The Awakening Essay, Research Paper
The novel, The Awakening, by Kate Chopin is set in the late nineteenth century, in
Louisiana. This is a place and time for women to submit themselves to the wants and
needs of husbands and families. The protagonist, Edna Pontellier, isn t content with being
a mother-woman, one of the ordinary, traditional women who, “…idolized their children,
worshipped their husbands, and esteemed it to a holy privilege to efface themselves as
individuals and grow wings as ministering angels”( Chopin 51). Edna wanted more, and
as there were very few women at this time leading the way to break these sorts of glass
ceilings, Edna looked for women within her life to model herself after.
Adele Ratignolle and Mademoiselle Reisz, two women who also engage in art,
serve as Edna Pontellier s options, they represent what society views as the suitable and
unsuitable woman figures. Mademoiselle Ratignolle is the ideal Grand Isle woman, a
home-loving mother and a good wife, and Mademoiselle Reisz as the old, unmarried,
childless, musician who devoted her life to music, rather than a man. Feeling that neither
of their lifestyles were suitable and lacking the ability to create a model of her own, Edna
in the closing of The Awakening commits suicide by walking into the ocean. Perhaps if
there had been a more well rounded woman figure in Edna s life, she wouldn t have felt
the life she craved was, …an undefined, unexpressed, ineffable life that she cannot
articulate or shape (Spangler). In witnessing other women achieve the articulation of a
complexly spirited life, she may have found a new life easier to attain.
Adele serves as the perfect “mother-woman” in The Awakening, being both
married and pregnant, but Edna does not follow Adele s footsteps. For Edna, Adele
appears unable to perceive herself as an individual human being. She possesses no sense of
herself beyond her role as wife and mother, and therefore Adele exists only in relation to
her family, not in relation to herself or the world. Edna respects art, but does not respect
Adele s reasoning for playing the piano, She was keeping up her music on account of the
children, she said: because she and her husband both considered it a means of brightening
the home and making it attractive (Chopin 69). Regardless of whether Adele actually
feels this way about her art or whether she only uses it to rationalize, it is still a maternal
project in Edna s eyes that will only thrust her further into the role she rejects, Women s
art, as Adele presents it, is social, pleasant, and undemanding. It does not conflict with
her duties as a wife and mother (Showalter 74). Edna being against the mother-woman
image is obviously turned off by this notion.
A woman who Edna does believe to play the piano for the right reasons is
Mademoiselle Reisz, the other female model. Despite Reisz s eccentricities, Edna is
completely mesmerized by her ability to live and to play, maybe her ability to live to play.
When the characters are still vacationing at Grande Isle nearer to the opening of the book,
Edna wishes to hear Mademoiselle Reisz play and Robert calls on her. After explaining
that Edna would often listen to Reisz practice as she imagined corresponding stories to
each song, it is explained that on this particular day, listening to Reisz play this particular
song, Edna had an awakening reaction, It was not the first time she had heard an artist
play the piano. Perhaps it was the first time she was ready, perhaps the first time her being
was ready to take an impress of the abiding truth (71). Because Reisz s music evoked
this out pouring of feelings in Edna, there is a special bond between the two women.
This bond grows and strengthens throughout the course of their relationship.
Edna, although sometimes confused by her conversations with Reisz, also finds
strength. She explains to Alcee Arobin how Reisz sometimes makes her feel, She says
queer things sometimes in a bantering way that you don t notice at the time and you find
yourself thinking about afterward (Chopin 138). She is referring to her conversation with
Reisz just prior to her meeting Arobin, but her statement to applies to all of her meetings
with Reisz. Reisz explains to Edna such things as the strength it takes to be an artist, the
strength it takes to be a successful person, Reisz postulates both the determinism of
nature and existential freedom when she tells Edna that to be an artist requires, absolute
gifts and a soul that dares and defies (Hollister 91). Edna is so intrigued by Reisz s
ability to project such a specific idea of how to achieve not only because it is a first for
Edna but also because Reisz sometimes come off more mysterious as she often uses
Mademoiselle Reisz s the opposite of a mother-woman . Although Reisz typifies
an individual woman who can be likened to Edna through the love of art, there are also
many aspects of her model that Edna does not wish to imitate. Reisz is very much disliked
by the members of Edna s society. Alcee Arobin, a friend of Edna s, says upon being
asked whether or not he is familiar with Reisz, I ve heard she s partially demented…I m
told she s extremely disagreeable and unpleasant (Chopin 138). Edna, not being an
outcast can not always identify with Reisz on all of the necessary levels, Even Edna
occasionally perceives Mademoiselle Reisz s awkwardness as a kind of deformity, and is
sometimes offended by the old woman s candor and is not sure whether she likes
her (Showalter 75). The fact is that Edna is interested in having a social life and being
well liked. After all, even towards the end of her awakening, Edna still finds it necessary
to have a beautiful dinner party upon moving out into the pigeon house.
