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It is Edna who achieves both the awakening of the title, the awareness of how the social traditions imposed on her are stifling her and preventing her from expressing herself as she would wish, and also fails in that she cannot overcome these traditions and so chooses suicide rather than continue under such a repressive system. Chopin implies that there is a danger in awakening, in understanding the nature of the female role in society, and in trying to overcome that role. Chopin believes that some people possess the energy to keep up with their times and in effect to accept whatever may be their lot in life. These people do not need to examine reality or its meaning -- they indeed may not be able to do so, and instead they simply live. Madame Ratignolle is such a person, but Edna is not. Edna questions and examines, and the answers she finds do not allow her to continue as before, or to emulate her friend Madame Ratignolle and simply live. Edna corresponds to the artist, the artist who is always questioning, always examining, and in a way always discovering that the world does not live up to the ideal sought. The artist awakens, and the result is either the production of art or the death of the stifled artist.
Edna is a character caught between different poles of femaleness in her time, between the class of "mother-women" and the class of "artist-women."
On the one side stands Adele Ratignolle, the sensual Creole woman, a woman who adjusts to society by celebrating her procreative powers. On the other side is the less stable independence of liberated artists, who resist their culture's sociological limitations with their own kind of creative powers. The predicament in which Edna finds herself is evident in the opening passages -- she is first like the colorful parrot which hangs outside the door, warning others away, a woman in a cage who has not heeded this warning. The husband sees her after she has been in the sun and looks "at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage" (Chopin 4). He also believes that this piece of personal property does not take proper care of the children, though he cannot say how or why specifically, only that he feels this is so. Chopin makes clear the difference between Edna and Adele on this issue:
In short, Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother-woman. The mother-woman seemed to prevail that summer at Grand Isle... They were women who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels (Chopin 19).
Adele Ratignolle is such a woman:
There are no words to describe he save the old ones that have served so often to picture the bygone heroine of romance and the fair lady of our dreams (Chopin 19).
The two choices that are represented in the novel are embodied in Madame Ratignolle and Mademoiselle Reisz, the latter being the artist who has only half-awakened and who puts on more of a show of artistry than she manages to be an actual artist. This makes the choice faced by Edna less clear in some respects, but it demonstrates how even the artist-woman in society has been shaped and controlled by what society will allow an artist-woman to be.
One of the issues raised with reference to the Awakening concerns the suicide of the main character, the issue being whether this is to be seen as the act of a strong woman who chooses to die rather than capitulate to the social restrictions of her time or as the defeat of a woman too weak to face disappointment and to create a life for herself.
It is possible to see Edna as the triumphant woman who makes her own choice in spite of rather than because of social pressure. The result may be self-destruction, but it is still more of a choice than Edna has been able to exercise in her life to that point. Chopin's novel shows, however, that the choices open to women are not as wide as for men, leaving her heroine with the choice to live in repression or die.
Though Edna and Madame Ratignolle become friends, Edna sees the other woman as living in a different world, and it is not a world she wants to enter herself, as indicated after a visit to Madame Ratignolle's home:
The little glimpse of domestic harmony which had been offered her, gave her no regret, no longing. It was not a condition of life which fitted her, and she could see in it but an appalling and hopeless ennui. (Chopin 145)
Later, when she is contemplating suicide, Edna remembers many of the things that were told to her by Madame Ratignolle. Madame Ratignolle had told her to think of the children:
She meant to think of them; that determination ha driven into her soul like a death wound -- but not to-night. (Chopin 294)
The last we see of Madame Ratignolle is when she has another baby and Edna witnesses the event. This is very unnerving to Edna, and the response of the two women to the birth women clearly shows their differences in outlook. For Madame Ratignolle, the birth of another child is a wonderful moment, an affirmation of her role as wife and mother, and a continuation of the life she has been leading. The event reminds Edna of her own experiences in giving birth, and she shows an aversion to the experience that Madame Ratignolle so openly embraces:
Edna began to feel uneasy. She was seized with a vague dread. Her own lime experiences seemed far away, unreal, and only half remembered. She recalled faintly an ecstasy of pain, the heavy odor of chloroform, a stupor which had deadened sensation, and an awakening to find a little new life to which she had given being, added to the great unnumbered multitude of souls that come and go. (Chopin 288)
Madame Ratignolle revels in the sensations of childbirth, and Edna remembers her senses being deadened. She remembers awakening to find a new life, and in her own life she is now awakening to find the meaninglessness of that life. It is at this point that Madame Ratignolle tells her to remember the children.
Madame Ratignolle stands for a whole class of women who accept their roles as wives and mothers, and indeed who revel in those roles. She is precisely the sort of woman that Edna's husband would want as a wife, and he does indeed admire her for the way she adapts to men and the way she cares for her children. Chopin sees this female role, however, as necessarily being one that remains unexamined by the women who lead this life. They have to accept without question, for the question is to discover the imprisoning nature of these roles and the falsity of the way society demands that women fulfill these roles. The domestic role is contrasted with the artistic role, and the artist always questions. Edna is an artist, and this places her in a particular kind of hell because she has attempted to fulfill social roles which she now sees as strangling her.
Madame Ratignolle thrives in her roles because they are socially approved, while Edna never can escape from the socially-accepted roles to become what she wishes. Indeed, having grown up in this society, she is not even certain what it is she does wish. Mademoiselle Reisz is another example of the artist-woman, though not a fully successful one. She has devoted her life to music and has shunned the domestic role. Society views her as eccentric, which seems to be the best Edna could hope for if she continued to develop herself as an artist and sublimated other drives. Edna's decision to commit suicide comes because neither Madame Ratignolle nor Mademoiselle Reisz stands as an appealing choice for Edna, and yet there does not seem to be any other choice allowed in the society in which she lives.
Edna thus can be seen as making a positive statement by leaving such a world. The last thing that comes to her mind are memories of good times and people about whom she cared:
Edna heard her father's voice and her sister Margaret's. She heard the barking of an old dog that was chained to the sycamore tree. The spurs of the cavalry officer clanged as he walked across the porch. There was the hum of bees, and the musky odor of pinks filled the air. (Chopin 303)
She has rejected the world she has known, and the world of Madame Ratignolle is one that makes her even more uncomfortable. In her time, there seems to be no…[continue]
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