Feminism and Emotional Liberation in The Awakening
In our time, the idea of feminism is often portrayed as a modern one, dating back no further than the famous bra-burnings of the 1960s. Perhaps this is due to some unconscious tendency to assume that one's own time is the most enlightened in history. But this tendency is unfortunate, because it does not allow readers to see the precursors of modern ideas in older works. A prime example of this is Kate Chopin's novel The Awakening, which explores the marital infidelities of a woman stuck in a loveless marriage as she searches for her purpose in life. In it, we see how an institutionalized union such as marriage is, almost by necessity, dispassionate, while forbidden loves are characterized only by passion, either physical or emotional. Because of this, we can observe that The Awakening is a feminist novel; through its unflattering portrayal of the institution of marriage and its positive stance towards feminine liberation, we see Chopin's belief in the equality and independence of the sexes.
But we cannot discuss feminism without a definition of the term. Since this term is one that has been thrown about for many decades and used by various groups to define themselves, it is imperative to pin down precisely what we mean by the word "feminism". The first definition that may come to mind is the belief in female superiority - the belief that, either by accident or design, females are inherently superior to males; or, equivalently, that males are inferior to females. This is just as imbalanced as the traditional European belief in male superiority, and this is not the type of feminism that we observe in Chopin's work. A second, somewhat improved, definition is the belief in the equality of the sexes, a belief that most members of our supposedly enlightened society at least pay lip service to. However, there is room for improvement in this definition. It seems to imply that the two sexes must necessarily be linked. Especially problematic is the implication that marriage is a necessary social institution, which clearly goes against the most basic tenets of feminism as we know it.
The aspect of feminism that seems the most relevant, and that is the most prominent in Chopin's novel, is the aspect dealing with feminine liberation. The novel paints the picture of a woman struggling to escape from the bonds of a male-dominated, patriarchal society. It is the idea thus embodied that Chopin gives us - not only the belief in gender equality, as stated above, but also the option of members of both sexes to be independent. Even if women and men are supposedly equal, social stigmas against being single would prevent a wife from leaving her husband or a husband from leaving his wife. Yet, as Chopin illustrates, it is precisely outside of the bonds of marital life that one begins to find something resembling true love. It is this aspect of feminism - the belief that females...