Ethical Issue with women`s place in society during the 1890`s as viewed in Kate Chopin`s `The Awakening`
Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening, now recognized as an American classic, published in 1899 was approved by most women who praised the author’s writing talents and made most men disdain the novel’s sensational plot - Ethical Issue with women`s place in society during the 1890`s as viewed in Kate Chopin`s `The Awakening` introduction. It is worth saying that the late 19th century was a turbulent time for the USA. The cultural, social, and scientific life of the society was undergoing radical alterations.
For instance Darwin’s theories of evolution and natural selection had questioned the established views regarding humankind’s origins; restoration and urbanization of the society following the Civil War brought women and men into a new social identity; and, obviously most importantly, the women’s rights movement had been gaining strength since 1848, when the first conference of woman’s rights was held in New York in Seneca Fall. This means that for almost half a century before Kate Chopin published The Awakening, society had been engaged in a struggle over equal rights issues and social ideologies.
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As an outcome of this struggle, female part of the society had, to some extent, already undergone mobilization and emancipation from their socioeconomic captivity. The following research is to review and analyze on the example of Kate Chopin’s novel about the “sexual awakening” and an unconventional behavior of a woman how for the first time in the USA, women began to bring the formerly private issues of family and home into the public domain and this way caused significant social changes.
As many biographers admit today, writing a story of another person’s life story is writing one’s own as well. If we try to find out why Kate Chopin wrote her novel and how the society accepted it, we will often find the answers in the French women the voices of whom dominated Chopin’s formative years. Many historians note that women during the post-Civil War period regularly took part in the marketplace, earned their own sources of support, broke with derogatory forms of financial dependency on men. Culley M. sserts that women “at all levels of society were active in attempts to better their lot, and the “New Woman”, the late nineteenth-century equivalent of the “liberated woman”, was much on the public mind” (Culley 117). In middle 1899, nearly 50 years after the women’s movement officially had started, the social and cultural background seemed favorable for the literary introduction of Edna Pontellier, Kate Chopin’s fictional character. The plot of the novel can be depicted in short as follows. The main character, Edna Pontellier is 28 years old, married to a 40-year-old New Orleans businessman who earn living for her and their two sons.
She is satisfied but not really happy. During one summer at Grand Isle, a charming Creole resort, she has several awakenings. A real romance occurs between Edna and the resort owner’s young son, Robert Lebrun, after he teaches her swimming and she gets the feeling of power and sensuality. Meanwhile, Edna makes friends with Madame Adele Ratignolle, a woman who is fully contented in her traditional woman role, but whose affectionate ways and insights draw Edna to speculate about herself and learn striking things.
Being a motherless child and an intellectual Edna now realizes that she has married Leonce Pontellier only in order to annoy her family, and to close the door on unreal obsessions and dreams. She realized that she became a mother without particularly wish to be one, and did not raise that question until that moment. During Edna’s summer of awakenings she starts, with the help of her female friends, recovering her voice. The peculiar, slightly sinister pianist Mademoiselle Reisz develops Edna’s deep appreciation for music and inspires her flirtation with Robert, who, suddenly leaves for Mexico.
After coming back home Edna begins to ignore her wifely obligations. Listening to her own inner voice, Edna starts expressing opinions, and while she is ecstatically alone, organizes a luxurious dinner party before moving herself to a little house. Later on Edna has a passionate sexual affair with another man, Alcee Arobin. Then Robert returns from Mexico and acknowledges that he loves Edna, but knows that her husband will never let her go. Edna assures that her husband does not matter. Being shocked, Robert leaves.
Feeling hopeless and thinking of her children as a chain keeping her in “soul’s slavery“, Edna stays awake the whole night, and then goes to Grand Isle where she swims out into the Gulf until her strength leaves her. In her novel, Chopin had written about the abyss between men and women, and symbolized it with clothing. The reader’s first vision of Edna is through the eyes of her husband, she is called “Mrs. Pontellier“ at first and is under a parasol. On the beach of Grand Isle, she and Madame Ratignolle both wear veils and hats, as all ladies were to do in the hot sun.
Later on she is called “Edna Pontellier“ and finally just “Edna“, while the character of hers is becoming herself and breaks with that fictitious self which we assume like a garb with which to appear before the society. Edna discards, physically and spiritually, more and more veils until at the end of the book, she is nude, “like some new-born creature, opening its eyes in a familiar world that it had never known. “ (Chopin 39). Strangled by the moralistic hand of the Victorian epoch, but yet wishing to backtrack everything for the liberty of free individuality, Edna Pontellier outlined the consummate New Woman of that time.
She personified the social ideals which were the aim of women of that society. She was individualistic, passionate, brave and courageous, so she embodied a person which thousands of women of the late 19th century ennobled as a role model. Lucy Monroe reviewed The Awakening one month before Chopin’s novel was published in 1899 and described the story as “so keen in its analysis of character, so subtle in its presentation of emotional effects that it seems to reveal life as well as represent it“ (Toth 228).
In addition to religion, Puritan morality in the late 19th century also was apparent in other ways. According to Emily Toth, other novels of that time were a success because they “all were considered “healthy“ with “kindly sentiment“, suitable for young people to read; they all supported the traditional values that Kate Chopin in her book had questioned“ (Toth 227). Generally speaking, literature of that time was considered important if it proved proper or beneficial for youth and if it has some moral lesson.
That is why we may suppose that the society despised The Awakening because of its unhealthy impact and negative effect on the youth. For example, Charles L. Deyo, a journalist and friend of Chopin’s, referred to that influence. He noted that “… everybody knows that the young person’s understanding should be scrupulously respected“ (Culley 147). Another awakening for Edna was in realizing that she does not really fall in love with anybody and she never will. Here, miserable with her awakening, Edna repeats to herself, “Today it is Arobin; tomorrow it will be someone else” (Chopin 136).
Although Chopin condemns Edna by selecting a way popular in the 19th century literature to “punish“ Edna, that of suicide, neither of the women demonstrate any obvious signs of shame or remorse at Edna’s social deviance and lack of faith. That is why the religious society condemned Edna’s unbelief and self-centered narcissism as reprehensible. Had Kate Chopin consented to at least several moral and cultural traditions prevailing within that period, the society might have condescended Edna’s salacious character with a sense of mercy and forgiveness.
Nevertheless, Kate Chopin had another position. By concluding the novel with Edna’s suicide, Kate Chopin was not indeed punishing Edna, but rather corroborating Edna’s liberty as traditional social values seemed restrictive and repressive for Kate Chopin. In fairness, not the complete society rejected the Chopin’s novel. A few critics printed an occasional more or less positive reviews of The Awakening. Although these people didn’t totally censure the book, they didn’t acclaim it either; they just tried to comprehend the story’s theme and withheld their moral judgments.
Many of them might have regarded the story not a tragedy, for it lacked the high motive of one; Edna was seen not quite brave enough, she was the one to morally decline and to commit a sin not ennobled by love; Edna was seen as weakly, passively, vainly offended victim. To conclude with we must say that The Awakening is an honest and brave book where we observe woman’s learning about herself, acquiring trust in her voice and in a world of women in general.
We must praise Kate Chopin for writing with maturity and intelligence about a captivating to everyone, especially men, subject – how women think. We know that in The Awakening Kate Chopin reveals the inner life of a courageous woman who conquered her solitary being, developed a tough and exuberant character, who dared and defied her discrepant views. We need to know about such kind of woman in a new millennium, and understand how she threw off the shrouds of Victorian epoch. This book may teach new and distinguishing ways of awakening, thinking, living and growing.