Edna's Struggle for Power in Chopin's The Awakening
Kate Chopin's The Awakening tells the story of Edna Pontellier, a young wife and mother living in the upper crust of New Orleans in the 1890s. It depicts her journey as her standing shifts from one of entrapment to one of empowerment. As the story begins, Edna is blessed with wealth and the pleasure of an affluent lifestyle. She is a woman of leisure, excepting only in social obligations. This endowment, however, is hindered greatly by her gender.
Being a woman, she is completely at the mercy of her husband. He provides for her a lifestyle she could not obtain on her own and fixes her place in society. This vulnerability stops Edna from being truly empowered. To gain independence as a woman, and as a person, Edna must relinquish the stability and comfort she finds in the relationship with her husband. Mr. and Mrs. Pontellier's marriage comprises a series of power plays and responds well to Marxist and Feminist Theory. Leonce Pontellier looks "…at his wife as one who looks at a valuable piece of property…". He views her as an accessory that completes the ideal life for him. Edna, however, begins to desire autonomy and independence from Leonce, so true to the feminist point of view.
In Chapter III Mr. Pontellier enters their room in Grand Isle late one night, waking Edna. He is full of self-importance as he talks to her while he begins to ready himself for bed. Since she has just been awakened, Edna does not respond with the enthusiasm Mr. Pontellier deems acceptable. "He thought it very discouraging that his wife … evinced so little interest in things which concerned him, and valued so little his conversation." (12) To assert his dominance, Leonce demands that Edna tend to their son Raoul, who he insists has a fever. "He reproached his wife with her inattention, her habitual neglect of the children." He also takes this time to emphasize the difference between their duties: his being that of the provider while hers centered on caring for the home. Edna's assurances that Raoul was fine fell on deaf ears and she springs to action to appease her husband. This small interaction sets the tone for their relationship throughout the novel. It establishes that there are underlying power struggles between the two characters and that Mr. Pontellier is the authority in their relationship.
Edna experiences her first attempt to distance herself from the dominance of her husband by learning to swim: a non-confrontational step, but one that asserts her desire for independence. "[T]hat night she was like the little tottering, stumbling, clutching child who of a sudden realizes its powers and walks for the first time alone, boldly and with overconfidence." She swims beyond the others who were in her the party. "She turned her face seaward to gather in an impression of space and solitude…" (48) She strives for autonomy from the group, for an experience all her own. This sensation overwhelms Edna...