Commentary by Karen Bernardo
Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, written in 1899, is not technically a short story; it’s a novella, or short novel. But it is the work that made Kate Chopin a persona non grata in the literary world for almost three-quarters of a century, and it would be impossible to appreciate Chopin without discussing it here.
When it was first published, The Awakening was considered too sensual, too uninhibited, too graphic. But most of all, it flew in the face of one of our most treasured myths: that all women have a maternal instinct, and the raising of children should be the center of a woman’s life. Chopin’s protagonist Edna Pontellier is not a bad woman, although she is not a good mother; yet, as Chopin demonstrates, Edna’s inability to fit into the social parameters of domesticity ultimately becomes her undoing.
We meet the upper-class, privileged Pontelliers as they spend the summer at a resort hotel at Grand Isle on the Gulf of Mexico, presumably not too far from Mr. Pontellier’s base of operations in New Orleans. Mr. Pontellier goes to the city frequently to keep track of his financial and brokerage business; Mrs. Pontellier is expected to spend the summer lounging by the water and making sure their two boys, Etienne and Raoul, are having a lovely time at the shore. She has companions there—her friend Adele (also the mother of small children), and the resort owner’s handsome son Robert Lebrun. To most of us, this doesn’t sound like a bad life.
Yet we learn soon that everything is not fine with the Pontellier household. Mr. Pontellier is puzzled and disturbed by what he perceives as his wife’s lack of wifeliness. She does not seem particularly interested in the children—certainly not in the way that her friend Adele is. She does not seem particularly interested in him, either, although their relationship is in no way hostile. Mr. Pontellier can’t quite put his finger on the problem: ‘it was something he felt rather than perceived, and he never voiced the feeling without subsequent regret and ample atonement.’
Almost without realizing it, the reader is being led deeper and deeper into the point of view of the real protagonist of this story—Edna Pontellier. Once we’ve moved from the inside of her husband’s head to hers, we learn that she is overwhelmed by the emptiness of her affluent life.
Certainly much of her emptiness is centered on her expected role as a wife and mother -- particularly the latter. It isn’t that she dislikes her children or treats them brutally; she simply isn’t terribly interested in being their mother. Chopin observes that “Mother-women seemed to prevail that summer at Grand Isle. It was easy to know them, fluttering about with extended, protecting wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened their precious brood.” Edna’s friend Adele is such a woman; Edna is not.
Admittedly there is considerable sarcasm in the sentimentalized way Chopin describes Adele Ratignolle; as we meet her, she is both seductively beautiful and yet blissfully engaged in sewing a new pair of winter pajamas for one of her children. Chopin’s point is that this is how most men of her day really wanted to think of their wives. Adele has brought along the pattern for these pajamas so Edna can make a pair too; but Edna, as Chopin remarks dryly, “could not see the use of anticipating and making winter night garments the subject of her summer meditations.” The subject on which she really wants to meditate is the growing passion she feels for Robert Lebrun —and there is absolutely no trace of maternal feeling in these thoughts.
Even the children note, albeit instinctively, the effect which their mother’s lack of maternal instinct has had upon them. Chopin notes that “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 out of his eyes and the sand out of his mouth, and go on playing. Tots as they were, they pulled together and stood their ground with doubled fists and uplifted voices, which usually prevailed against the other mother-tots. The quadroon nurse was looked upon as a huge encumbrance, only good to button up waists and panties and to brush and part hair, since it seemed to be a law of society that hair must be parted and brushed.”
In our own day, when we tend to appreciate the value of childhood initiative and independence at a very early age, we may not recognize how truly, extraordinarily odd this was for the turn of the century. During the waning years of the Victorian era the cult of motherhood was at its height, and a proper mother pampered and doted on her little boys (little girls as well, but small boys just as much). Often the father had to forcibly step in by the time the child was old enough for school to make the mother stop babying him. This would probably be the case with Adele’s children, but as we have seen, Edna’s boys would definitely never be troubled by separation anxiety.
Even Edna recognizes how different her maternal feelings are from those of Adele. Chopin observes that “She was fond of her children in an uneven, impulsive way. She would sometimes gather them passionately to her heart; she would sometimes forget them. The year before they had spent part of the summer with their grandmother Pontellier in Iberville. Feeling secure regarding their happiness and welfare, she did not miss them except with an occasional intense longing. Their absence was a sort of relief, though she did not admit this, even to herself. It seemed to free her of a responsibility which she had blindly assumed and for which Fate had not fitted her.” Had Edna lived a century later, she might well have decided not to have children at all. In the late nineteenth century, however, society made that choice for her.
By the time Edna leaves Grand Isle to return to New Orleans, Edna has definitely concluded that she was not meant to be Adele Ratignolle. She has fallen in love with Robert Lebrun; when he proves unavailable, she has an affair with a womanizer named Arobin. She is clearly no longer prepared to subjugate all the things she wants out of life to her husband’s ideal of the perfect marriage. She refuses to entertain the wives of his business contacts; she disrupts the routine of the entire household with her new avocation—painting. The children are eventually taken to stay at their grandmother’s, ostensibly because “the old madame… wished them to know the country, with its streams, its fields, its woods, its freedom” but more likely because she realized they were being neglected by their mother. Edna moves into her own apartment, but is unable to find happiness there either, because even though she’s learned who she isn’t, she hasn’t yet learned who she is. She eventually walks into her beloved sea and drowns.
The Awakening is often taken to be the story of a woman who strays from a secure marriage to discover sexual pleasure in the arms and company of other men. However, the story is much more than that, as its title indicates. Edna Pontellier awakens, not to simply the lack of love in her life, but to the lack of fulfillment. She is simply not, by nature, a woman who would find the maintenance of a large and happy household a full-time job. She needs more, and isn’t really even sure what it is she needs. Her attempts to paint reflect a need for self-expression; her erotic fantasies reflect a need for passion. Physically she is a mother; emotionally she is not; and there are no other molds in her society into which she can fit.
All four Chopin stories reviewed on Storybites can be found in the collection The Awakening: And Other Stories.
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"The Awakening" and "A Respectable Woman" are available as a Kindle download from Amazon here:
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