In the late 1800s, the feminist movement was almost entirely absent in the conservative state of Louisiana, and state law still considered a woman the property of her husband. People were sensitive about the controversy over gender equality and female freedom when Kate Chopin wrote her novel, The Awakening. Therefore, this book was considered a feminist work, since it brought up the enlightenment idea that people were not familiar with during the Victorian Era in the U.S.
However, the debate over whether this novel is a feminist work mainly appeared due to the end of the story, which encourages modern-day audiences to interpret the theme differently according to their personal bias towards the mean of living.The conflict between individuality and responsibility is the biggest struggle Edna faces in the story, which leads her to commit suicide. However, it is not the only reason. Why does Edna choose to end her life? On the one hand, she finally realizes that nobody would understand her after her true love, Robert, disappointed her with his traditional thoughts on marriage. She cannot see any hope in her future, only loneliness, because of the uniqueness of her ideas. Walking naked into the sea makes her “feel like some new-born creature.”(P115) Looking “at the mercy of the sun,” Edna thinks that if nature forgives her and the audience sees her sympathetically, people will understand her when she is reborn.
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(P115) Therefore, she inspires feminists to be themselves, and gives a hint that feminist ideas will be accepted. On the other hand, Edna’s death is just an escape for herself due to her selfishness. Her stubborn desire for true love and uncertainty over her wishes not only cause her to hurt her family and friends with lies, but also to confuse herself, as she is an immature girl choosing between her family and herself. Her dissatisfaction with the role of mother and her wish to escape normalcy and to do something different with her life make her choose a selfish path, as she says, “I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children, but I would not give myself.
” (P62) Therefore, her passion for individuality, independence, and feminism is just a cover for her selfishness, dissatisfaction, and greedy desire. The way she leaves her family alone and washes off her pain and sin through suicide also reminds other women not to do the same. With this comparison, the ending suggests that the audience should make the non-feminist choice, because of the negative impact that feminism brought to this character’s life.
However, this is not the only evidence that disproves The Awakening as a feminist work.Edna, the novel’s protagonist, behaves in a way that disqualifies her from being a feminist, who should only fight for equality and fairness. According to the definition of feminism, it is the advocacy of women’s rights “on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.” (3) However, throughout the story, the only equality Edna seeks is her own emotional or social freedom. Despite her separation from her husband’s social circle, she does nothing for herself and continues expecting that the men around her will understand her and give her support.
As Edna’s dependency on men is ironic for a feminist, she loses the audience’s respect. A bird symbolizes Edna in her process of changing from a wife captured in the cage of motherhood to a free individual, though one with broken wings that obstruct her ability to fly or to make a living by herself. Some people would argue that marriage limits her ability to discover the world; however, marriage also protects her from the danger and judgment of society. Edna’s dissatisfaction with marriage comes from her dream of being a princess, instead of her desire for justice for women. She enters into marriage with no illusions about love and with a practical understanding of the marriage, which goes against her family’s wishes. Edna does have a rebellious streak, but her marriage to Leonce Pontellier is a practical decision that will put an end to her innocent, romantic dreams and fantasies. She must walk this path forever “idly, aimlessly, unthinking and unguided.” (P24) Edna’s role changed from an obedient wife to a free and selfish woman, and Leonce changed from a controlling man to an understanding husband.
Therefore, Leonce is more inclusive and responsible, while Edna is not even strong enough to be herself, which supports the idea of patriarchy and opposes feminism.While most of the audience put their focus on feminism, the critical point of the story is self-awakening, including the changes to Edna’s identity. Edna’s first awakening was her individuality. She then realizes that family duties are also necessary, and falls into a struggle between herself and her children. Finally, Edna awakens to the fact that the uncertainty of her desires and dissatisfaction have already created a big mess for herself. To escape from the consequences, she chooses suicide in the end. Proven by the process of Edna’s awakening, this novel is more focused on narrative reporting rather than critical commentary. Therefore, it is not a feminist work that would change society.
The most direct connection between the story and feminism is the understanding of sexuality. Most of the audience today understand that Edna’s close relationship with Robert for true love until Alcee, and the kiss appeared along with the sexual attempts between these two people with “no love” in Edna’s mind. Therefore, she desires more than just individuality and feminism, but also wants an affair and to meet her physical needs. She took these desires too far—to the extent that she betrayed her own love and feelings.