Awakening, which might have been more aptly titled, The Sexual Awakening shocked the delicate and rigid sensibilities of Kate Chopin's contemporaries of 1899, although many of those contemporaries were slowly experiencing awakenings of their own. In telling the story of a married woman who begins to realize that she is an individual human being, rather than a nonentity made up of female roles assigned by a male-dominated society, Chopin immediately struck resonant chords and rocked an already unbalanced boat. Rarely is such extreme reaction achieved unless the subject matter has deep roots tapping into the unspoken truth, and in this situation, the truth being dealt with was that of female oppression.
Due to the oppressive lifestyles of women in the 1800s, and their inability to gain access to many professions, marriage was the only method through which many women at that time could insure their economic future. Love was not actually a necessary ingredient in the matchmaking. Because of this, the state of holy matrimony was often a loveless situation of male dominance and female submissiveness in which the wife was compelled to obey. For some women, it was a situation that was similar to a form of slavery.
In The Awakening, it is protagonist Edna Pontellier who awakens to a sense of longing - a sense that she is somehow incomplete and unfulfilled. As she becomes filled with self-awareness, she discovers that in satisfying her expected roles as obedient wife and doting mother, that the greater portion of her being has been left unfulfilled - her personal identity, her human being-ness.
In discovering her own passions, she moves with resolution away from the constricting roles of womanly sainthood demanded by society. Chopin therefore reveals both passion and desire in a member of society who was presumed to be devoid of both: a married woman. Chopin uses her gift of casual frankness in telling Edna's story, and it is this method that allows Edna's affair with young Robert to become at once not only understandable to many, but quite possibly a situation in which certain readers might feel a sense of familiarity or acceptance.
With irony woven well into The Awakening, it is Robert who, through his kindness, his rather thrilling attentiveness and his sense of concern, causes Edna's awareness to begin its first stirrings. Among the first of Edna's observations is that she is unaccustomed to being the recipient of such care, because it is missing from her mechanical and sometimes verbally abusive marriage. In fact, Edna discovers that it is her woefully empty marriage that defines the full scope of her as a person: her existence as a human being consists only of the duties assigned to her. She owns nothing and she is nothing, until she sees herself reflected in the eyes of Robert. It is the promise of Robert's passionate love that causes her to become a rebel with a personal cause, and that cause is emancipation.
In breaking away from her marriage and leaving her marital home, Edna establishes herself as an individual, and begins to relish the moments of her disobedience to the vows previously held unquestionable and sacred. In finding her passions, she also finds that they speak more loudly than her former promises to "obey." Locking her marital house up, she walks away from it, leaving the emptiness behind and moves into a place where her life might finally unfold.
With unfortunate irony, it is Robert who beckoned her to come forth and awaken, Robert who taught her to see and to feel, and once she is fully awakened to her passions, it is Robert who then backs away from the promised affair. Filled with intent and passion, it is the very individuality that Edna has discovered and embraced into which she will fully submerge herself rather than lose her identity again. Robert's influence both drives her, and enables her to move toward her destiny. It was he who, in his attentiveness, taught Edna how to swim.
Critique - The Awakening
On July 19 and 20, 1848, three hundred people gathered at the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, New York for the first Women's Rights Convention. There, Elizabeth Cady Stanton read the "Declaration of Sentiments," a speech in which she listed demands and resolutions, and stated the purpose of the gathering: "To protest against a form of government existing without the consent of the governed - to declare our right to be free as man is free" (Stanton). Two years after the stage was set by Stanton for women's rights to be finally established, Kate Chopin was born. It would be Chopin who, through her observations of the continued oppression of women, her quiet writing style and her understanding of the human psyche, would help to further shock the world into seeing with new eyes and new awareness the plight, hopes and dreams of the human female.
Chopin's The Awakening, was first published in 1899. Chopin was already an established and popular writer at this time and to her great disappointment, her short novel met with immediate disapproval from literary critics, some of whom declared it to be "shocking" and "immoral." As controversial as it was, however, it also received letters of approval from her readers including one from "Lewis," who summed his findings up with his following words: "I call it a moral tale rather than an immoral one . . . The book is a sermon against un-natural-ness and Edna's marriage, as I understand it" (LPB). Awakening, which grabbed the attention of the American public one way or another in the 1800s, and again in the late 1900s, told the story of a married woman who broke away from convention and tradition, developed a strong sense of personal individuality, and as a result left her husband and children in order to pursue her own passions, desires and identity. It was presumably the unconventional trouncing of marital life that resulted in the severe criticism of the novel. While some were quick to take the high moral ground and pontificate because they assumed her story was merely a sexual fantasy in which she was ruthlessly attacking the foundations of civilization, others realized the truth behind her novel. Chopin was writing about the oppressive lives that women were still forced to endure in the 1800s.
The situation in The Awakening that lead to the marital dissolution - a situation that was considered scandalous in the 1800s - involved the oppressive living conditions that Chopin's protagonist, Edna Pontellier, was quietly enduring. Immediately revealed in the short novel is the vast and growing chasm between Edna and her husband, which was symbolic of the ongoing division between lifestyles of men and women of Chopin's time.
Mr. Pontellier enjoyed a rich and full life as a businessman whose profession called him frequently to travel away from the mundane, domestic household over which he lorded. A vain man in some respects, he was also prone to taking selfish delight in his ever-increasing accumulation of possessions. For Mrs. Pontellier, however, life offered little in the way of enjoyment. When her husband traveled, she was left at home to focus her attentions on domestic chores and attend the needs of their children.
For the woman of the house in those days, there was little to enjoy with the exception of the simplest pleasures ranging from an occasional box of bon-bons sent by the traveling husband, or going for a chaperoned swim in the ocean. Unlike their husbands, on whom they were totally dependant, and to whom they were expected to be completely obedient, most of the women of Chopin's time owned nothing, and had no identity aside from the domestic roles assigned to them. A married woman was expected to be an obedient wife, she was expected to be a completely devoted mother, and she was expected to be nothing more than this. The rights to the woman's body did not even belong to the woman. They belonged to the husband. This was assured by law, as well as with marriage vows in which the woman was required to swear an oath to obey her husband. It was not until the 1800s that American female voices such those of Margaret Fuller, Stanton and Chopin began in their own ways to urge women to seek economic and social equality (Martin-Bowen).
Owning nothing, including her own identity, Edna Pontellier, again symbolically representing the female of the 1800s, finally began to awaken to the fact that she was nothing more than another item in Mr. Pontellier's collection of possessions. She was hardly more than a slave expected to fulfill other people's expectations and demands, while society expected her to have no personal expectations of her own. The parallel that Chopin drew between slavery and female oppression was accurate, and noted by others of her time as well, including former slave, brilliant orator, writer and publisher, Frederick Douglass. Douglass recognized, used and urged others to utilize the enormous power of the spoken and…