Dealing With Society, Edna Pontellier?S Battle With Social Class Essay, Research Paper
Edna Pontellier, the main character in Kate Chopin?s novel The Awakening, is a woman trying to form her own identity, both feminine and sexually, in the repressive and Victorian Creole world of the latter nineteenth century. She is met by a counterpart, Mademoiselle Reisz, who is able to live freely as a woman. Edna herself was denied this freedom because of the respectable societal position she had been married into and because of her Presbyterian up bringing as a child. The role that Mademoiselle Reisz played within society, a society that failed to view her as being a truly respectable social member, was quite opposite to that of Edna?s respectable position in society.
Edna was ordained in the Presbyterian ways as she became an adult in Kentucky and Mississippi (Companion 123); as one critic put it, she was of ?solid old Presbyterian Kentucky stock? (Petry 58). Edna was raised in a truly ?restricted Victorian? (Nikerson) manner to be ?an American woman?with a graceful severity of poise and movement? (Companion 123). To understand the social order she was born into you have to look at the Presbyterian background she grew up in. Presbyterianism took the view that women were ?regarded as equal to men?[but women were] the weaker vessel?and should become subordinate to the husband? (Wolff 2). In broader terms, this is saying that women are equal, but are still below men in society. This construct was reinforced by the fact that ?married women in Louisiana?[, in Edna?s time,] were legal property of their husbands? (Chopin 121). By a broad range, women of high Victorian society were greatly scrutinized if they tried to step out of any of the normal set boundaries of their womanly positions.
As a whole, Victorian society was based on a rich social etiquette that most would not understand today. Such social etiquette involved a woman being consistent in ?her ?duties? to her husband, her children, and her ?station? in life? (Chopin 121). This ?station? is a much smaller term to display a much larger idea for social ethics. It is in this that Edna comes to odds against and struggles with, especially when she realized ?her position in the universe as a human being?[recognizing] her relations as an individual to the world? (Chopin 14). The ?relationship? was being that of a subordinate to the male. Mademoiselle Reisz?s station was among that of Victorian society, but with the tragic flaw that it was only by stature and not by divinity. She was in the social order, but without the beliefs that everyone felt someone of her stature should have To broaden this example, Mademoiselle Reisz is much like President Clinton, in the broadest of sense, because Clinton is among the elite in society. Clinton does not truly have the respect, authority, or admiration of his peers, compared to such a President as Ronald Reagan; this example holds true to Mademoiselle Reisz as well. Like a car alarm going off, most everyone notices it, most everyone ignores it.
Those women of the lower class were considered below the Victorian order and any diversions, of either men or women, from their set societal positions were overlooked as being done because of a lack of refinery. The broad onset of the way the Victorian class felt towards the lower class is common knowledge today, but the sexual repression that stemmed from the Victorian class is not so commonly known. William Acton1 stated ?that the majority of women (happily for society) are not very much troubled with the sexual feeling of any kind? (Wolf 2). This belief, along with the whole of Acton?s book, was a major influence upon the Presbyterian Church in the Victorian Renaissance (Wolf 2).
Chopin shows that Edna had, since childhood, always bad problems dealing with her social order by the way Chopin describes her as having an ?outward existence that conforms, [and] the inward life that questions? (Chopin 14). This idea of conformity was what eventually drove Edna to suicide. This conformity also lead to positions in society that she could not escape, and when she tired to be any different than that of the norm, society lashed back. Victorian society was not about to let a respectable member miss conform, especially when she had been a conformist all her life. Mademoiselle Reisz had not been a conformist and had broke the boundaries of society so long ago that she became over looked and even a joke within the Creole society. As it is true today, as well as in Victorian times, society allows a misfit into their group so they can always view how refined they are. Ironically, this idea of having someone to show how a social class is better than another was in itself childish and below what the Victorian class thought they truly believed in and stood for. Mademoiselle Reisz was used as a model of what one desires not to achieve. Edna was one of society?s models of what a woman should strive for; rejecting ?the society around her?[was] a notion too radical for?[her] peers? (Nickerson). Another irony, Edna tried to view Mademoiselle Reisz as her model ?if she?[was] to succeed and soar above ?tradition and prejudice?? (Thorton 52). Mademoiselle Reisz?s music seemed to open up and speak to Edna, which soon led to her awakening.
