4 of 5 stars to The Awakening by Kate Chopin. I read this book several years ago and wrote a paper on how society treated women during that period in literature. I cut and paste some from it below, as I think it offers more than a normal review on this one. Please keep in mind, I’m referring to women in the 19th century, i.e. the characters from the book — not thoughts on women today! As for the book — it’s fantastic… love seeing what people thought 150 years ago, seeing some things never change and some people are just always wrong! And for the record, I loved Edna… thought she had a right to, and should have, pushed the envelope more.
Question: Edna Pontellier: Does Innocence Prevail?
Society expects women to remain pure and chaste, to ignore the urge to engage in any type of behavior that could be construed as flirtatious, and to follow the demands of their fathers until marriage. However, women see these limitations as too restrictive, which is why they live their lives in a way that suits them and not others. Women often take control of their own lives by participating in flirtatious behaviors, ignoring parental wishes, and engaging in pre-marital sex. When women are married and still wish to live their own lives, they may have extra-marital affairs, they may leave their husbands or lovers, and they may commit suicide. These behaviors are ways of striking out against the unfair limitations placed on them. Often the “desire to be socially functional and acceptable can lead to hostility to those who appear to be unconventional or independent” (Allen 336). As a result of this hostility and striking out, whether or not women are truly innocent has pervaded the minds of American society.
Since the innocence of women has always been a subject that captivates society’s mind, writers will often take advantage of this and create works that are about women’s innocence. The realistic period of literature, from the end of the Civil War to World War I- 1865-1915, contains many works that are representative of women and their level of innocence. In works such as Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899), there are female characters whose innocence comes into question. Edna Pontellier lives her life in such an ambiguously flirtatious way that the people from the society in which they live, all question the women’s innocence and morality. Edna is somewhat guilty, although she has an excuse. Edna is just entering her womanhood for the first time at a time when views were quite different than today. She may lose her innocence with several men, but she never knew what innocence was prior to her sexual awakening. Regardless of Edna’s actions, she is still innocent even though her flirtatious behavior implies that she isn’t. After she faces society’s wrath, she turns inwardly to find support instead of turning to the people around her. After thinking about her future, Edna meanders down the path of self-destruction and commits suicide, as a way to get out of the misery that she is in. When her innocence appears to be lost, she chooses to take her own life, rather than fight to show society that she has done nothing wrong. However, she never really loses her innocence permanently, as it was only hidden under her awakening to womanhood.
In The Awakening, by Kate Chopin, Edna Pontellier, a young, married woman is also removed from her usual American home to that of the French Creole society in New Orleans, Louisiana. Even though the story still takes place in America, the French Creole society is more European than American. It expects the people that live there to follow European beliefs about women, innocence, and sexuality. Edna has been married to Leonce Pontellier for several years and they have two sons also. They spend their summer vacations on an island off the coast of Louisiana during the summers, not that far from the mainland where they usually live. Edna grew up with a father who expected her to follow his rules as perfectly as possible. He was a “hypocritical, gambling, toddy-drinking, pious-talking Presbyterian [from Kentucky]” (Skaggs 98). His interpretation of religion was to be irreconcilable during the week, and then atone for it on Sundays at worship. Edna thus became two separate souls within her own body. She wanted to be pious and good which explains why she remained married to Leonce in a loveless marriage for nearly ten years. However, she also had a passionate, wild side to her which suddenly erupted after she met Robert Lebrun on the Grand Isle. According to James H. Justus, the imbalance which haunts Edna is within the self, and the dilemma is resolved in terms of her psychic compulsions. Caught between conflicting urgencies-her need to succumb to her sensuality is countered by an equal need for a freedom that is almost anarchic” (Justus 73).
