A strong critique by existentialist writers of modern society is the way in which humans live unexamined, meaningless lives with no true concept of what it is to be an unique individuals. In Kate Chopin's novel The Awakening and in Flannery O'Connor's short story "Greenleaf" the characters Edna and Mrs. May, respectively, begin almost as common, stock characters living unfulfilled lives. They eventually converge, however, upon an elevated life and death filled with new meaning through their struggle with their role as individuals surrounded by other important beings. Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teil hard de Chardin (1881-1948) believed that humankind follows a certain evolution of mind and body. This process involves a beginning (), a development (biogen ese), and then a peak () in which humans reach an Omega Point of higher being.
Though his ideas were actually applied on a much broader scale of humanity over a large time span, the theory can be applied to the individual's process of human development. Single humans begin as common clones of one another. From this commonality many examine their lives and develop the things within them that make them uniquely them. This development of the self only can be ended at death when the individual converges upon an Omega Point in which he has an elevated understanding of and meaning for life. The characters Edna from The Awakening and Mrs. May from "Greenleaf" encounter a similar human development in which an individual is formed with an understanding of life.
The means by which they achieve this differ greatly. As the novel The Awakening opens, the reader sees Edna Pontellier as one who might seem to be a happy married woman living a secure, fulfilled life. It is quickly revealed, though, that she is deeply oppressed by a male dominated society, evident through her marriage to Leonce. Edna lives a controlled life in which there is no outlet for her to develop herself as the individual who she is.
Her marriage to Leonce was more an act of rebellion from her parents than an act of love for Leonce. She cares for him and is fond of him, but had no real love for him. Edna's inability to awaken the person inside her is also shown through her role as a "mother-woman." She loves and cares for her children a great deal, but does not fit into the Creole mother-society in which other women baby and over protect their children. Edna is criticized a great deal for this by Leonce and other women on the island. Edna has also been given the gift of great artistic talent. She enjoys painting and sketching scenes and people.
This talent is suppressed from reaching its potential by her role as a mother and wife. The reader can safely assume that her life has been empty and meaningless up to this point. Mrs. May, in O'Connor's "Greenleaf," is also initially presented living an empty, meaningless, dead life. She is distinguished from Edna Pontellier, however, in the fact that she is oppressed not by others, but by a selfish, closed-minded evil that is found within herself.
She allows her farm and property, her uncaring sons, and her ingrown elitism to rule her life and prevent her from being the loving, fulfilled, happy, fully human being all people have the potential to be. The stray bull loose on her property engulfs all of Mrs. May's time and energy. The ruined plants and potentially ruined herd are all that she holds as important. As a result of this, she despises and tries to control Mr.
Greenleaf. Her placement of her property above human beings around her is evident through her ordering Mr. Greenleaf to shoot and kill the bull owned by his sons. The carelessness of Mrs. May's sons towards the welfare of the farm tears Mrs. May apart inside.
She feels that she has slaved herself for the entirety of her life to provide for her sons and that they are being ungrateful by planning to life lives separate from the farm. Though she shows a form of love for her sons through her hard work, she is ultimately selfish in trying to enslave them to a life exactly the same as hers. The way in which Mrs. May treats the Greenleaf shows a degree of elitism or snobbery in her. She does not approve of the way Mr. Greenleaf works, or the way Mrs.
Greenleaf prays, or the way the in which they raise their children. She holds her life to be the way of life and any lifestyles, religious practices, or parenting methods that are different from hers are wrong and should be changed. Through both a pursuit of the self and a pursuit of truth and meaning, both Edna Pontellier and Mrs. May converge upon a consciousness of the self and a consciousness of the other. They become elevated to a higher level of being. Edna Pontellier, early in the novel, begins to realize that something is not right about her life.
She is very uncomfortable in a Creole society and is unsatisfied in the presence of her family. In chapter 3, Edna bursts into tears late one night on the porch by herself. Leonce had just scolded her for not taking good care of the children, as he would often do. Edna had often in her marriage found herself crying uncontrollably without any reason she could fathom. This instance, however, she saw as being in direct contradiction to the kindness of her husband she had always freely accepted. This seen of Edna crying alone marks the beginning of her awakening experience.
From this moment on, Edna gradually becomes awakened to the person she is inside. She takes the things she realizes in herself and develops them. Edna gradually breaks free of the oppressions she suffers from her husband, her family, and the Creole society in which she lives. She finds artistic, physical, sexual and romantic freedom. Through her relationship with Mademoiselle Reisz, is able to free and develop a deep artistic ability within herself. The difficulties of being an artist in this particular Creole community are evident through Mademoiselle Reisz.
She is often alone and is not well liked by the community. Only Edna can break through her outer ugly physical appearance and see beauty within. This inspires Edna to develop her sketch ing ability. Edna sketches pictures of different people and decides that she would like to take art classes.