Mademoiselle Reisz, ?while admittedly is nothing like a vixen? (Wolff 2), is described by Chopin as ?a disagreeable little women?who had quarreled with almost everyone, owing to a temper which was self-assertive?? (Chopin 21). Mademoiselle Reisz?s quarrelsomeness led to her undisputed position of being a spinster. Viewing her strictly as the artist she was, one could even say she would fit a typical idea of someone who views her art and life the same, as forms of expression. Even though she was an artist in Victorian times (a time when even artist were not radically expressive) she still used her artistic talent as one of the many excuses why she could express herself. Mademoiselle Reisz was also ?no longer young? by any means (Chopin 21). These two ideas led to her becoming a stereotypical (by today?s standards) woman who had lost the youth within herself and takes all her aggressions out on the world around her. Even though she is ?The soul that dares and defies,? she is still human and the lack of having a person in her life probably made her somewhat bitter (Chopin 63). Mademoiselle Reisz?s independent attitude makes it hard for her to find love and also to show it; this, along with the Victorian Creole ideology, makes it hard for anyone to respect her. Mademoiselle Reisz explains all this away when she says ?The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice have strong wings? (Chopin 82). Even though Mademoiselle Reisz is a pioneer in a time of restrictions, she ?represents a position of autonomy, of ?independence,? the position of one who ?stops for neither thanks nor applause?? (Mahon 230). This independent feeling that she cast from her shadow was scary to the Victorian Creole society because it threatened the very core of their ideology. This Earth shattering commitment Mademoiselle Reisz made to herself was what led to attracting an unknowing follower such as Edna.
With these facts laid out, any reader of the novel would infer on how society would make it hard for Edna to ever become her own woman. Edna had ?cast off her socially prescribed clothing and experience[d] a spiritual revelation? within herself which society viewed her as just having medical difficulties that could be remedied. This unprescribed illness also effected how Edna could become her own woman (McCoy 1). Unlike the faded Mademoiselle Reisz, Edna had ?graceful severity of poise and movement?[and] sensuous susceptibility to beauty? which naturally made her a person who was also naturally influential (Chopin 14). The idea that she could start a trend deep within high Creole society was unnerving to the males of society and even to some females. Even if it were not on their conscious mind, deep down in their subconscious they feared that one of their own, a respectable member such as Edna, could start a revolution for women across the board in the high Creole society. Such a revolution could tear apart the world they held dear, by their own definition: it made them better than everyone else.
Not only did the men, but even the women shared such disapproval?s. Women, such as Madame Ratignolle, viewed their position as proper and were happy with their system of community. Such women did not have to work, they just organized the house and helped care for the children. A ?women?s personal [life]? center[ed] around home, husband, and children? (qtd. in Nickerson). Today, these women would be considered almost lazy (at the least being unproductive), but in their society it was looked at being refined. These women basically knew of their stations in society and of their subordination?s to men, they just dealt with it as being part of womanhood; most women seemed content with this.
As Mr. Pontellier explained to Edna, ?I should think you?d understand by this time that people don?t do such things; we?ve got to observe less conveniences if we ever expect to get on and keep up with the procession? (Chopin 49). When Mr. Pontellier infers that ?we?ve got to observe less conveniences? he is actually inferring that Edna should ?observe less conveniences?. Keeping up with ?procession? is also his polite way of saying that she should give up and be like other subordinate women of their society, so that they, both Edna and her husband, may fit into society.
On the other side of the spectrum, Madame Ratignolle viewed herself as a ?mother woman? and inferred Edna to do the same. Madame Ratignolle was also covertly inferring that a ?mother woman? also has her place. With this advice, Edna still considered herself as ?not [being] a mother woman? (Chopin 10). Such information from the Victorian Creole male and female showed how contentment among that of Creole society were advocating, with quit forceful inferences, that Edna try not to break her boundary?s that had been set for her by society.
Though examples could keep streaming out of Chopin?s book and by Victorian Creole society?s beliefs, one thing that is certain is that Edna had no chance. Bound by her married place in society, her life was filled with confrontation at every move that she made to try to break such bonds. She was never really allowed to leave her repressive place for more than a moment. Due to this and her inability to fight society, she kills herself. Mademoiselle Reisz lives to influence society even more, even if they do not take her seriously.
1 William Acton was writer of The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs in Childhood, Youth, Adulthood, and Advanced Life.
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