Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening: A Solitary Soul was a breakthrough novel when it was first published owing to its anachronistic ideas of a woman’s individuality in a deeply patriarchal society.
Chopin’s novel traces the story of Edna Pontellier in her vicissitudinary journey of being awakened, as she realises that she indeed isn’t a “mother-woman”, and furthermore wishes to be acknowledged as a person than as a mere role in her husband’s household. This emphasis on the deviance of a female protagonist from conventional norms of motherhood and as an obedient wife enraged the patriarchal norms of the society, even as later feminists hailed it as a masterpiece.
Even as the title of the novel promises enlightenment of a sort, the subtitle suggests a rather dreary consequence, a reprehension for Edna, especially as her husband consults a doctor because a woman bereft of overflowing love and obedience for her household is sure to be ill.
Chopin’s narrative is indeed breathtaking, as she shows Edna trying to subside her yearnings for individual freedom as a passing mood. However, awakening is an irrevocable process and can take a grim turn according to the narrative’s point of view as Edna finds no solidarity in either men or women around her. Moreover, Edna’s subtle sexual expression is also a great leap forward for her, and her failed affair with Robert Lebron speaks volumes. According to the narrative, Edna’s awakening condemns her to be solitary as other women around her aren’t awakened and are ostensibly comfortable in their roles defined by patriarchal norms, such as Madame Ratignolle who is admittedly made to be a mother. Though Edna is attached to her children, all bonding is bondage for her. She realises that she can’t ever be as maternal as Madame Ratignolle. On the other hand, her awakening is palpably limited if we compare her to Mademoiselle Reisz who is shown as a rather eccentric woman as she has given up all conventional modes to live independently.
The issue of race and class is deeply enmeshed in the novel. Even as Edna hangs somewhere in between Madame Ratignolle and Mademoiselle Reisz, she strives to be more like Mademoiselle Reisz who, to Edna’s great surprise deems Edna’s awakening as somewhat limited, and truly. Edna’s awakening is possible only due to a certain privilege, a privilege she owes to her wealthy husband, a privilege she can never give up. Even as Edna leaves her husband’s home and moves to her own apartment, which she interestingly terms “pigeon hole”, which is in reality a four-bedroom apartment in the same prosperous neighbourhood. Edna can never live in a place like that of Mademoiselle Reisz which is a neighbourhood of humble, working class people, and probably with a Black populace too.
Edna’s inability to find a true friend amongst the men around her, and her failed affair with Robert Lebrun, a man shown as a foil to her husband, Mr.Pontellier is symptomatic of the pervasive patriarchal views of men at that time.
Furthermore, Edna’s solitariness is axiomatically fuelled by her inability to make common cause with the people around her, especially signalled by her convenient ignorance of the working women around her. These poor and Black women can’t aspire to Edna’s awakening as they don’t have the choice to not work for a living, and their intensive labour perhaps doesn’t even leave them with time to think about it all. It’s only on their shoulders does Edna put all her household chores as she embarks to find herself. These working women are unnamed and faceless, like the Quadroon nurse, who may express her dismay, but these two entities seem to have no commonality. Hence, this is a grim reminder in the novel, a conspicuously naturalistic novel, that Edna is not a representative figure for all women. She can only be a symbol for upper-class, white women. The transition of “she” a third-person singular, to “we”, a first-person plural doesn’t get the desired effect due to the gruesome reality embedded in the novel and the society at large that disables most working-class women from overcoming the biases of race and problems of class. It appears that the feminist uprising had a jingoistic side to it and it was mainly an elitist and exclusivist movement that largely ignores the struggles of Black women.
Edna’s inability to find a true friend amongst the men around her, and her failed affair with Robert Lebrun, a man shown as a foil to her husband, Mr.Pontellier is symptomatic of the pervasive patriarchal views of men at that time. Even as Robert is easy going and apparently encourages Edna to be herself, he refuses to engage in a romantic affair with her because she belongs to another man; Robert is as much a patriarchal man as any other. Even for him, Edna is only Mrs.Pontellier, a wife and a mother, and he can’t claim another man’s “property” relegating her to a mere thing, just as Mr.Pontellier treats her a mere adornment and Robert is no different. Her relationship with Alcee Arobin is purely physical and he’s not a friend to Edna.
Thus, the expression of Edna’s emotional and sexual angst paved way for women to relate to her struggles, albeit amidst much condemnation from the patriarchal setup of that time. However, not undermining Chopin’s work, a more contemporary analysis shows the lacunae in Chopin’s narrative that is underlined by a grim politics of race and class, even as it shows heterosexual love as the norm, with no place for people who don’t fit into the upper-class, predominantly White society that may accept creoles, such as a French-American Mr.Pontellier, but doesn’t have any place or recognition of the humanity of the poor, and Blacks.
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