So even though Edna is drawn towards Reisz she is drawn away as well. Edna s
dinner party makes it known that being socially acceptable is still a focus for her. Further
she goes on to explain how she wants everything perfect, stressing the physical beauty of
the party s appearance. A shining example of someone who portrays literal, physical
beauty is Adele Ratignolle. Adele as, the embodiment of grace and charm (Chopin 51).
As we understand it, Edna is not envious per se, but also holds beauty, womanly charm,
and social ability in high regards. For example, Edna finds Reisz s use of French in
speaking to Adele s Husband at the dinner party to be rude, a mistake Adele presumably
would have not committed.
Along with this need Edna has for platonic social relations, obviously comes along
the need for love. Mademoislle Reisz has in abundance the autonomy that Adele
completely lacks. But Reisz s life lacks love, while Adele abounds in it. Mademoiselle
Reisz s loneliness makes clear that an adequate life cannot build altogether upon
autonomy. Although she has a secure sense of her own individuality , her life lacks love,
friendship, or warmth. It is clear throughout the novel that Edna loves her children, loves
Robert, and even at times still loves Leonce, her husband. It can even be said that she
loves Mademoiselle Reisz and Adele. So even though, Reisz is the critical head, more
developed on her masculine side than other women in the novel (Hollister 92), and that is
what Edna identifies with, there is still a very feminine, even mother-woman set of idea
imbedded in her head, identifying her again with Adele Ratignolle.
In the final scene of The Awakening, Edna Pontellier walks into the ocean
committing suicide. Edna was unable to identify with either of the female models enough
to go on living. She wasn t strong enough as an individual to create her own model.
Mademoiselle Reisz and Adele Ratignolle suggest different endings to Edna s life story
had she not chose death as a way out. Modeling herself after Adele would make Edna
regress, she was way beyond the role Adele plays. At the same time choosing
Mademoiselle Reisz s path is too much n the opposite direction.. Edna wasn t capable of
leading this life as she already had a family and couldn t well just rid herself of them, as
well as her need for social warmth, Adele s story suggests that Edna will give up her
rebellion, return to her marriage, have another baby, and by degrees learn to appreciate,
love and even desire her husband…Mademioselle Reisz s story suggests that Edna will
lose her beauty, her youth, her husband, and children- everything in short but her art and
her pride (Showalter 76). Edna s decision to take her plunge was based on the probably
outcome of the life she would have modeled after one of the two women.
Perhaps today it sounds ridiculous that a woman would kill herself after exploring
the existences of only two women similar to her. Today a person could probably find a
successful model fitting their own desires almost perfectly. In the nineteenth century this
wasn t the case. Women rarely attempted to spread their wings and embrace and kind of
individualism, especially in the south. As we see, many women who did in fact aim for
this ended up social outcasts like Mademoiselle Reisz. Edna had no one to look at, she
had no idol to aspire to become like. Maybe today we take for granted all of the women
who have achieved greatness and led the way for others. Maybe we take too much credit
for our own achievements forgetting how important these other people were along the
way. Without anyone there to prove that Edna was striving for something attainable, there
was nothing for her to do but end her life. If Edna had been born in a different time and
had been faced with the same situation, it would have been a different story.
Hollister, Michael. Chopin s The Awakening. The Explicator 51.1 (1993) : 90-92
Showalter, Elaine. Sister s Choice: Tradition and change in American Women s Writing.
Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.
Spangler, George. Ways of Interpreting Edna s Suicide. Kate Chopin Study Text
Online. Neal Wyatt, 1993.