Edna Pontellier had followed the course of life laid out for women in the Turn of the Century America. She married young, and her choice of husband was a businessman with strong ambition and rising prospects. A Creole, he introduced her to the New Orleans Creole community, where she was stunned by the frank discussions and open flirtations, but also by the value system that prohibited men from acting of their flirtations. She gave her husband two sons. Though he hired a nurse to help care for them, he expected their welfare was Edna’s primary responsibility. She was the wife, the mother, and the homemaker. But one summer, the Pontelliers made Grand Isle as their summer residence. They stayed at a resort run by Madame Lebrun. Lebrun’s son, Robert, took an interest in Edna. The two forged a friendship. But it wasn’t long before Edna realized her feelings for Robert were stronger than those for her husband. Hence began her awakening.
As the title of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening suggests, this novel is about a woman’s growing sexual awareness. But Edna’s awakening isn’t just about her romantic feelings for Robert. Those feelings ignited her self-awareness, forced her to evaluate her life, and caused her to examine her desires and wishes. To Léonce Pontellier, it appears his wife had become unpredictable, irresponsible, even hysterical. Hysterical, I said! That whole behavioral problem that takes its name from the Greek word for womb. Because only women can be hysterical. Hysterical women were the focus of Dr. Freud’s research into psychology, and from it, he achieved the wonderful phrase of penis envy. Is Edna Pontellier suffering penis envy? When Léonce consulted a doctor, the doctor’s advice was to give Edna’s her space.
Perhaps that’s all what penis envy is: a desire for more space. More space, more freedom, less scrutiny. It isn’t men’s genitalia that Edna envies; it’s their lives outside the household. Léonce Pontellier spends his days at the office, buying and selling the investments that give the family their income, but he spends his evenings at the club, where he smokes cigars, visits with like-minded men, and plays cards. Between the hired nurse and their mother, his sons, he believes, are cared for and protected. A father’s love is different than a mother’s. It’s the love purchased with boxes of bon-bons and late-night visits to their bedrooms to check on their welfare. It’s a distant love, whereas a mother’s love has to be immediate and present. A mother’s love is intimacy itself, but a father’s love is detached.
“You are burnt beyond recognition,” he added, looking at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage. She held up her hands, strong, shapely hands, and surveyed them critically, drawing up her fawn sleeves above the wrists. Looking at them reminded her of her rings, which she had given to her husband before leaving for the beach. She silently reached out to him, and he, understanding, took the rings from his vest pocket and dropped them into her open palm. She slipped them upon her fingers; then clasping her knees, she looked across at Robert and began to laugh. The rings sparkled upon her fingers. He sent back an answering smile.
Neither Léonce nor Edna Pontellier will win Parent of the Year. Hidden in the pages, I believe, is another novel about two sons who grew-up feeling neglected by both parents. Pontellier gave his wife space by going on a protracted business trip to New York. Finding opportunity in his absence, Edna moved the family into a smaller house, a house more to her taste than her husband’s, and she spends her days exercising her sudden freedom. She picked up drawing, and her drawings attract the attention of a gallery owner. She visits Mademoiselle Reisz, a famous pianist, who, as a lifelong spinster, encourages Edna’s break from traditional gender roles. She even understands and aids Edna’s romantic feelings for Robert Lebrun.
As a gentleman of honor, Robert recognizes the complexity of his and Edna’s “friendship.” He spends much of the novel away, in Mexico, where he seeks his financial fortunes, and where he hopes distance will break the illicit feelings he and Mrs. Pontellier share. Though he has promised to write to her, he does not. But he does write Mademoiselle Reisz, who shows Edna his letters. Meanwhile, Alcée Arobin, a bachelor with a reputation, recognizes Edna’s erotic urges and exploits them. Though The Awakening is a novel about a woman’s sexual awakening, this is not an erotic novel. The sex scenes, as they say, are “between the lines.”
Still, they make Edna’s journey what it was always destined to be: A journey towards self-destruction. Because women do not enjoy the same liberties of men. As men take their pleasures outside the home, women must find their pleasures within the home. They must be the wives, the mothers, the homemakers. Such is the culture Edna Pontellier lives in. This culture is represented by Edna’s other friend, Madame Ratignolle, a woman with several kids, but who’s pregnant with her next child. “Think of the children,” she tells Edna. That line forces Edna into her final reckoning.
Published in 1899, The Awakening is a character novel. Make no doubt, Edna Pontellier is the protagonist of this novel. The story is told in third-person point-of-view, mostly limited in her perspective, but with some scenes and passages from other characters’ perspectives. As she is the protagonist, the society she lives in—both the Creole culture of her husband and the Presbyterian culture of her father—is the antagonist. Léonce represents that antagonist. On one level, he’s the “wronged husband,” but on another level, a more honest level, he’s the pursuer who Edna must flee. There’s no hint in either text nor subtext that he’s unfaithful to Edna, but isn’t his visit to Klein’s hotel and the club a type of infidelity? That he prefers the company of like-minded men to his family is as much as a motivator for Edna as her feelings for Robert Lebrun.
The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation. The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.
As a feminist novel, its themes are feminist. The Awakening is an indictment of traditional gender roles. But it’s also a novel about desire, both the sexual desire Edna feels for Robert and Alcée and the nonsexual desire she feels about her self and what she wants from life. It’s a sad novel about a woman who seeks to repair the damage past decisions had done to her, and about a society hostile to that self-repair. Edna pays a price for her behavior. I would argue that it’s an unjust price, but in the cultural environment she lives in, it’s a realistic price.
Kate Chopin wrote several short stories that were as controversial as The Awakening. In 1890, she wrote At Fault. According to Wikipedia, that novel, like The Awakening, was set on Grand Isle. Controversial upon its release, The Awakening became Kate Chopin’s last novel. It was never banned, but since its an indictment of society, it wasn’t well-received. She had trouble publishing her short stories after its release, and a publisher canceled the contract for her next novel. She died in 1904, five years after The Awakening’s publication.