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Women during the 19th Century
Do you ever wonder what it was like being a woman during the 19th century? Were the women typical housewives, or did they have a profession? Did they fulfill society’s expectation as a woman, or did they express themselves freely? Well, in Kate Chopin’s novel “The Awakening,” Chopin uses female characters to reflect the ideal lifestyle women had by which the protagonist Edna Pontellier rejects the idea of motherhood.
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Adele Ratignolle is classified as the ideal wife who fulfills societal standards as a woman during this time. In Edna’s world, a woman can be defined by men or live life as one wishes, as stated “[Mother-woman] were women who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels” (Chopin 10). Adele is considered the “mother-woman” defined by the men in which she holds pride in the title of being a mother. Adele brings up her pregnancy in many occasions by which Edna feels uncomfortable. Adele is a talented character as stated by the narrator, “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 27). She is known as a family woman who prioritizes her husband and children. Women during this time, were supposed to be housewives who met the needs of the house, children, and husband.
As states in Dickinson’s article, “Typically in the 18th- or 19th-century novel, female characters were virgins intent on maintaining their virtue and played a passive role.” Chopin broke this norm herself by setting Edna’s character as a married woman with children giving her the freedom to go to places in which single women could not do. In the beginning, Edna was known as a wife who was comfortable in her marriage with Leonce but was unaware of her ambitions and goals. The narrator stated, “He thought it very discouraging that his wife, who was the sole object of his existence, evinced so little interest in things which concerned him, and valued so little his conversation” (Chopin 7). Edna is not in the mood to deal with the nonsense that her husband has brought from the bar. Her husband, on the other hand, brings up the fever of one of the Pontellier boys to see how Edna would react. Edna continued to demonstrate no interest or worry about the child because she knew his conditions; this led to Leonce disappointment in Edna’s motherhood. At this point in the story, one can witness the shift of Edna’s character, where she begins to fight against the societal norms, as a mother and wife, placed on women. Once Edna becomes closer to Robert, she begins to realize that she should not be submissive to her husband, and she should do what she desires. The narrator states, “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” (Chopin 16). With the presence of Robert, Edna wants to be free and accomplish what makes her happy without having to satisfy anyone. An example we see is when she swims in the beach to the “deepest” level no woman has ever been too in which she claims it was easy.
Mademoiselle Reisz, in the beginning, is introduced as an exile being displayed as “dragging a chair in and out of her room, and at intervals objecting to the crying of a baby, which a nurse in the adjoining cottage was endeavoring to put to sleep” (Chopin 28). Mademoiselle is a woman empty of the motherly role and sexuality. Her physical appearance is described as an old and unappealing woman in which one can assume, she has had no romantic encounters. She is a talented musician who inspires Edna throughout her dull stages in life. After Robert leaves to Mexico, Mademoiselle reaches out to Edna for a close friendly relationship. Edna is motivated to become a painter in which Mademoiselle warns her about the lifestyle of a painter by stating, “[The] artist must possess the courageous soul… The soul that dares and defies” (Chopin 71). Mademoiselle firmly believes that to be artistic one must be damage to society and live in isolation. Although Edna enjoys Mademoiselle’s friendship, she does not find the lonely life appealing, especially with her lack of sexuality. “While Mademoiselle Reisz might escape the conflicts within her own sex by absconding to an area of sexlessness… Edna [is] unprepared to do this—because she simply enjoys sex too much” (Killeen 423). Edna does not see herself living the nonsexual artistic life of Mademoiselle, even if Edna can find her own identity. Edna’s search for her identity eventually leads to rejecting Mademoiselle’s path because she wants a more physical relationship.
The third attempt that Edna turns to when trying to identify herself is the option of living like a man. She notices that men can do anything without having the responsibility of a woman. They can have sexual fulfillment without having to worry about taking care of a child; they can develop a personality by participating in the business world. The first part where she feels the sense of freedom is when she is left alone at home, in which the narrator states, “A peace settled upon her when she at last found herself alone… she was breathed a big genuine sight of relied. A feeling that was unfamiliar but very delicious came over her” (Chopin 80). Edna’s first sense of masculinity is when she decides to attend the racetrack and begin to sell her paintings. This allowed Edna to enter the world of capitalism by making some cash to pay for her rent. Another attempt at the masculine lifestyle was having the affair with Alcee. This affair allowed Edna to explore her sexual freedom, but she realizes that she is not satisfied with this lifestyle by continually thinking about her children. During Adele’s labor, Edna realizes the full development of motherhood. This is where she begins to notice her permanent role as a wife and mother. Her position as a mother and woman with the combination of societal norms she must meet is what pressured her to suicide. By having sexual affairs with others became the opposite of what she was looking for. With having the boys continually being brought up in her life motherhood prevents her from living a life without them in which a mother is supposed to raise her children until they enter the adult life, something that Edna was not willing to go about as a mother and wife. “The children appeared before her like antagonists who had overcome her; who had overpowered and sought to drag her into the soul’s slavery for the rest of her days” (Chopin 127). In order to be the mother and wife her family wanted, she would have to give herself up, which is something she promised she would never do. By killing herself, she would rest and release herself from being tied up to the societal norms.
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As Edna steps foot in the water, her innocents rely on the children who are ignorant of the problems of reproduction and their predetermined societal roles. Edna releases the concerns of nature and society placed on the women by allowing herself to forget the past and put herself to death. The issues that occurred to Edna consisted of the pressure of nature and society in attempting to shape her as a woman that they wanted to her too. But with suicide, she was able to escape the reality of her unstable happiness. Her husband and society-owned her soul by telling her how to do the housework, raise the children, and keep an appearance as well as satisfy Leonce needs. The children were what imprisoned her body by reminding her of the suffering of having children that nature required from her. Nature is what kept Edna of endless love for her children and affirmation to give them her everything, but her desire to be free and independent is what led her to her death.
Chopin reveals the complexities that women faced during the 19th century by which many were unsatisfied with their lives since one had to meet the societal norms or take a rout against what was normal. We can conclude that there were societal expectations to fit in the household, unlike Edna, who did not abide by them. She seeks to discover her own identity by analyzing the lifestyle that her fellow female friends had. The only way out to find freedom was to end her life.
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