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Characterization in The Awakening, Essay Example

Pages: 4

Words: 1234

Essay

The life of Edna Pontellier, as depicted in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, is one of superficial happiness.  At the novel’s outset, Edna appears to have everything that a respectable woman of her era could want–a loving husband, adoring children, and financial security.  However, Chopin’s characterization of Edna illustrates that true happiness cannot be found through the values and ideals of traditional society.  This is accomplished, in part, by juxtaposing Edna’s personal awakening against the characterizations of other female characters throughout the novel.  As such, Edna’s relationships with Mademoiselle Reisz and Adele Ratignolle serves to offer Edna two distinct paths that she may take in her own life.  Additionally, minor female characters such as the Lady in Black, the Young Lovers, and the Farival Twins offer Edna examples of the ways in which independence, femininity, and female virtue can play out for other women.    The decision to leave her husband and sons to pursue her own creative and emotional aims is not an easy one for Edna; however, the women that she encounters over the course of the novel act, in some cases, as role models for her new life, and at other times demonstrate the feminine qualities that she is seeking to avoid by reinventing herself.  Thus, Chopin’s depiction of lesser female characters throughout The Awakening both support and conflict with Edna’s changing personality, thereby adding greatly to her protagonist’s overall characterization.

Chopin’s characterization of Edna Pontellier is, in a sense, a series of contradictions.  Edna is a respectable mother and wife who has, both by the measure of her years and experience, reached full womanhood.  However, she continually yearns for the romantic freedom of her youthful past and seeks to broaden her knowledge of the wider creative world around her.  In a sense, the “two contradictory impulses which impelled her” (Chopin 13) to go to the sea with Robert metaphorically represent the warring spectres of family obligation and personal freedom which drive Edna’s behavior and character development throughout the novel.  Edna knows that such behavior is improper by conventional standards, and yet she desires to live outside of the traditional rules and expectations which have governed her behavior and led to her increased restlessness and dissatisfaction with her husband, children, and self.  Chopin writes that Edna was “beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her” (13), an awareness that causes Edna to experience both joy and sorrow as she seeks to reconcile her newfound realizations with the conventional life which she finds alternately comforting and stifling.

Edna experiences a “vague anguish” (6) when considering her daily life and the future that it holds, and is unable to initially understand why she cries without apparent reason and feels unfulfilled with her husband, sons, and social position.  The freedom that comes from life at Grand Isle, where many traditional expectations and obligations have been set aside, allows her to begin to consider the possible alternatives to her conventional life and Edna begins “to loosen a little the mantle of reserve that had always enveloped her” (14).  This occurs, in part, because she is exposed to a variety of women whose lifestyles are different from hers.  Edna has long been aware of the disparity between her private self and the face that she wears in public, which Chopin terms as “the dual life–that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions” (14).  However, Edna’s relationship with Adele allows her to find companionship and an emotional outlet for her newfound emotions.  At the same time, although they experience emotional intimacy, Adele remains representative of the traditional expectations of women, given that she acts as a model of maternal virtue.  Adele is devoted to her husband and children, and although she is much less emotionally repressed than Edna, she remains closely aligned with conventional ideals of womanhood and serves as an example, perhaps, of the kind of maternal happiness Edna might have achieved had she been of a different, less demanding temperament.

The women and girls that Edna encounters while summering at Grand Isle help to demonstrate the variety of ways in which femininity can be expressed.  As a widow whose sons are grown, Madam LeBrun has the freedom to pursue her own interests and is a successful business owner.  Conversely, the Lady in Black represents an alternative version of widowhood in which the freedom that comes with no longer having a husband has been replaced with religious devotion, penitence, and silence.  Other Grand Isle guests such as the Farival Twins and the Young Lovers illustrate the ways in which young love can be manifested.  In the case of the Farival Twins, who will be entering a nunnery, this is a love where the possibility of having a husband has been replaced with Godly devotion, sacrifice, and virtue.  The Young Lovers, who have no names or identifying features beyond their passion for one another, represent the romantic life that Edna has ostensibly put behind her now that she is a respectable, married woman.  Although Edna admires the Farival Twins for their obedience and self-sacrifice and yearns for the youthful passion of the Young Lovers, these characters serve more to demonstrate the various stages of a woman’s life than to offer Edna any real example to follow.

Conversely, Mademoiselle Reisz is hugely influential on Edna’s personal development throughout The Awakening.  Unlike Adele, who in both her words and actions constantly reminds Edna of her own familial obligations, Mademoiselle Reisz is unmarried and unencumbered by responsibilities.  This allows her the spiritual and physical freedom to pursue her own creative desires, including the piano.  Indeed, it is Mademoiselle Reisz’ piano playing which comes to bond the two disparate women together; on first hearing Mme. Reisz play, Edna experiences a profound physical and emotional response in which “the very passions themselves were aroused within her soul, swaying it, lashing it” (26).  The more that Edna comes to know Mme. Reisz, the more she realizes that the other woman represents the kind of life that she might have had if only she had never married or had children.  Although Edna tries to achieve a similar lifestyle by moving out of the home she shares with her husband and children into the Pigeon House, where she attempts to embark on a creative and inwardly-focused life, she is unable to achieve the level of self-assurance and confidence that seems to come so naturally to Mme. Reisz.

The women that Edna encounters throughout The Awakening serve, in part, to inspire Chopin’s protagonist to see alternatives to her conventional life.  Characters such as the Lady in Black act as examples of the kind of life Edna wishes to avoid, whereas women such as Mademoiselle Reisz demonstrate the existence that Edna wishes she could have for herself.  However, she is ultimately unable to achieve the level of freedom that seems to come so easily to the women she meets.  The realization that she is not capable of full independence, especially when she is reminded of her responsibilities to her young children, contributes to her decision to end her life.  In this act, Chopin seems to suggest that there is no middle ground for women attempting to find freedom:  one can have a family or one can be independent, but a woman cannot be both.

Works Cited

Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. New York: Soho Books, 2011.

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