Edna Pontellier is bored with her husband, her life of motherhood and housekeeping upon her return to the mainland. She also wants to be free to do whatever she chooses instead of being chained to her husband. She enjoys the attention that she gets from Robert and finds the young man quite attractive. Once started, “Edna makes no attempt to suppress her sexual desire, she does not hesitate to throw off her traditional duties towards her family. She realizes she is unable to live as the inessential adjunct to man, as the object over which man rules” (Seyersted 62). As a result, “Edna Pontellier has her first affair out of sexual hunger, without romantic furbelow. She is in love, but the young man she loves has left New Orleans” (Kauffmann, 59). Edna Pontellier is an adulterer, but one can forgive her because she was thrown into a marriage that she was not ready for after living by her father’s rule for so many years. Edna never had a chance to grow up as a woman. As a result, she is forced to suppress her sexuality, and it comes out full force during her summer vacation with the Lebruns.
Nevertheless, Edna and Robert’s affair has a positive influence on Edna’s life. Carley Rees Bogarad believes that “Edna’s desire for the first time in her life is directed at someone who returns it and who has been fulfilling her emotional needs. She finally has evidence from the way Robert has been treating her and from her own emerging sense of self that she might choose to live in a more meaningful, constructive and active way. She does not lose her sense of responsibility; she redefines it” (160). However, Edna loses Robert when he leaves the country, and she is forced to return home with her husband and two children where her life becomes monotonous and dull without Robert. Later, She meets Alcee Arobin, who reminds her of Robert in some ways. Edna and Arobin also begin an affair with each other. This time, “Edna enjoys the company because [Arobin] is a charming man, attentive, amusing, a person of the world. He is a sexual partner who does not ask for, expect, or give love. Consequently, Edna need not feel that she is compromising him because she loves another. What she slowly discovers is that there is no way to separate what the body does from what the mind or heart is feeling without creating a violation of self (Bogarad 160). Edna definitely seems as though she has no morals by this time. She couldn’t care any less about her family; all Edna wants to do is explore her new found sexual awakening. She is viewed negatively for this among society; Yet, in reality, “the men in her life split her-Robert sees her as the angel, and Alcee sees her as the whore” (Bogarad 160).
Edna Pontellier is a victim of fate, and cannot be faulted for that. She can’t help but be awakened sexually, which leads to her numerous affairs with Robert and Alcee. After moving out of the house and living on her own, in the way that she wants to, Edna slowly dwindles down to nothing. She loses her husband, Robert, and Alcee. Robert briefly returns and it seems as though he and Edna will reunite, but they don’t. Instead, Edna’s awakened feelings and lifeline diminish her. Spangler remarks that “in the final pages, Edna is different . . . she is no longer purposeful, merely willful: no longer liberated, merely perverse: no longer justified, merely spiteful” (Spangler 155). In the end, Edna is left barren and desolate. She wanders out to the sea, strips off her clothes, and jumps in to her death. According to Spangler, “Chopin surrounds Edna’s death with contradictory symbols of defeat and rebirth. This makes it difficult to assess the meaning of Edna’s final act and accounts for the various readings proposed. There is also the further complication that it is not clear whether Edna’s death is consciously chosen suicide or whether it, like much else in Edna’s life, is simply drifted into” (156). Edna’s tragic end leaves readers wondering what her purpose was. Edna could represent women who are “‘perversely attracted to forbidden fruit’ [and for women that] want to possess [which] forms only destructive relationships rather than those that [are] true and lasting’ (Roscher 292). All that the readers can infer is that “her actions and final suicide suggest that she is a woman whose will and determination force her ‘to go her own way’; but a closer look at Edna shows that she is not a character who rejects a society in ‘thought and act’ . . .” (Portales 431). Edna Pontellier may have had some affairs, but she still remains innocent in some ways. She never knew what love was when she married Leonce. She had been influenced by her father and assumed that she would fall in love with Leonce once they got married. Nevertheless, Edna tries unsuccessfully, so she then determines to just have a good time, but she falls for Robert and enters into a relationship with him – perhaps the first one when their is requited love between the two. Edna cannot be blamed for losing her innocence therefore, since she didn’t have it when she was married. She didn’t even know what it was to not have innocence at that time. Edna suffered at the hand so fate and her father. She rarely had control of her own life.
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