes of being with Robert begin to deteriorate. It isn’t until Edna boldly kisses Robert in her house that he resigns from his will and admits that he loves her, however, he still believes their union to be impossible even though Edna has assured him that she is free to love who ever she pleases, and she has chosen to love him. In the midst of their confession of love, Edna is interrupted to find out that Adele is giving birth. She hastily leaves to be with her friend despite Robert’s objections. This is yet another example of how Edna has taken complete control of her life. She does not allow anyone to tell her what to do, not even the man that she is in love with. Unfortunately, when she returns from Adele’s birth giving, Robert is no longer waiting for her. Instead, there is a note with the words: “I love you. Good-by– because I love you.” At this point, Robert has realized that he will no longer be able to possess Edna, not because she belongs to someone else, but because she refuses to belong to anyone. In this sense, Robert will always view her as unobtainable. Edna does not understand this because she does not realize that Robert still views her as a possession, not an equal companion. Although Robert may love her, he will never be able to love her as the independent spirit she is because it is ingrained in his mind by society that women are meant to belong to men. His rejection of Edna’s companionship is also a metaphoric rejection of her status as an independent free-willed woman. Initially, Edna believed her relationship with Robert would be the thing to set her free, but in reality, Robert only wished to put her back in a position of wifely and motherly duties, the very aspects of life that made her feel trapped. Edna’s heart is broken after realizing that she cannot be with Robert in the way she would like to, so she retreats back to the Grand Isle, the place in which she began to realize her desire to be free. Despite warnings of the cold water, Edna strips down to nothing, enters the water, and drowns herself.

When Edna drowns herself, the story has come full circle. It is in the Grand Isle that she begins her awakening. She begins to realize that throughout her entire life, she has never owned anything… Not her  possessions, decisions, or even her time. Every ounce of her being has been devoted to the role that society has expected her to play. Growing up, it was simply expected that she would get married and raise children as a housewife. She was never asked about the possibility of having other ambitions or goals because as a woman, her own selfish desires did not matter. In the Grand Isle, when Robert granted her attention and treated her as an interesting being all on her own, the deep dissatisfaction she had with her life as a housewife became painfully obvious. After leaving the Grand Isle, Edna had an unrelenting urge to be free, and she gradually obtained a sense of freedom as she catered to her own selfish desires, separated herself from those who merely viewed her as a possession, and eventually released herself from society’s unrelenting grip all together by killing herself in the same water that she learned to swim on her own in.

 

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