Romanticism was a literary period of change, a breaking away from the rules that governed thought, and creative endeavour. There was a freeing up of subject matter, writers using the common man and experience instead of lofty unrealistic plots and characters. This use of the common subject also released the writers from constraints re sexuality and gender presentation. They became free to utilise previously taboo topics, such as confinement, adultery, and physical seduction.
For women … the nineties … the comparatively new idea of “free love” as well as …. a new kind of literary era, one whose spirit was, if not dominated by literary women, at least shared and shaped by female imagin- ations. (Gilbert, Chopin, 1994, p. 277)
Writers focussed on individual psychology, the inner lives of their protagonists as they dealt with the tribulations and complications of their external lives. They were seen not only as part of their society, affected by its rules and attitudes, but also as having a personal identity separate from the social. Self-contained individuals at one with the natural landscape in which they operated, Romanticists questioned their own relationship with their world and universe. They believed that Nature had a spiritual power, a moral agency, which American Romantic writers used symbolically in the lives of their protagonists.
According to Abrams, gender “constitute[s] what is masculine and what is feminine – … largely … cultural constructs that were generated by the omnipresent patriarchal biases of our civilization.” (Abrams, 1993, p. 235) He goes on to say that “the masculine in our culture has come to be identified as active, dominating, adventurous, rational, creative; the feminine, by systematic opposition to such traits, has come to be identified as passive, acquiescent, timid, emotional, and conventional.” (ibid, p. 235)
As a result of Romanticism, the question of personal fulfillment, personal identity, the right to expression and individual freedom, and the stress on individuals as individuals, came about. Individual psychological entities of increasing complexity were written about, with needs and sexual desires which drove them into conflict with society. In the upper classes, women who became aware of their sexuality and broke the social rules were punished or destroyed. A wife’s adultery was an affront to the patriarch of the time, resulting in imprisonment, while male adultery was unofficially sanctioned, resulting only in fines. If women left their relationship then they needed to be able to support themselves, to earn a living.
In her novel The Awakening, Kate Chopin looked at Edna’s struggles against the patriarchal society, her relationship with her husband as an owned possession, not allowed to initiate sexual relations, but expected to comply whenever her husband wished her to, and her role of wife and mother. Brought up in Presbyterian Kentucky, Edna’s
marriage to Leonce Pontellier was purely an accident …. He pleased her; his absolute devotion flattered her. Add to this the violent opposition of her father and her sister Margaret to her marriage with a Catholic, and we need seek no further for the motives which led her to accept [him].” (Chopin, 1994, p. 18)
With her puritanical upbringing, she found herself among the Creole society whose characteristics as the book demonstrates were openness, sensuality, hedonism, and a kind of mixed gender game. The role of the mother was central to the family – Creole women were brought up to be “tender, loving mothers, [who] care for the health and beauty of their children [and to whom] …. Women’s rights… are the right to love and be loved, and to name the babies”. (Shaffter, 1892, ibid, pp. 138-9) She found their openness and lack of prudery difficult to deal with, and failed to live up to her French speaking Creole husband’s expectations.
Edna’s sexual awakening began with Robert Lebrun. Culturally and linguistically outside the culture in which she grew up, Edna misinterpreted Robert’s intentions and attentions, although the flirtation was accepted by her husband and the other Creoles. In the social role-playing she was inadequate to the situation, not bred or educated to it, and cut adrift from the Protestant constraints. Psychological motives caused Edna dis-satisfaction with the society she was in, her misreading of it and her mis-recognition of its boundaries prompted her to search for new love. The learning situation into which she was placed, involved her loosening of the ties that bound her.
Another outlet for breaking the patriarchal social mould was her unchaperoned trips to the races with Arobin. Later when making love with him at home “[i]t was the first kiss of her life to which her nature had really responded. It was a flaming torch that kindled desire. …. Edna cried a little that night after Arobin left her.” (ibid, p. 80) Edna was unashamed of her relationship with Arobin felt no guilt for her infidelity to her husband, but regret that it had not been her love, Robert. This is an example of how social and literary rules were broken by the Romantic writers. Prior to them love in literature had remained as an idealised rather than a physical reality.
Edna followed her instincts when leaving Leonce – it was not carefully planned, but impulsive. She let fate dictate her actions. Edna gained power by learning to swim, by her painting, and by her new home, the pigeon house. At that time these were big steps for a woman to take. In 19th century novels of adultery, women were constructed as individuals with desire for fulfillment that overrode any other facet of their lives. Edna was the epitome of this – she wanted sexual fulfillment. Sex was something to be acknowledged and valued, not just as society dictated for procreation and man’s pleasure.
According to Donald Ringe, in his article ‘Romantic Imagery’,
Edna Pontellier feels contradictory impulses impelling her, impulses that … reveal that she is “beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her” …. – an awakening of [her] self as important …. [that] resembles the transcendent- alist theory of self-discovery”. (Ringe, ibid, pp. 222-3, 224, 223)
Realising her relationship with Robert would eventually be a repetition of that with Leonce, Edna turned impulsively to the sea. Nature and culture were intersected by the sea, Chopin using it symbolically as a signifier of her unconscious, of seduction, of her own sexuality/femininity. By her acceptance of her sexual awakening, Edna rid herself of the constraining society. Defeated by society and its demands, by turning her back on them she also triumphed.
An acceptable ending for a Romantic novel, even one that pushed the boundaries as this one did, Edna’s suicide was ambivalent. It was realistic – the patriarchal society placed women in impossible often intolerable situations with only one apparent solution; and because women’s success without a man was a threat to male society, male authors could not allow it to occur, without being seen as encouraging immorality, and a break-down of law in society.
The use of Nature in the form of birds to symbolise Edna’s condition and her stages of awakening, was Romantic. Initially aligned with the caged parrot, she moves to the Pigeon house “which pleased her…. There was with her a feeling of having descended in the social scale, with a corresponding sense of having risen in the spiritual.” (Chopin, 1994, p. 89) She was free to come and go but was domesticated. Finally Chopin aligned Edna with the maimed bird as she swam to her death. This symbolism represents the condition of women at the turn of the century, constrained to fit specific gender roles dictated by the patriarchy.
(C) Jud House 15/11/1998
Abrams, M.H. (1993) A Glossary of Literary Terms 6th Edition Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.
Sandra M Gilbert – ‘The Second Coming of Aphrodite’ in Chopin, Kate (Culley, M: Editor) (1994) The Awakening New York: W W Norton & Company
Donald A Ringe – ‘Romantic Imagery’ in Chopin, Kate (Culley, M: Editor) (1994) The Awakening New York: W W Norton & Company
Mary L Shaffter – ‘Creole Women’ in Chopin, Kate (Culley, M: Editor) (1994) The Awakening New York: W W Norton & Company
ESSAYS IN CRITICISM
George Arms – Contrasting Forces in the Novel’
Cyrille Arnavon – ‘An American Madame Bovary’
Jules Chametzky – Edna and the “Woman Question”’
Kenneth Eble – ‘A Forgotten Novel’
Marie Fletcher – ‘The Southern Woman in Fiction’
Lewis Leary – ‘Kate Chopin and Walt Whitman’
John R May – Local Colour in The Awakening’
Elaine Showalter – ‘Chopin and American Women Writers’
George M Spangler – ‘The Ending of the Novel’
Per Seyersted – Kate Chopin and the American Realists’
Helen Taylor – ‘Gender, Race, and Region’
Larzer Ziff – ‘From The American 1890s’
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