The purpose of this website is to explore the feminist stirrings in Edna Pontellier's heart. Looking at the historical context of the novel, ways in which Edna attempts to break her domestic role, ways in which Edna experiences moments of freedom, and the overall background of criticism of the novel, the website seeks to introduce students to Chopin's major themes.
In America, the 1890s was "a decade of social change and social tension"(Culley 119). Upper class white women all over the country were taking small steps towards a liberation movement by attending college and entering professions previously held by men only. Although these changes were indeed steps in the right direction for women's rights and independence, they were very small steps that only affected a small percentage of the population. Women pursuing their liberation were the exception rather than the rule .
During this time period, most women in Louisiana were considered the legal property of their husbands. Culley states that "...all of a wife's 'accumulations' after marriage were the property of her husband, including any money she might earn and the clothes she wore"(120). The husband was deemed breadwinner, head of the household, authority, and decision-maker. His wife was delegated certain responsibilities; among them, tending to the children and managing the servants. The children were the main focus of a wife and mother, the next being her husband, and the last being herself. Any deviation from this pattern was considered preposterous and absurd, and often the sanity of the woman was questioned.
This way of life was well established in Louisiana during the 1890s, although, as is the case with Edna Pontellier, some women were beginning to reject this self-sacrificial role and search for a more self-satisfying one.
Edna's major role as Mrs. Pontellier was to be a mother to her two sons Raoul and Etienne. They were to be her primary concern and the very reason that she lived. The majority of her time was to be spent with them or tending to their needs in some way. Edna falls far short of fulfilling this role. "In short, Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother-woman," states Chopin(638). Edna herself says that she would not give herself for her children. She lacks the self-sacrificial nature of being a mother that most of the Creole women she knew had.
Edna constantly compares herself to Madame Ratignolle and sees that she does not quite measure up as a mother. Madame Ratignolle was "the embodiment of every womanly grace and charm"(Chopin 638). She is always sewing clothes for her children for the coming season, folding their laundry, watching them while they play, or tending to them in some other way. Madame Ratignolle was ever-mindful of her children and their needs. Edna, on the other hand, was not. She left her children in the care of a nanny most of the time and rarely used her time for sewing them clothes and the like. Edna was not one of the mother-women, "fluttering about with extended, protecting wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened their precious brood"(Chopin 638).
Clearly Edna is more concerned with herself than with her children, as is further evidenced when they visit their grandmother. The children are gone for an extended period of time, probably longer than they have ever been away from home before, if ever, and Edna never thinks about them. She only remembers them when they remember her first and send letters.
Another role of Creole women during this time was that of hostess/entertainer on their reception day. Each week on Tuesday friends and visitors would call upon Mrs. Pontellier in her home. Nothing, "but the most imperative duty," should have called her away from home on Tuesdays(Culley 123.) Wandering the streets of town hardly counts as an imperative duty. Her husband was mortified upon learning his wife had been out on reception day, especially for so trivial a matter as "I simply felt like going out"(Chopin 672). It was considered to be very rude for a woman to be out on reception day, yet Edna was not bothered by that fact, and continued to miss reception day at her house from that first Tuesday on.
Throughout the novel there are scenes in which Edna seems to break free from her life of slavery and get another step closer to freedom. One such scene is when she and her husband argue about her being out on reception day. Already disgruntled by his wife, Mr. Pontellier complains about the food they are served for dinner. He eventually goes to have his dinner at the club. Edna, left alone, retreats to her room, where she proceeds to take off her wedding ring and try and break it with her foot in a fit of anger. This scene suggests that Edna is trying to free herself from her husband and her obligations as his wife.
In another scene, Edna rejects the authority of her husband. After she learns to swim, Edna goes back home and gets in the hammock rather than going up to bed. Mr. Pontellier tries to get her to come up to bed with him, but she will not. She refuses to do as he says, even though, as his wife, she should have submitted to his authority and wishes. Her refusal could say a number of things about Edna: that she is rejecting her husband's authority over her and becoming autonomous(self-governing), that she is rejecting intimacy with him by not going up to their bed, and that she is eliminating any chance or hope of having another child with him. Edna is essentially telling her husband that she does not need nor want him anymore. She has become self-sufficient.
