The Oppression of Women in Society

Table of Content

Naturalism is a literary movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in America, England, and France that produced a type of “realistic” fiction. However, it is distinct from realism as it creates a detailed, detached, and objective mode of representation. The movement implies that humans have little control over their circumstances; events occur to individuals who are subject to various external and internal forces. Naturalist novels present subjects objectively and refrain from passing judgment on the morality or fairness of situations. Additionally, characters are depicted as pessimistic and perceive life as an inescapable trap. In Kate Chopin’s novel, The Awakening, naturalism is utilized to expose the inherent patriarchal nature of the Victorian era by portraying Edna Pontellier as a victim who experiences political, social, and psychological oppression due to her gender.

Throughout Edna’s journey, she struggles to conform with the traditional expectations of being a mother and wife in her society. According to the societal norm, a mother-woman is someone who protects her children from any harm, whether real or imaginary, and cherishes her role as a nurturer (Chopin 51). However, Edna rejects this notion and finds it impossible to fulfill this role. As a result, her children, Raoul and Etienne, become self-reliant because Edna is not there to offer comfort when they fall or get hurt. Instead of seeking solace from their mother, they pick themselves up and continue playing (Chopin 50). Moreover, Edna feels pressured to affirm that her husband, Mr. Pontellier, is the best husband in the world, even though she does not truly believe that herself. This expectation imposed on women is another means of controlling them by dictating how they should idolize their children and worship their husbands. It essentially requires them to suppress their individuality and become submissive, self-sacrificing angels (Chopin 51).

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Edna’s portrayal highlights her vulnerability to both innate desires and societal pressures. As a child, Edna lacked maternal guidance since her mother had died, which leaves her constantly seeking a maternal figure to provide direction. Both Mademoiselle Reisz and Madame Ratignolle fulfill this role. Mademoiselle Reisz aids Edna on her journey towards independence, offering advice and forewarnings about the consequences of her actions. From the onset, Mademoiselle Reisz cautions Edna that she must possess immense strength to attain freedom; otherwise, she will suffer profound damage upon returning to reality.

The text explores the influence of both Mademoiselle Reisz and Madame Adèle Ratignolle on the main character. While Mademoiselle Reisz represents a woman who rejects traditional gender roles, Madame Ratignolle embodies the characteristics of a motherly figure. She is described as elegant and ideal, maintaining her beauty despite some slight weight gain. Madame Ratignolle has been married for seven years and has a child every two years, fully embracing her role as a mother. She serves as a symbol of what society expects from women and is a guiding presence for Edna, recognizing her innocence and offering protection and advice. Together, these influential women contribute to Edna’s awakening in a society dominated by men.

In regards to societal aspects, Edna’s presentation is objective and detached. Upon returning from sunbathing with a severe sunburn, her husband Léonce regards her “as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property” (Chopin 44). Léonce lacks affection for his wife and freely goes wherever and whenever he pleases. Furthermore, Léonce only shows concern for Edna when it affects his social status, exemplified by the Tuesday receptions. Instead of showing indifference, Léonce highly values his possessions and immediately notices when Edna deviates from her typical attire for the receptions. He thoroughly interrogates her in a rapid manner, treating her as if she had committed a crime. These actions demonstrate how Léonce attends to Edna only when her actions negatively impact him. Léonce perceives her more as an object rather than a human being, resulting in Edna being undermined and underestimated as a victim of the male-dominated society in which she resides.

In addition to Léonce’s perspective on Edna, Robert shares the same sentiments. Robert perceives Edna as being owned by Léonce rather than as a woman in charge of her own life. Throughout the novel, Robert refers to Edna as “Mrs. Pontellier” instead of using her first name. This portrayal positions her as an object rather than a free and independent individual. From a naturalistic standpoint, Edna truly lacks control over her circumstances. When Robert abruptly departs, she has no power to prevent him from leaving. Furthermore, when Mademoiselle Reisz reads Robert’s letters to Edna, Edna is forbidden from writing any letters back to him. Ingeniously, Mademoiselle Reisz asserts that “a letter concerns no one but the person who writes it and the one to whom it is written” (Chopin 115). This demonstrates how Edna is unable to exert any control over the unfolding events. As a result of the patriarchal society, Edna has no authority over the course of events.

Edna’s life is seen as a trap from a pessimistic perspective. Despite her spirited efforts to achieve independence, she faces failure in every attempt. Following a conversation about the Tuesday receptions, Léonce exits the house in anger to have dinner elsewhere. This action angers Edna, leading her to engage in restless behavior. She tears a handkerchief into ribbons, rolls it into a ball, and throws it away. Then, she removes her wedding ring and flings it onto the carpet (Chopin 103). In her state of outrage, she stomps on the ring, attempting to crush it. However, despite her efforts, the ring remains undamaged (Chopin 103). These actions showcase Edna’s desire to end her connection with Léonce by destroying the one thing that binds them together: their marriage. After her outburst, she retrieves the ring and puts it back on her finger. This highlights Edna’s realization that she is trapped in her marriage and powerless to escape – especially in a male-dominated society where husbands can initiate divorce while wives are discouraged from doing so.

Similarly, in her quest for independence, Edna decides to distance herself from Léonce by moving out. To sustain herself, Edna engages in activities traditionally associated with men, such as gambling at the racetrack, and establishes her own business by selling paintings. With the earnings, she rents a residence known colloquially as “the pigeon house”. In this secluded dwelling, Edna enjoys autonomy and the freedom to act as she pleases without the influence of a man. However, despite leaving behind the confinement of Léonce’s home, she discovers that the new abode ironically confines her metaphorically, contrary to its nickname. Edna realizes that the house resembles those previously inhabited by domesticated pigeons, and no matter where she goes, she cannot find solace, liberation, and autonomy. In all her endeavors, Edna struggles to attain complete independence and freedom; she remains trapped in the inevitable prison of her own life.

By taking her own life, Edna ultimately seeks to attain freedom for herself. Throughout the novel, the portrayal of women as victims of societal constraints is symbolized through the image of birds. Like the parrots confined within cages, women are portrayed as having their actions limited. These “winged” women only use their wings to protect their children and never to assert their own individuality. However, Edna believes she possesses a brave spirit that enables her to “take flight”. Mademoiselle Reisz, assuming a motherly role, tells her that those who wish to break free from societal norms must possess strong wings. She laments that witnessing weak individuals bruised and exhausted, fluttering back to the ground is a melancholy sight. This suggests that in order to achieve freedom and independence, one must possess inner strength and courage. Edna, though brave, overestimates her own strength. Before she dives into the vastness of the sea, she observes a bird with a broken wing struggling in the air, spiraling downward towards the water. This bird with its impaired wing symbolizes women in Victorian society, while its descent signifies Edna’s complete downfall. Ultimately, Edna is not sufficiently capable of attaining liberation.

In summary, Edna is depicted as a societal victim, facing numerous challenges and having limited control over her fate. She is subject to both external and internal forces, as well as her own determination to assert her independence. Edna is portrayed as a pessimistic character, trapped in a miserable existence. Kate Chopin uses these elements of naturalism to highlight the dominance of men in the Victorian era and to showcase Edna Pontellier as a martyr representing the political, social, and psychological oppression of women in society.

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The Oppression of Women in Society. (2016, Aug 17). Retrieved from

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