Analysis of Chopin's "The Awakening" in regard to motherhood and women(work in progress).
|The Mother Woman and the New Woman: Womanhood in Kate Chopin's The Awakening
Sex, society, and scandal-The Awakening is a prime example of how a novel's critical attention can shift over time. Perhaps Chopin's message was simply ahead of its time. At the time of its publication, The Awakening was attacked as being morally corrupt, and sexually suggestive. Most reprehensible to the reading public, was the idea that a mother could so casually abandon her children. In The Awakening, Edna is a socially oppressed character that does what she feels is necessary to escape her given role. By looking at the author's own life, her response to the harsh criticism, the regional and social classifications of the time, and the textual evidence, it is clear that Chopin intention was not to undermine the role of motherhood, but to show that it is not a role that every woman seeks or finds fulfillment in.
Although the late nineteenth century (the time of the book's publication) was still a restrictive time for women, there were some movements towards a "New Woman." The Victorian woman was still chattel to her husband. It was her responsibility to uphold traditional values and keep the home and family standards. Russ Sprinkle, professor of English at Bowling Green State University discusses some of the features of the New Woman as exemplified in the character of Edna Pontellier:
Choked by the cloistering, moralistic garb of the Victorian era, yet willing to give up everything-even her own life-for the freedom of that era unencumbered individuality, Edna Pontellier epitomized the consummate New Woman of the late nineteenth century...She was individualistic-a maverick; she was passionate; she was courageous and intrepid-she was the definitive persona which thousands of women during the late nineteenth century exalted as a role model. (Sprinkle)
However, despite such positive possibilities, The Awakening was not well received at the time of its publication. Sprinkle writes that Chopin had the responsibility to punish or "discipline" Edna as a mother to a child. Many critics of the time felt that she did not go far enough:
Although Chopin appears to condemn Edna by selecting a method popular in nineteenth century literature to "punish" Edna-that of drowning-neither Edna nor Chopin demonstrates any outward signs of remorse or shame at Edna's infidelity and social deviance (Sprinkle).
Perhaps Chopin resists showing any signs of judgment for a purpose. Instead of condemning Edna, Chopin's non-judgmental tone allows the reader to make their own interpretation of the novel's ending. Putting aside religious and moral connotations, a reader can find an "awakening" in Edna's dramatic last act.
Because of the portrayal of Edna as a non "mother-woman," many readers felt that Chopin was attacking the institution of motherhood. In Linda Byrd's article on maternal influence, she begins with, "Kate Chopin's genuine feelings about motherhood and children are best illuminated in her comments about her own six children. Loving her children immensely, she never wanted to shun them or turn them away even when she was very busy." In her own life, Chopin was a mother-woman. She loved her children and was deeply devoted to them, planning her work around them. Despite her own feelings, she was aware that not all women were natural mothers. Byrd goes on to say about Chopin's thoughts on children,
"Often they restrict and impose, but even when they are mischievous, good often results. A theme to which Chopin returned throughout her career is the dilemma of desire versus duty, self-realization versus socially sanctioned self-sacrifice. Motherhood and children often serve to emphasize a woman's self-deprivation, but there are also cases where are woman can achieve self-actualization through motherhood and caring for her children."
In The Awakening, Chopin shows both of these characteristics-Edna, the repressed woman who only feels deprivation, and Madame Ratignolle who is a model mother-woman. When first published, the public was so outraged at the implications of Edna not being content with her life as a mother that Chopin's gentle mockery for mother women like Madame Ratignolle went unnoticed. "Considering the restrictive and suffocating role which Chopin ascribes to religion and the Church in Edna's life (not to mention the blatant departure from traditional views on sexuality), one can readily see why critics of the late nineteenth century might interpret Chopin's novel as an attack on morality and religious value" (Sprinkle). Some of that initial criticism has carried on and today, and some readers still see this as a story of a mother driven by selfishness and abandoning her morality and her children.
Much of the evidence of Chopin's thoughts on motherhood is found within the text itself. In The Awakening, Chopin describes Edna as compared to Madame Ratignolle. She writes:
In short, Madame Pontellier was not a mother-woman. The mother-women seemed to prevail that summer at Grand Isle. It was easy to know them, fluttering about with extended, protecting wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened their precious brood. 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. Many of them were delicious in the role; one of them was the embodiment of every womanly grace and charm. If her husband did not adore her, he was a brute, deserving of death by slow torture. Her name was Adèle Ratignolle (Chopin).
