Kate Chopin The Awakening
To what extent does Edna Pontellier, in Kate Chopin's The Awakening, mark a departure from the female characters of earlier nineteenth-century American novels
The Awakening was published in 1899, and it immediately created a controversy. Contemporaries of Kate Chopin (1851-1904) were shocked by her depiction of a woman with active sexual desires, who dares to leave her husband and have an affair. Instead of condemning her protagonist, Chopin maintains a neutral, non-judgmental tone throughout and appears to even condone her character's unconventional actions. Kate Chopin was socially ostracised after the publication of her novel, which was almost forgotten until the second half of the twentieth century. The Awakening has been reclaimed by late twentieth-century theorists who see Edna Pontellier as the prototypical feminist. A woman before her time, Edna questions the institution of marriage, (at one point she describes a wedding as 'one of the most lamentable spectacles on earth')  has sexual desires of her own, and becomes completely independent of her husband. The central purpose of this essay is to assess to what extent the figure of Edna Pontellier marks a departure from the female characters of earlier nineteenth-century American novels, such as the character of Hester Prynne, of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, Cora Munro from James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans, and the unnamed protagonist (and narrator) of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper. How does society, and its effect on women change throughout nineteenth-century American literature?
Society of the nineteenth-century gave a heightened meaning to what it means to be a woman. According to the commonly known 'code of true womanhood', women were supposed to be docile, domestic creatures, whose main concerns in life were to be the raising of their children and submissiveness to their husbands. Kate Chopin's The Awakening and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper capture, in their respective works, two women who have turned down these expected roles, and, consequently, suffer because of it. The husbands of these women, entirely because they stand to represent patriarchal society, are a great deal to blame for the "condition" of their wives. In the first scene of The Awakening, after being scolded by her husband about not being a good mother, Edna responds by crying, and later with defiance, refusing to come in to sleep, according to her husband's wishes. This behaviour, as well as the journey into the sea at the end of the novel suggests that she has become awakened to the oppressive nature of her husband, and that of the institution of marriage in general. The very act of Edna's struggle, her resistance, suggests her awareness that there is a way of speaking and thinking that will accurately reflect her desires, her worldview and her 'self'. She muses on the gap between what she feels and what society...