In the very last scene of the novel, Edna breaks free from her enslavement altogether. She walks down to the sea in her bathing clothes, but when she gets to water, she "cast the unpleasant, pricking garments from her, and for the first time in her life stood naked in the open air, at the mercy of the sun, the breeze that beat upon her, and the waves that invited her"(Chopin 723). In these final moments of life Edna is finally free. Standing naked in front of the ocean, she is not Mrs. Pontellier, wife, mother, nor mistress; she is simply Edna. Because she could not be simply Edna in the world in which she lived, Edna chose to end her life by drowning herself in the sea. This was the only way to embrace the freedom she longed for. Dorothy Dix says "There comes a time in the life of almost every woman when she has to choose between a species of slavery and freedom, and when, if she ever expects to enjoy any future liberty, she must hoist the red flag of revolt and make a fight for her rights"(144-145). Edna did hoist her "red flag of revolt" and fought for her rights, but she could not enjoy any future liberty. The only way to resolve this for herself was to throw off the clothes of slavery and be embraced by the vast, mysterious, and limitless sea.
Parrot: In the opening of the novel, a parrot in a cage hanging outside the door is squawking. The parrot symbolizes Edna and the cage symbolizes her life as Mrs. Pontellier. Edna is trapped in the life she lives as a wife, mother, and member of higher class society. In order to be free, she must break out of her cage, just as the parrot would have to do in order to gain its freedom.
Sea: There are several scenes throughout The Awakening in which the sea is mentioned. The sea represents that which is sought after and longed for, but rarely possessed. It also represents the depth and mystery that lurks beneath the surface of Edna. The sea is representative of endless possibilities and limitless dreams, both of which Edna has. The sea represents the all that Edna longs to become.
Wedding Ring: Wedding rings are symbolic of the union that exists between a man and a woman. They symbolize that the two have been joined by a covenant and are now one. Edna's wedding ring is symbolic of the chains that hold her captive to her old way of life. When she threw it on the ground and tried to break it, she was throwing off her chains and trying to break them.
Madame Ratignolle: The perfection of a Creole woman is embodied in Madame Ratignolle. She is a loving and attentive wife and mother who is happy and well-established in her role. Madame Ratignolle represents everything society says Edna should be but, in fact, cannot be.
Mademoiselle Reisz: All that Edna wants to become is wrapped up inside Mademoiselle Reisz. She is independent, on her own, and free from all responsibility except for to herself. The standards and norms of society cannot chain Mademoiselle down, she is free.
Kate Chopin's The Awakening received a lot of press when it was published. Many criticized the ending of the novel and debated over reasons as to Edna drowned herself. Frances Porcher feels that Edna gave her life over to the sea out of desperation. She argues that this desperation did not come from having an "over-burdened heart, torn by complicating duties but rather because she realizes that something is due her children, that she cannot get away from, and she is too weak to face the issue"(Culley 162). In Porcher's view, Edna drowning herself was an act of cowardice, not the reward for nor ending of a battle fought within. In her mind, Edna simply abandoned ship.
Many critics are outraged at Edna for ending her life in the way that she did. An article from the New Orleans Times-Democrat stated that "In a civilized society the right of the individual to indulge all his caprices is, and must be, subject to many restrictive clauses, and it cannot for a moment be admitted that a woman who has willingly accepted the love and devotion of a man, even without an equal love on her part-who has become his wife and the mother of his children-has not incurred a moral obligation which peremptorily forbids her from wantonly severing her relations with him, and entering openly upon the independent existence of an unmarried woman"(Culley 167). The author of this article argues that Edna should have known better than to behave like she did. Edna should have accepted the responsibility she undertook on her wedding day and learned to suppress or maneuver around her longings for independence.
There are other critics who feel that Edna's decision to end her life was noble. One such critic is Dunrobin Thomson. In her view, Edna's suicide was noble, courageous, and morally right. She says "It is only that Edna was nobler, and took that last clean swim"(Culley 177). According to Thomson, all women face the same predicament that Edna did, and the best decision to make in facing that predicament is to take "that last clean swim." Edna should not have compromised herself and her freedom for her obligations to her husband and children, she should have remained true to herself, even if that meant suicide.
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. The Norton Anthology of American Literature.
6th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2003.
Culley, Margo, ed. The Awakening-Kate Chopin. 2nd ed. New York: W.W.
Norton & Co., 1994.
Dix, Dorothy. “Are Women Growing Selfish?” The Awakening-Kate Chopin.
2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1994.
New Orleans Times-Democrat. The Awakening-Kate Chopin. 2nd ed. New York:
W.W. Norton & Co., 1994.
Porcher, Frances. The Mirror. The Awakening-Kate Chopin. 2nd ed. New York:
W.W. Norton & Co., 1994.
Thomson, Dunrobin. “Dr. Dunrobin Thomson.” The Awakening-Kate Chopin.
2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1994.