Chopin's tone is ironic, if somewhat respectful. The mother women were to be respected, but also pitied. These were women who were trapped within their social rules. Some, like Madame Ratignolle, were content with that role.
Of all the women on the island, Adele Ratignolle is "the embodiment of every womanly grace and charm" (Chopin 638). In short, Madame Ratignolle is the perfect mother woman. While there is clearly respect for the role of a mother, Chopin used Madame Ratignolle to serve a gentle mockery on women who live only for that role. In her initial description of the mother woman, Chopin's sarcastic tone is easily discernible. "It was easy to know them, fluttering about with extended, protective wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened their precious brood" (638). The picture painted here of the mother woman is over protective and slightly ridiculous. Chopin continues her mockery at Adele's expense. "Madame Ratignolle had been married seven years. About every two years she had a baby" (639). Chopin reduces Madame Ratignolle to a breeding animal. Furthermore, Chopin subtly touches on the lack of birth control for Victorian woman and the even poorer medical treatment for expecting mothers. In the article, "Turn of the Century Childbirth," Shelley Roy writes, "The maternal death rate around 1900 was one mother's death per every 154 live births." Although there were a few options, birth control was not widely available and not particularly reliable. "...women were trying to save themselves by using birth control and having fewer children, but were still taking the same amount of risk by having that one first child" (Roy). Madame Ratignolle, then, expecting her fourth child, goes against everything the New Woman stands for. The author continues the joke; "She was always talking about her 'condition.' Her 'condition' was in no way apparent, and no one would have known a thing about it but for her persistence in making it the subject of conversation" (639). Again, when Madame Ratignolle feels faint due to her "condition," it is ridiculed. Edna questions whether there is any real need for concern or simply dramatics. "The spell was soon over, and Mrs. Pontellier could not help wondering if there were not a little imagination responsible for its origin, for the rose tint had never faded from her friends face" (642). Through Edna, Chopin ends her mockery with pity. "She [Edna] was moved by a kind of commiseration for Madame Ratignolle,--a pity for that colorless existence which never uplifted its possessor beyond the region of blind contentment..." (676). Madame Ratignolle will never know or seek to know life outside of motherhood.
However, through Edna's eyes, Chopin shows that women had more needs, ambitions, and wants than to simply be a wife and mother. She clearly states that not all women were the motherly type.
Early in the novel, the reader is introduced to Edna and Leonce Pontellier. It is quickly established that Edna is not a mother-woman. Leonce, in a typically patronizing, patriarchal role tells the resting Edna to go check on the children. When Edna replies that the children are fine and don't need to be checked on, Leonce accuses his wife of neglect. "He reproached his wife with her inattention, her habitual neglect of the children. If it was not a mother's place to look after children, whose on earth was it?" (Chopin 637). Edna goes to check on the children and returns suffering, from an unknown source, a sense of oppression.
From the reaction of the readers garnered by the novel, and the attitudes of some of the characters within the novel, it would be easy to classify Edna as a poor mother. However, the textual evidence is to the contrary. Although she does not hover over her children or live every waking moment solely dedicated to them, she attends to their needs and repeatedly shows her affection for them. While Madame Ratignolle sews new winter outfits for her children, Edna is content that her own's needs are currently met. "Mrs. Pontellier's mind was quite as rest concerning the present material needs of her children, and she could not see the use of anticipating and making winter garments the subject of her summer meditations" (Chopin 639). Edna was "fond of her children in an uneven, impulsive way" (647). She does not live solely for them, but she does care for them. At times, Edna is very much a mother-woman. She demonstrates physical attachment to her children a number of times. "Edna took him in her arms, and resting herself in the rocker, began to cuddle and caress him, calling him all manner of tender names, soothing him to sleep" (Chopin 663). She tells her boys bedtime stories (666). She misses her children when she is away from them. "How glad she was to see the children! She wept for pleasure when she felt their little arms clasping her..." (706). In the end, one of her final thoughts is of her children. "She thought of Leonce and the children. They were a part of her life. But they need not have thought that they could possess her, body and soul" (723). "They were a part of her life," is the key. Edna wanted more than to be only defined as a wife and mother. Wanting more out of life does not make her a poor mother.
