Chopin’s The Awakening
Chopin’s The Awakening is an influential and ahead of its time novel, published in 1899. It represents new ideas, techniques, and hope for women which were disdained by the patriarchal society at that time; it was considered morally inappropriate, but the fact was that the society was unprepared for such an outbreak which threatens the power of the patriarchy. Women at that time were expected to be submissive, obedient and loyal wives and mothers. The novel was a clear invitation for women to awaken from the conventions, which were restraining and limiting, to discover their self and identity.
Even though it did not meet the appraisal it deserved when first published, Continental feminists would find the novel interesting and significant, for it holds within it the essence of Continental feminism and its aspects, which emerged around 70 years after its publication. The main character might be considered as a victim or a character who got what she deserved for being selfish and her death might be considered as surrender and a sign of weakness.
However, a continental feminist would consider her as a heroine and her death as a triumphant ending of a struggling woman who took control of her self and overcame the society’s conventions with her only choice that required a lot of bravery. When examined by a continental feminist, ecriture feminine, phallologocentrism and strategic essentialism in the novel will be the center of attention and admiration. Ecriture feminine is one of the dominant aspect of continental feminism in the novel. It is obvious that the main theme of this novel is women’s self discovery and independence from a patriarchal society.
In the novel, the heroine Edna is a woman who tries to discover her self apart from being a wife and a mother. Her self discovery requires rejecting the patriarchal conventions of how women should behave and what role they should play. A continental feminist would track Edna’s journey of awakening consciousness, from the moment “she was having a good cry all to herself” until her triumphant death. “Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother woman” who was not extremely protecting and idolizing her children, which gives a sign to continental feminists that Edna is not a conventional mother who follows the laws of the society.
Throughout her journey, Edna rejects all conventions and limitations that suppresses her self and identity. Independence is also a part of ecriture feminine that is found in the novel. Edna decides to move to a “Pigeon house” without her husband and children, which also helped her to discover her sexuality with men other than her husband, which made her realize her dissatisfaction of her married life. It is also important to note that even thogh she engaged sexually with men for pleasure, she kept her self detached emotionally preventing being independent on any man.
Also, ecriture feminine implies exploring the female being through female language using a matriarchal language which is remarkably found in Chopin’s The Awakening. The title “The Awakening” in literal and patriarchal language would be associated with sleeping, but Chopin uses with a different association which is awakening of suppressed consciousness. Chopin uses language successfully to express feminine thoughts, feelings and emotions without being limited by the patriarchal language, creating her own imageries and metaphors.
Continental feminists would also be impressed by Chopin’s ability to create a language and narration that does not condemn or pass judgment on the actions of the heroine. Ecriture feminine in the late 20th century was urging women to explore themselves through creating art instead of being muses and tools for art. In the novel, Edna was inspired by Mademoiselle Reisz, painting portraits and selling them. Edna’s experience with art reflects her spiritual development and artistic skill in portraying things as she sees them.
Edna’s awakening and self discovery is a pleasure that doesn’t lack pain and sufferage which is called by Continental feminism as jouissance. Edna indulges herself with her awakening by experiencing self discovery, spiritual development, sexuality and art. She breaks loose from all conventions and limitations which was essential for her self. Even though she achieved the unacceptable, she could not erase her past that prevents her from breaking completely free; Madame Retignolle pointed out to Edna that her self discovery made her neglect or forget her children, not considering the consequences of her actions on them.
Edna’s love for Robin was not acceptable to Robin for he knows that she is a married woman and because of conventions he could not stay with her. Her inability to free herself from her past and inability to live that past again under the society’s conventions and laws increased her suffrage and led her to take action upon her only choice, death. Being a woman in a patriarchal society an lacking a phallus is the only reason for being condemned; if Edna was a male going through an awakening, he would not be as harshly condemned as Edna by the society.
There are certain actions and phrases that reflect phallologocentrism, which is the privileging of the masculine in the construction of language. Because of her incomprehensible actions by her husband, Edna was described by her husband as “a little unbalanced mentally” and “she was not herself” which may reflect madness or oddity. However, the truth is that her strange unacceptable actions are because she is her self and “began to do as she liked”. Also Mr.
Pontellier expresses how it seems to him” the utmost folly for a women at the head of her household, and the mother of children, to spend in an atelier days” and “if it was not a mother’s place to look after children, whose on earth was it? “, even though he probably wouldn’t find it folly for a husband and a father to do so or consider that fathers should have a role in nurturing children. One of the most phrases that express phallologocentrism is “I can’t permit u to stay out there all night” the word permit which reflects masculine dominance and control over women.
Phallologocentrism emphasizes how women were regarded as inferior and weak. In her novel, Chopin portrays the various qualities of women and the attitudes towards them through creating a strategic essentialism which is also what a continental feminist would admire in reading the novel. Chopin uses imageries, metaphors, characters by using the patriarchal language unfaithfully. The description of Mr. Pontellier is a mere description of a man but his qualities qualifies him to represent the patriarchal materialistic, impassionate society who limit women to be obedient wives and dedicated mothers.
The description of Madame Retignolle makes her seem to be the perfect wife and mother that is desired and admired by the patriarchal society, but the truth is that Madame Retignolle is a product of societal conventions and a foil of Edna which emphasizes Edna’s actions and makes them more comprehensible and her awakening more essential. Mademoiselle Reisz represents the artist woman who is independent, free and her self, she is also the inspiring muse of Edna, just as Chopin wants to be the inspiration for women’s awakening.
Edna and Mademoiselle Reisz represent the urges and desires experienced by the female gender. The “new voices awoke in her” are actually the new desires and urges. “She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum” paradoxes the conventional saying “where no man has ever gone” only to reveal that Edna’s awakening and the realm she is diving into was not experienced by women at her time. The birds are not merely birds who sing tunes that are not understood and can be annoying to Mr. Pontellier but symbols of women whose actions are cannot be understood by men.
The sea might be considered as Edna’s place of death but actually the sea has an association with baptism and rebirth, therefore the sea is her place of rebirth. Swimming is the novel is an expression of independence and freedom. The strategic essentialism portrays women as a suppressed unity who are restrained by societal conventions but also as human beings who has dreams, passions, desires and urges. If Chopin’s The Awakening was read by a continental feminist, it will gain his admiration and satisfactions, for it was expressive, explorative and influential writing that was under evaluated.