In Kate Chopin's The Awakening, the main character, Edna Pontellier makes a very long, painful journey into her inner self. At the end of this journey she discovers that she is not strong enough to adopt a life in which a woman is her own woman and lives for herself. This forces her to choose the only other option available to her. I think the propriety with which Edna struggles (and most often gives in to) as she begins to discover who she is and what she wants creates a thick, almost suffocating atmosphere of tension. So much so that I was relieved that she decided to take her own life, as it had evolved into a torturous existence.
I thought it unfair that Edna was portrayed as a somewhat neglectful mother. It was clear that she adored her children, albeit a fondness that was in .".. an uneven, impulsive way." (p. 59) It is important to focus on the time this story was written -- -the choices available to women in 1899 (the year The Awakening was printed) were extremely limited, and Edna Pontellier, all things considered, actually made a good life for herself, on the surface by making a marriage with Leonce.
The material trappings in life that Leonce provided were comfortable, extravagant, actually, and the luxurious life of servants (quadroons), and more than one home appeared to be a life of perfection. Buried within the text are a multitude of "hints,"suggestions," and in some cases blatant statements concerning the state of mind of Edna Pontellier. The reader is introduced to the possibility that Edna may have a healthy curiosity of the "absence of prudery" due to her fascination with the lives of Creole women. These women of French descent have far less misgivings concerning the intimate details of life. Their freedom of expression appeared at once exotic and enticing to Edna. Edna has the "fortune" to be considered the "sole object" of her husband's "existence." This is at best confusing, since Mr.
Pontellier spends the greater part of his time exiting: for work, Klein's hotel, etc. It stands to reason that Edna would develop a resentment toward this man who claims to cherish her to the point of obsession, yet performs a ritual "leaving" as if it were second nature. It was interesting to note that Edna and Leonce had only been married six years -- -one usually perceives an "awakening" to occur in conjunction with a "mid-life" crisis of sorts, and Edna and Leonce were young, vibrant people with small children. This story is set in New Orleans, Louisiana (and surrounding parishes), and although Louisiana is certainly the Deep South, there are many differences, many cultural nuances that are peculiar to Louisiana alone. I believe these cultural influences play an important role in the "awakening" of Edna Pontellier. Creole women (and men) live by a different code than other inhabitants of Louisiana, and the entire Deep South, for that matter...
Creole culture is bound by a lust for life. "Le bon ton rouble" (let the good times roll) is an often heard phrase in Louisiana. I was born in New Orleans, but grew up in Mobile, AL, 150 miles away. I was keenly aware of the significant differences in the cultural attitudes of Mobile and New Orleans.
Visiting New Orleans constantly only strengthened the pull and fascination the city held for me. After college, working and living in N. O. was an eye-opening experience.
It was very different than visiting for a day or weekend. Women in particular have a zest and an "in your face" manner that defies any definition of the "typical Southern woman." I often felt too demure, too genteel, too "sissy" in the presence of my Creole friends and co-workers. One aspect of their persona that stunned me was their refusal to bow down to men, especially their boyfriends or spouses. Many of the women who lived nearby would entertain me late into the evening by arguing loudly and defiantly with their male partners. Many of these women were "hard," both in appearance and personality. Louisiana is a tough state to survive in -- the weather is balmy, brutally humid, the threat of hurricanes is a seasonal expectation (and often tragic reality), and the Crescent City (as N.
O. is called) boasts the #1 murder rate in the United States. Even those who have the financial ability to live well still cannot escape the climate and the dense population. Edna Pontellier was a lady of ladies, yet she had a will stronger than any iron-clad vessel that plowed the Mississippi River. Her "awakening" was at once liberating and devastating. Her anger (throwing the vase and her wedding band) was a manifestation of her confusion and inability to comprehend the society that insisted she receive guests on Tuesday (her husband Leonce was appalled that she left one day and did her own thing), be a wife and mother first, and love only one man.
Although her demise was indeed tragic, the point is that Edna was not entirely ready to absolutely adopt the Creole way of life -- -the life in which a woman is her own woman and lives for herself, stands up to the world and insists on having life on her terms. In the end, Edna could not reconcile herself to a life that stepped outside the boundaries of propriety.