The Awakening


by Kate Chopin
The Hopeless Plight: Edna's Struggle With Identity And
The society of Grand Isle places many expectations on its
women to belong to men and be subordinate to their
children. Edna Pontellier's society, therefore, abounds
with "mother-women," who "idolized their children,
worshipped their husbands, and esteemed it to a holy
privilege to efface themselves as individuals"(10). The
characters of Adele Ratignolle and Mademoiselle Reisz
represent what society views as the suitable and unsuitable
women figures. Mademoiselle Ratignolle as the ideal Grand
Isle woman, a home-loving mother and a good wife, and
Mademoiselle Reisz as the old, unmarried, childless,
musician who devoted her life to music, rather than a man.
Edna oscillates between the two identities until she
awakens to the fact that she needs to be an individual, but
encounters the resistance of society's standards to her

Kate Chopin carefully, though subtly, establishes that Edna
does not neglect her children, but only her mother-woman
image. Chopin portrays this idea by telling the reader
"...Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother-woman. The
mother-woman seemed to prevail that summer at Grand
Isle"(10). Edna tries on one occasion to explain to Adele
how she feels about her children and how she feels about
herself, which greatly differs from the mother-woman image.
She says: I would give up the unessential; I would give my
money; I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn't
give myself. I can't make it more clear; it's only
something I am beginning to comprehend, which is revealing
itself to me.(62) 

This specifically contrasts the mother-woman idea of
self-sacrificing for your husband and children. Also, the
"something . . . which is revealing itself" does not become
completely clear to Edna herself until just before the end,
when she does indeed give her life, but not her self for
her children's sake. Although Edna loves her children she
does not confuse her own life with theirs.
Similarly to Edna's relationship with her children is that
with her husband, Leonce. The Grand Isle society defines
the role of wife as full devotion towards their husband and
to self-sacrafice for your husband. Edna never adhered to
the societies definition, even at the beginning of the
novel. For example, the other ladies at Grand Isle "all
declared that Mr.'Pontellier was the best husband in the
world." And "Mrs. Pontellier was forced to admit she knew
of none better"(9). By using words like "forced" and
"admit" Chopin illustrates Edna's true feelings towards
Leonce. That she married him not because there are none
better, but because there are also none worse. Edna's
leaving Leonce's mansion is another important detail when
cosidering her rebellion againt the mother-woman idea. By
moving to her own residence, Edna takes a colossal step
towards autonomy, a direct violation of the mother-woman
image. Throughout The Awakening, Edna increasingly
distances herself from the image of the mother-woman, until
her suicide, which serves as the total opposite of the
mother-woman image.
Adele Ratignolle and Mademoiselle Reisz, the two important
female subsidiary characters, provide the two different
identities Edna associates with. Adele serves as the
perfect "mother-woman in The Awakening, being both married
and pregnant, but Edna does not follow Adele's footsteps.
For Edna, Adele appears unable to perceive herself as an
individual human being. She possesses no sense of herself
beyond her role as wife and mother, and therefore Adele
exists only in relation to her family, not in relation to
herself or the world. Edna desires individuality, and the
identity of a mother-woman does not provide that. In
contrast to Adele Ratignolle, Mademoiselle Reisz offers
Edna an alternative to the role of being yet another
mother-woman. Mademoislle Reisz has in abundance the
autonomy that Adele completely lacks. But Reisz's life
lacks love, while Adele abounds in it. Mademoiselle Reisz's
loneliness makes clear that an adequate life cannot build
altogether upon autonomy. Although she has a secure sense
of her own individuality and autonomy, her life lacks love,
friendship, or warmth. 

What Edna chooses for her identity is a combination of
Adele Ratignolle and Mademoiselle Reisz. More honest in
self-awareness than Adele, more dependent on human
relationships than Reisz. 

In The Awakening the woman's existance intertwines with her
maternal nature. Edna's sense of herself as a complete
person makes impossible her role of wife and mother as
defined by her society; yet she discovers that her role of
mother also makes impossible her continuing development as
an autonomous individual. So her thoughts as she walks into
the sea comment profoundly on the identity problems that
women face: "She thought of Leonce and the children. They
were a part of her life. But they need not have thought
that they could possess her, body and soul"(152). Unable to
have a full human existence, Edna chooses to have none at


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