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, but it was not realism exactly. It created a mode of representation that is detailed, detached, and obejctive. Naturalism assumes that humans have almost no power over what happens in a situation; things happen to people; they are at the mercy of a variety of external and internal forces. Naturalist novels present subjects as objective, without commenting on the morality or fairness of the situations. Also, characters are presented as pessimist, that life, in general, is an inescapable trap. In the novel, The Awakening by Kate Chopin, naturalism is employed to show how the Victorian era was inherently patriarchal by using Edna Pontellier as a victim to enforce the political, social, and psychological oppression of women in society.
Throughout Edna’s journey, she struggles to conform with the role of being a mother and wife. The accepted mother-woman in Edna’s society were “fluttering about with extended, protecting wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened their precious brood,” (Chopin 51). However, Edna is not able to be a such a woman with her rejection towards that title. Her children, Raoul and Etienne, are self-disciplined due to Edna’s lack of being a “mother-woman”. “If one of the little Pontellier boys took a tumble whilst at play, he was not apt to rush crying to his mother’s arms for comfort; he would more likely pick himself up, wipe the water of out his eyes and the sand out of his mouth, and go on playing,”(Chopin 50). This shows how Edna was never there to comfort her children when they fell or got injured, Raoul and Etienne would pick themselves up instead of instinctably crying out for their mother. Furthermore, Edna has to be pressured in order to affirm that she had the best husband, other than admitting it herself. “And the ladies… all declared that Mr. Pontellier was the best husband in the world. Mrs Pontellier was forced to admit that she knew of none better,” (Chopin 50). This role is a method of men control because it imposes how women should idolize their children, worship their husbands, and “esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels” (Chopin 51).
Edna’s character is presented as a victim of instinctual drives and of society. In her childhood, Edna was raised by her sister, not by her mother who had passed away when she was young. Due to this, Edna is continually searching for someone to guide her, looking for someone as a motherly influence. Mademoiselle Reisz and Madame Ratignolle serve as these influences. Mademoiselle Reisz assists Edna in her journey to become independent, giving her cautions and warnings as to what will occur with her actions. Edna is warned early by Mademoiselle Reisz that she needs strong wings in order to be free, otherwise she will fall back to the earth battered and bruised.
Alongside with Mademoiselle Reisz’s influence is Madame Adèle Ratignolle. Adèle Ratignolle is introduced to show the differences of a mother-woman and a woman who denies the role of being one. She is described with much elegance and seems as if she is the ideal type of woman; the perfect one. “Her beauty was all there, flaming and apparent… She was growing a little stout,but it did not seem to detract an iota from the grace of every step, pose, gesture,” (Chopin 51). This depiction portrays what a woman should look like; one that every woman would like to be and every man would like to have. She has been married for seven years, bearing a child every two that passed. Her children represent who she is and how she is able to accept the role of being a mother. By doing so, she recognizes Edna’s childlike innocence by protecting and advising her. Adèle is used as a motherly influence to accompany Edna in her awakening in a male-driven society.
In societal aspects, Edna is presented objectively and detached. When Edna returns from her sunbathing burnt to a crisp, Léonce, her husband, looks at his wife “as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property” (Chopin 44). He does not cherish his wife, leaving whereever he wants to, whenever he wants to. Also, Léonce only cares about Edna when his social standing is on the line, hence the tuesday receptions. Instead of having floccinaucinihilipilification, Léonce greatly valued his possessions, so he immediately notices when Edna did not wear her usual Tuesday reception gown. He interrogates her thoroughly, rapidly as if she had committed a crime. This shows how Léonce tends to Edna when something she does effects him negatively. Léonce views her more as an object rather than a human being; she is undermined and understated as a victim of the male-dominated society she is living in.
In addition to Léonce’s view of Edna, Robert’s feelings toward are the same. Robert regards Edna as property posessed by Léonce, not as a woman who controls her own life. Throughout the novel, Robert calls Edna as “Mrs. Pontellier” instead of her first name. Doing so, she is shown as an entity of someone, rather than someone who is free and independent. In a naturalistic point of view, Edna truly has little if any control over what happens. Robert’s departure was abrupt and she had no authority to stop him from leaving. Moreover, when Robert’s letters are read to Edna by Mademoiselle Reisz, Edna was not allowed to write any letters back to Robert. Cleverly, Mademoiselle Reisz says that “a letter concerns no one but the person who writes it and the one to whom it is written,” (Chopin 115). This shows how Edna could not control anything that was happening. Due to the patriarchal society, Edna has no command over what happens.
Pessimistically, Edna’s life is an escapable trap. Although she attempts vivaciously to become an independent woman, Edna fails in every endeavor. After the discussion about the Tuesday receptions, Léonce storms out the house to get dinner elsewhere. This enrages Edna, causing her to “walk to an fro” and she “tore [the handkerchief] into ribbons, rolled into a ball, and flung from her,” then she took off her wedding ring and flung it onto the carpet (Chopin 103). Continuing in this outrage, she “stamped her heel upon it, striving to crush it. But her small boot heel did not make an indenture, not a mark upon the little glittering circlet” (Chopin 103). These actions show Edna’s desire to sever her relationship with Léonce, trying to destroy the one thing that is keeping them together: their marriage. After her fit of rage, she takes back the ring and slips it upon her finger. This displays how Edna has realized that she is trapped by her marriage, and she cannot do anything to get out of it, especially in her male dictated society where a husband is able to divorce a wife, but it is looked down upon for a wife to divorce a husband.
Likewise in this attempt for independence, Edna gets the idea to separate herself from Léonce by moving out. Edna raises enough money to support herself by doing masculine events such as gambling at the racetrack and creating her own business by selling her paintings. Using the money she earns, she rents a house with the nickname “the pigeon house”. In this isolated house, Edna is independent and able to do as she pleases. There is no man there to command her to do anything. However, although she escapes the “cage” that Léonce’s house created, she finds herself metaphorically entrapped in a new cage, ironic to the nickname “pigeon house”. Edna realizes that the house resembles those that initially kept domesticated pigeons and nowhere she goes can make her feel comforted, free, and independent. In all the pursuits Edna efforts in, she is incapable of being completely independent and free; she is unable to escape the trap that is inevitably her life.
As a result, Edna takes her own life as her final attempt of gaining self-freedom. Her life is depicted through the symbolism of the bird. Throughout the novel, women are presented as victims of society, their actions being limited, like how the parrots were limited in their cages. The “winged” women only use their wings for a shield and protection for their children, never to fly and become their own person. However, Edna believes she has a courageous soul and is able to “take flight”. Continuing her role as a motherly influence, Mademoiselle Reisz tells her that “the bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth,” (Chopin 134). She is saying that in order to become free and independent, one must have a strong, courageous soul. If this is lacked, she would fail and unavoidably create her downfall. Edna is brave, but she is not as strong as she thinks. Before her plunge into the vastness of the sea, she sees a “bird with a broken wing was beating the air above, reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water,” (Chopin 175). This bird and its broken wing represents the women in the Victorian society, while its fall illustrates Edna’s utter downfall. Edna was not “fit” enough to become liberated.
In conclusion, Edna is portrayed as a victim to society with all things against her. She has little if any control as to what happens. Things tend to happen to her; she is at the mercy of external and internal forces; her determination to be independent. Edna is presented as a pessimist whose life is ensnared miserably. Kate Chopin uses these naturalist aspects to portray how the Victorian era was intrinsically dominated by men, using Edna Pontellier as a martyr to the political, social, and psychological oppression of women in society.