As her talent is developed she begins having her art sold through a broker. Eventually she completely breaks free of all oppression when she is able to sell her art by herself. Edna's artistic freedom and development are a large factor in her awakening as a human being. Through swimming and the ocean, Edna finds a certain physical freedom.
She is strongly drawn to the beach and often goes there to sit and talk with both Robert and Adele. It's openness and vastness is a symbol of freedom to her. She eventually learns to swim and does this often in order to become physically free and separate from all that enslaves her in her community. Through the ocean she ultimately completely removes herself from her enslavement through death. Edna's largest and most evident development of her individual freedom is shown through the sexual freedom she finds. Edna is in a marriage that began for the wrong reasons.
She married for security and out of rebellion, not for love. She was fond of her husband, but that was all. Through Robert, Edna is able to find actual physical and emotional love she had not ever had with her husband. More and more she spends time with Robert, talking and flirting, and falls in love with him. Strangely, it is Robert's and not Edna's enslavement by society that prevents any active relationship between the two. As Edna realizes her love, Robert leaves for Mexico so that he might be able to forget his love for Edna.
When he is gone, Edna misses him dearly and becomes very upset when he does not write her. She begins another type of affair with Alcee A robin. This affair is strictly a physical one and Edna realizes that she does not actually love Alcee. Eventually, Robert comes home and Edna is the one to initiate an embrace and kiss.
When Robert states that he wished Leonce would free Edna so that she may be his wife, however, Edna realizes that Robert in a way also views Edna as property and not a freethinking individual. She combats this by showing that she has moved out of her husband's house, is completely independent of him, and will give herself to whom ever she pleases. The convergence process that Mrs. May experiences is not as blatant as the one Edna Pontellier experiences. Flannery O'Connor uses symbolic Christ figure of a bull in pursuit of Mrs.
May to show the convergence upon an Omega point where she finds a higher level of understanding of life. As "Greenleaf" begins, the menacing bull has already begun to eat away everything that Mrs. May had been up to that point. The bull's chewing away at the plants outside of Mrs. May's window awakens her. She closes the window fearing that the bull will charge her.
Mrs. May sees the bull potentially eating everything that is outside, then continuing to her house, and finally eating both her sons and her. The bull, taken as a Christ figure, is a notion of the supernatural that Mrs. May attempts to hide from.
At first, she orders that the bull be caged up and placed aside where it could not do any harm to her or her property. She tries to "cage up" the supernatural being that could lead her to a meaningful life. To imprison something that is above her, more powerful than her, is impossible so she orders the bull be killed. Mr. Greenleaf, a man who already has an understanding of the supernatural is hesitant to try to kill that which is immortal. As the bull becomes to close to run from any longer, Mrs.
May is able to find a certain meaning or peace with life. Edna Pontellier and Mrs. May finally reach a point in which they form a certain understanding of themselves as individuals and an actual importance in the notion of the other. Both women reach this Omega Point of living through their own deaths.
At the end of the novel The Awakening, Edna Pontellier comes to a point in which she must make certain life choices. Her biogen ese process has formed her into a truly authentic, individual person. Edna was able to take the artistic, physical, sexual and romantic freedom she had always had the right to have. Realizing, though, that moving out of her husband's house and having relationships with other men would make her a pariah in this late nineteenth century Creole society.
The only connection she had to her former life was her children. Edna realized that her emergence as a free individual had already taken and would continue to take a great toll on her loved children. However, "she would give up the unessential, but she would never sacrifice herself for her children" (Chopin 188). In a dramatic closing scene, Edna, stripped naked, takes her own life by swimming out to see until she loses all energy. This scene shows a certain selflessness and deep love for her children by giving up her physical life. However, Edna does not need to compromise the unique, free human being that she has become.
The final stages of Mrs. May's biogen ese and then occur with a final charge from the Christ-bull. As the bull rushes towards her being, Mrs. May "remained perfectly still, not in fright, but in a freezing unbelief" (O'Connor 306). Mrs. May stayed fearless for the bull approached towards their final embrace at "a gay almost rocking gait as if he were overjoyed to find her again" (O'Connor 305).
She has her first true encounter with the supernatural and finds a new elevated life through her death. Though she does not openly show any sort of repentance for the way in which she lived her life, for the first time in her life, Mrs. May realized the notion of the other, specifically a supernatural other. Though she might not have changed much if she survived, the important aspect of this encounter is that she can only find true, peaceful life fulfillment through the supernatural.
Through their deaths, and not until their deaths, Edna Pontellier and Mrs. May experience an individualism that is not self-centered, but unique while still holding on to the idea of love of others. Edna finds love through her children and Mrs. May finds love through the supernatural.