The power of Kate Chopin’s ‘The Awakening’

Chopin’s ‘The Awakening’ was published in 1899, and was denounced as a poisonous threat upon its release, primarily for its display of female passion and criticism of the patriarchy. On the cusp of the century, first wave feminism was almost entirely absent in Southern America; although Chopin’s novel was met with scathing controversy, it led the discussion of the ‘woman question’ in the region and engaged in the sexual politics of the era.

Before her awakening, Edna Pontellier is resigned to a life of being disregarded: her husband, Leoncè, ignores her, and sometimes ferociously scolds her, causing an inner sadness that she cannot explain. When Leoncè leaves New Orleans on business, it gives Edna space to reassess her life, find independence and try to discover her true identity. Her longing for Robert Lebrun and affair with Alcee Arobin represent her subversion of patriarchal ideals as she awakens to her sexuality and sense of self. However, she also finds that these affairs do not offer her the escape she craves, and she is simply confined to another kind of feminine ideal.

Through archetypal images of oppression, Chopin resists convention, distinctly through the use of bird imagery to symbolise the potential for female freedom. The novel opens with a caged parrot, repeatedly exclaiming ‘go away!’ to Leoncè, expressing the resentment of Edna and all Victorian women. The caged bird has long been used to represent female submission: from Mary Wollstonecraft’s likening of women to birds in a lament on their status, to Maya Angelou’s ‘I Know Where the Caged Bird Sings’, both aspiration and entrapment are served by the bird metaphor.

Chopin evaluates the stifling effect of maternal, domestic ideals, criticising the identity of ‘mother-women’, promoting instead the ‘New Woman’ of the fin-de-siècle era. Having lived in a world where rules and conventions have prepared her exclusively for the role of the obedient housewife, Edna is not psychologically capable to transcend the social constructs in which she is entrapped. Her ‘broken wing’ symbolises the crippling damage of patriarchal authority; however, through the functional wing, Chopin suggests the possibility of flight. The hegemonic institutions of nineteenth-century society required women to be objects in marriage and in motherhood, existing as vessels of maternity and sexuality. Edna ultimately feels her only way to elude this is to give herself in suicide to the vast expanse of the sea, an image of infinite possibility, as well as dissolution and depth. Chopin’s naturalistic writing is evident in the determinism of Edna’s death – the cyclical nature of patriarchal oppression is suggested by the ‘never ceasing’ power of the sea.

Edna Pontellier’s desire for freedom has persisted, despite the progression of feminism since 1899. Betty Friedan gave voice to her domestic confinement, calling it ‘the problem that has no name’; she argued that women engaged with the ideal of the housewife under the influence of a ‘feminine mystique’ that elevated social passivity. When Friedan was writing in the 1960s, marriage and domesticity had become perhaps more idealised. Even now, women cannot escape inequality and objectification, rooted so deeply in our society. Chopin’s heroine is still just as relevant, her tragic story reverberating through time to transmit an immensely powerful message of patriarchal injustice.

Featured image: Karla Caspari on Flickr

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