Term Paper: Female Enlightenment in the Awakening

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Many of the female characters in literature were written by women so that the characters can be considered reflections of their creators. This may be because they are also attempting to express themselves as artists in a world that is hostile to their efforts, or it may be that some of their personal particulars match those of the writer. Such characters may show a lack of artistic or personal development that can be attributed to the imposition of certain social traditions and social roles which involve expectations placed on women, with such expectations either excluding certain types of expression or channeling women's energies into narrow and designated areas. Presumably the authors of these works have themselves experienced the same social pressure to conform that affects their characters. The fact that the authors have achieved a certain level of personal expression demonstrates that they have battled these pressures with some success. Their characters may or may not be able to do the same thing in their own lives.

The women in the novel the Awakening by Kate Chopin share certain experiences and attitudes with their creator both for good and ill. The pressures placed on women in Chopin's time were strong and often debilitating, and Edna, her main character, cannot live in a world that makes all her decisions for her and that stifles her impulses. She is contrasted with another woman in the novel, and how the two fare shows different ways in which women may cope with the demands of society.

The same issue has been addressed directly by different writers, and Virginia Woolf is an example of a writer who shows concern for the issue in her criticism and in her fiction. Woolf's approach to the issue of women and fiction was firmly grounded in a general theory of literature:

She argued that the writer was the product of her or his historical circumstances, and that material conditions were of crucial importance. Secondly, she claimed that these material circumstances had a profound effect on the psychological aspects of writing, and that they could be seen to influence the nature of the creative work itself. (Barrett 5)

The writer is not an abstract but a real person who must make a living in this world, and therefore material conditions are important. Material conditions can be influenced by writing -- the writer who can make a living sees those conditions affected -- and a failure to provide the necessary material conditions can prevent a writer from writing or force her to marry and commit herself to a domestic life as a way of surviving.

Kate Chopin

Kate Chopin was born in St. Louis. Her father died when she was four years old. She lived in the South and turned to writing comparatively late in life, publishing her first work when she was nearly 40. Many of her works delve into the reality of women's emotions, and she approaches this subject in a frank way that actually caused her some trouble in the more prudish world of the end of the last century. She drew on her own reality as a woman in that time and society, though, and took inspiration and understanding from the world in which she lived. At the same time, she challenged conventional social behavior in many of her stories and did so simply by examining the way women react to the situations of life in the real world.

Chopin was born in 1854 and died in 1904. She was born Katherine O'Flaherty, but she wrote under the name Kate Chopin. Chopin was in fact her married name. She grew up in St. Louis, graduated from Catholic school in 1868, and later became more independent so that she questioned many Catholic doctrines. She wrote several novels and many short stories. She also wrote a number of poems. She has the reputation of being among the most important women in nineteenth-century American fiction, and in her work, she raised themes of female emancipation along with the earlier history of St. Louis and its environs.

Her life was marked by the loss of he father and by the pressures she experienced being an intelligent and soon-to-be accomplished woman in an era that did not place a high value on women. Society claimed to value women highly, of course, but only in a subservient and domestic role. Just as Chopin chafed under certain Catholic teachings, so did she feel frustration at the limited role women were given in her society. She reflects many of her frustrations through her character, Edna, who acts out the sort of difficulties faced by Chopin herself:

The protagonist of "The Awakening" understands that the cult of domesticity offers her no viable mechanism for a self-defined subjectivity or voice, and she reaches beyond it toward a new theory of language and identity. But Edna seeks a feminine, maternal language that is represented as existing outside of patriarchy; therefore she never finds a voice that functions in the everyday world she inhabits. (Cutter 88)

The book itself caused Chopin more problems, for after the Awakening appeared in 1899, "it was condemned as vulgar, morbid, and unwholesome. The book was allegedly banned from some libraries, and Chopin was ousted from social clubs. She eventually lost the contract for her next collection of fiction, a Vocation and a Voice, and it was not published until almost a hundred years later" (Cutter 87). Critics believe that the reason for this reaction was because Chopin showed "that feminine desire is an aspect of women's search for voice; Edna Pontellier drowns herself partially because she can find no one who understands the new sexual and social identity she is attempting to articulate" (Cutter 87).

Priscilla Allen notes how Victorian critics responded adversely to this novel in which the main character commits adultery, but she also finds that critics since have continued to be blinded to other aspects of the novel. She says they have tended to misread the main character because they focus on her sexual activity, and Allen denies that the book is about sex as many critics have claimed. Allen finds that a broader reading of the character provides greater insight not only into Edna and Chopin but into women in general:

Chopin] gives Edna a skill that she might realistically be imagined to have had and to have had training in. For the rest she is concerned to show Edna's sensuous response to physical reality, the world about her, to her own emotions and yearnings, responses which express her personhood, her previous individuality. Because freedom, individuality, self-expression are not rights to be reserved for gifted artists alone, Chopin shows us that Edna, conventionally brought up, conventionally becoming wife and mother, spontaneously... pursues her right to self-expression and cannot feel wicked for doing so. (Allen 230)

Society may ask that the woman feel wicked for expressing herself, but Chopin is one who shows the consequences of such self-repression.

Emily Toth notes the critical discussion around Chopin in the 1990s and notes how some saw her as a precursor to the sexual revolution of the 1960s and after. Readers in the 1980s saw her as "an independent woman who moves out of her husband's house, lives on her own, and makes a living from her art" (Toth xx). Critics in the 1990s took different points-of-view so that some saw both Edna and Chopin as "nsufficiently aware of her own race and class privileges, while others called her brilliantly attuned to women's silences and inexpressible longings" (Toth xx).

Chopin herself had to be a pioneer or do nothing at all. In her social class, few women worked outside the home. The women did work inside the home, "administering mammies, nurses, cooks, laundresses, maids, and yard men. But the ladies of Chopin's social class did not work for wages, nor did their names appear in newspapers and magazines until the advent of society columns in the 1870s" (Toth 121). Chopin went outside this private realm, however, and when she started publishing fiction in national magazines, she was doing what no women in St. Louis had done before.

The Awakening

In the Awakening, Kate Chopin contrasts two characters, Edna Pontellier and Adele Ratignolle. Edna is a young woman who makes an important discovery about the nature of her marriage, her role as a woman in her society, and the degree to which her circumstances and the social setting have constrained her. Because of her inability to break free from the prison into which she now feels she has been placed simply by virtue of her being a woman, she commits suicide. Adele Ratignolle is the woman in whom Edna confides. She is a motherly figure who revels in her roles as wife and mother, a contrast to Edna, who more and more chafes at those roles. Madame Ratignolle is a contrast to Edna, but her lifestyle is not a real choice for the latter, given the artistic temperament Edna possesses and her awareness… [END OF PREVIEW]

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