The Awakening by Kate Chopin : A Critical Analysis

Reading and comprehending the novel, The Awakening, by Kate Chopin is an inordinately laborious experience, reminding the reader a woman’s education is lacking during this period. The novel demands the mind of the reader to correspond the novel with appropriate grammar while interpolating and interpreting the historical progression of society from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century. The theme of the novel concentrates on the marriage and life of a Southern American woman, Edna, who marries a man of a different religion in “violent opposition of her father . . . to her marriage with a Catholic”. The belief is since “. . . the conduct of a woman is subservient to the public opinion, her faith in matters of religion should, for that very reason, be subject to authority”.

Kate Chopin used her writing as a technique to indirectly explicate her life by the means of narrating her stories through the characters she created. Kate Chopin was one of the modern writers of her time, one who wrote novels concentrating on the common social matters related to women. Her time period consisted of other female authors that focused on the same central theme during the era: exposing the unfairness of the patriarchal society, and women’s search for selfhood, and their search for identity. In Chopin’s novel The Awakening, she incorporates the themes mentioned above to illustrate the veracity of life as she understood it. A literary work approached by the feminist critique seeks to raise awareness of the importance and higher qualities of women. Women in literature may uncover their strengths or find their independence, raising their own self recognition. Several critics deem Chopin as one of the leading feminists of her age because she was willing to publish stories that dealt with women becoming self-governing, who stood up for themselves and novels that explored the difficulties that they faced during the time. Chopin scrutinized sole problems and was not frightened to suggest that women desired something that they were not normally permitted to have: independence. Chopin’s decision to focus on and emphasize the imbalances between the sexes is heavily influenced by her upbringing, her feelings towards society, and the era she subsisted in.

How Chopin was raised and educated not only inspired her but it also assisted her with her writing capabilities. On February 8th, 1851 Chopin was born Katherine O’Flaherty, to Thomas O’Flaherty and Eliza O’Flaherty. It is said that Chopin’s father, a businessman from Ireland, proved to be one of her first influences in her life because he happily fortified her attentiveness in writing (3). Unfortunately on November 1st of 1855, her father passed away as a victim to a train accident. Because of his ill-starred death, Kate was fostered by three strong motherly figures: her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. Aside from her father, another big influence in Kate’s life was her great-grandmother. Madame Victoire Verdon Charleville was Kate’s great-grandmother, a figure that possessed a great deal of knowledge who through the art of storytelling paved the way for Kate to learn to be a successful storyteller. Madame Charleville would tell Kate French anecdotes, giving Kate, “…a taste of the culture and freedom allowed by the French that many Americans during this time disapproved of” (3). The themes evident in Chopin’s great grandmother’s stories consisted of women struggling with morality, freedom, convention, and desire. Therefore, Chopin grew up hearing stories of the various struggles women faced in not only her society but that of the one Madame Charleville would constantly tell her stories of. Her stories provided Kate with an idea on what her own stories should incorporate and it also helped influence Chopin’s writing style. As seen in The Awakening, there are moments where the characters will speak in French which conveys that Chopin used what she had learned from her great grandmother to enhance her own stories. Kenneth Eble speaks of Chopin’s “Underground imagination”—“the imaginative life which seems to have gone on from early childhood somewhat beneath and apart from her well-regulated actual existence” (2). This critic is saying that what she was able to depict in her stories originates from what she had grown up knowing and the things she had experienced from her childhood to adulthood. In the novel, The Awakening, there was a quote that described Edna Pontellier, the main character in the book: “Even as a child she had lived her own small life all within herself. At a very early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life---that outward existence, which conforms, the inward life which questions” (2). Although this quote was used to describe Edna, it also indirectly refers back to the author, Chopin. Chopin had grown to live in her own little world where she understood the orthodoxies within her society and the conflictions that she had questioned.

Through her literary works, Chopin was able to voice her disparaging feelings about the male-controlled social order she lived in. All throughout her novel, The Awakening, there are evident clues expressing the types of views on women in society. In the story, women were portrayed as inferior to men; they wouldn’t have as many opportunities as men were given. People did not suspect women to be smart, or to be independent. This story conveyed that during that time frame, the era Chopin lived in, men were seen as the dominant figure and the women just lived under their roof following their rules.