If Adele is the epitome of the mother woman, and Edna is at the crossroads of motherhood and independence, then Madame Reisz, thought physically old, is truly the New Woman. Edna is drawn to Madame Reisz. The older woman has the freedom and independence that Edna doesn't even know she is seeking. Madame Reisz is a musician, an artist (as Edna dreams of being). She is childless and lives alone. She is unpleasant to those she doesn't live (most everyone), and she doesn't care for social niceties. It is Madame Reisz who acknowledges and understands what Edna is reaching for and the difficulties that will come with it. Edna recounts her conversation with Madame Reisz to Arobin. "...when I left her today, she put her arms around me and felt my shoulder blades, to see if my wings were strong enough she said. 'The bird that would soar above the level of plain tradition and prejudice must have strong wings'" (Chopin 698). Since it appears that Edna is choosing a similar path to her own, Madame Reisz subtly warns her about the difficulties and frustrations ahead. Edna's journey will be even more perilous because she has the added entrapments of a husband and children which Madame Reisz forgoes for her independence.
Much of the criticism of Chopin's portrayal of frank sexuality and untraditional roles for women was influenced by the regionalism of her previous work. People had come to associate her writings with quaint stories of colorful regionalism about the Creole and Cajon people of the New Orleans area. With that regionalism came the constraints of society and religion. Sara Shull writes, "The preservers of the old south put the southern lady on a pedestal where she would act as preserver of Southern religion and morality and as an inspiration for her husband and children." However, Chopin's Edna Pontellier actively goes against the typical southern woman. Lucinda MacKethan says about Chopin, "The theme she made her own was the psychological and moral effect of character's attempts to assert self-will. Not only do they chafe against the constraints of societal and religious tradition, they are betrayed by their own physical being," (MacKethan). This theme was taken to its pinnacle with the publication of The Awakening. MacKethan goes on to say that many women writers explored what she calls "The Woman's Question," the ambiguity of the American woman's situation during the turn of the twentieth century (MacKethan). MacKethan gives her reason for the critical reception of The Awakening as "Many of Chopin's woman characters take steps to free themselves from these structures in untraditional but usually circumspect ways that do not confront, as Edna does in The Awakening, the legal and social restrictions head-on," (MacKethan). At the time of its publication, people were not prepared or ready to face this question.
Chopin's reaction to the harsh criticism is somewhat telling in her true opinion on the subject. She received little from the sell of The Awakening. The book fell into obscurity and Chopin stopped publishing. What seemed an interesting and timely theme for Chopin, turned out to be too much for her society at large. In the Victorian region, a woman was still a wife and mother first. However, in modern times, readers and critics alike have come to understand and appreciate the message (or messages) of the novel. Woman can have callings outside of the traditional roles of wife and mother. The stifling, patriarchal nature of conservative, religious, and traditional roles is not a place that allows women to meet their full potential. Chopin did not demonize motherhood. She did not end Edna's life in a selfish suicide. She opened reader's eyes to the potential for all women to lead successful, independent lives. And if she chooses to be a mother woman, that's okay too.
Byrd, Lina. "Material Influence and Children in Kate Chopin's Short Fiction," 1999. Woman Writers. <http://www.womenwriters.net/domesticgoddess/Byrd.htm> 23 April 2008
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: Norton & Company, 2003. 633-722.
MacKethan, Lucinda. "Historical and Literary Contexts." Scribbling Women. <http://www.scribblingwomen.org/kchist.cfm> Northeastern University. 23 April 2008
Roy, Shelley. "Turn of the Century Childbirth." Kate Chopin: The Awakening. 1999. Loyola University. 29 April 2008 <http://www.loyno.edu/~kchopin/Turn%20Of%20Century%20Childbirth.htm>.
Shull, Sara. "The Women's Rights Movement from North to South ." Kate Chopin: The Awakening. 1999. Loyola University . 29 April 2008 <http://www.loyno.edu/~kchopin/Women%27s%20Rights.htm>.
Sprinkle, Russ. "Kate Chopin's The Awakening: A Critical Reception," Woman Writers. <http://www.womenwriters.net/domesticgoddess/sprinkle.htm> 23 April 2008