Chopin expresses her thought on the whole male controlling society in various passages in her novel: “It seems to me the utmost folly for a woman at the head of a household, and the mother of children, to spend in an atelier days which would be better employed contriving for the comfort of her family” (1, pg.77). This quote signifies how society considered women to be, better employed in the house rather than out in society. Women had vital duties to fulfill within their homes mainly taking care of the children as well as maintaining the household while the male figure worked and brought home the money. Women during the time were not able to disobey their husband because society thought of it as wrong; women were to only obey their husbands and submission was the only option.

At some points in the novel Edna never realized that she would heed to Mr. Pontellier’s every commands without even thinking: “She would, through habit, have yielded to his desire; nor with any sense of submission or obedience to his compelling wishes, but unthinkingly, as we walk, move, sit, stand, go through the daily treadmill of the life which has been portioned out to us” (1, pg.42). This quote symbolizes how women were seen during the time. Women were like a doll, controlled by one master: their husband. They had to be obedient to their husbands every compelling wish, without having any thoughts as if it was natural to do so.

Another example in the novel that goes into depth what Chopin thought about women in society is when she was describing the women in her novel. She narrates, “They were women who idolized their children, worshipped their husbands and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels” (1, pg.10). It only goes to show that women were expected to fulfill their obligations as not only a mother but also a wife by fostering the children and “worshipping” their husbands.

Eventually Chopin starts to refer to women becoming more involved in life and striving towards independence in the male dominating society they lived in. Women began to realize their place in the universe as human beings and not just valuable possessions in which men could take control over. This type of realizations is also referenced in the book through the main character, Edna. “In short, Mrs. Pontellier 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” (1,pg.17). She was beginning to realize where she stood in society and she was starting to recognize who she was as an individual. According to the St. Louis Post- Dispatch Review, Edna, whose spouse has loosely held valued as a bit of decorative furniture, a valuable piece of personal property suddenly becomes aware Edna is a human being (5). This remark explains that Leonce, Edna’s husband starts to fathom that Edna is her own person, not some doll that he can play with and laugh at, at any moment or second of the day.

Another factor that contributes to why Chopin decides to focus on the inequalities among the sexes is because of the era she had lived in. During the 1800s, the time period Chopin lived in, women faced many issues during the time. They had always been beleaguered because they were said to be the inferior sex when compared to men, who were seen as better both mentally, psychologically, and physically. Women had finally woken to realize their social oppression and as a result they became defiant in nature and spirit, rising above the obstacles they faced within society. Women started to rebel because they yearned for sovereignty within the male dominant society they existed in. Authors similar to Chopin wrote to inform people of the important issues for women; they focused on pointing out the unfairness imposed on women. They were able to portray women through their characters, as human beings, as opposed to self-sacrificing and dedicated women, as was expected of women during that era. As said by critic, Seyersted, “Revolting against tradition and authority; with daring which we can hardy fathom today; with an uncompromising honesty and no trace of sensationalism, she undertook to give the unsparing truth about woman’s submerged life” (2). He speaks of Chopin’s recalcitrant nature, an author who acknowledged passion and was not afraid to stand by what was unbiased and what was practical. According to The Kate Chopin International Society, “…most of what has been written about Kate Chopin since 1969 is feminist in nature or is focused on women’s positions in society” (2). Chopin made a great impact during her time because she was able to inform people, her readers of what women had to cope with and the inequitableness of the societal restraints.

She expresses this within the book through the experiences of Edna Pontellier. Edna is depicted as a strong, courageous, daring woman who found that she no longer desired to live by society’s constraints of the time. Edna ends up acting upon her passion and emotions by committing sins so long as it exercises her independence and personal freedom.

The time period she lived in had a great influence on her writing because she was able to show people the underlying issues women faced without directly stating it. She was able to open the eyes of her readers to the facts and the situations occurring during the time. The era provided her with ideas and reasons to write such novels like The Awakening, and with this expressed her emotions and thoughts on life during the period.

Authors like Chopin helped people realize what was going on during the 1800s. They were able to incorporate the thoughts of women, and what duties society expected them to fulfill during the era. Although these authors were criticized because of what they wrote, they were honest with their opinions and outlooks. According to the Los Angeles Sunday Times, Chopin “…wanted to preach the doctrine of the right of the individual to have what he wants, no matter whether or not it may be good for him” (4). The Los Angeles Sunday Times acknowledges that Chopin’s focus was to convey the rights of women no matter how consequential it might be. Kate Chopin’s upbringing, views on society, and the era she lived in are all incorporated in her novel The Awakening, which expresses the inequalities between male and female.