Love and Self in The Awakening
Kate Chopin's The Awakening is often said to triumph the exploration on the emotional and sexual needs of women, and the novel certainly is about that to a great extent, but even more importantly, it is a quest for individuality and the meaning of love. Through the protagonist, Edna Pontellier, Chopin describes in her novel one woman's journey towards self-consciousness. Several stages of 'awakenings' can be detected on the road, which are discussed in detail, along with the themes of romantic love, possession and an individual self. Darwinian theories are used to some extent to explore the nature of love and the meaning it had for Chopin.
According to Bert Bender, Kate Chopin was very interested in Darwin's theories of the descent of humans. In his article "The Teeth of Desire: The Awakening and The Descent of Man" he argues that Chopin studied Darwin closely and especially his theories of sexual selection. It first seemed to offer a liberating explanation for human behaviour, "sense of animal innocence in the realm of human courtship" (p. 460) in the strict atmosphere of Victorian etiquette and moral codes.
The principle of natural selection and the "survival of the fittest" is well known, and sexual selection is a specified form of that principle. It "depends on the success of certain individuals over others of the same sex in relation to the propagation of the species" (Darwin, p. 638). There are two kinds of sexual struggle which take place between the same sex. In the one individuals, generally of the male sex, try to drive away or kill their rivals in order to win a partner, the females remaining passive. In the other individuals, again generally males, try to charm those of the opposite sex, and thus the role of the females is not passive any longer, but they have the power to select partners for themselves.
According to Darwin's study, however, usually "the male is the more active member in the courtship of the sexes" (p. 229). The female is less eager, even "coy, and may often be seen endeavoring for a long time to escape from the male" (p. 230). This eagerness and passion in the male is natural and even necessary, since "the acquirement of such passions would naturally follow from the more eager leaving a larger number of offspring than the less eager." (p. 231). Sexual selection has a highly important part in differences between the sexes. Woman is more tender and unselfish, owing to her maternal instinct, and her mental powers are based on intuition, rapid perception and imitation. Man, on the other hand, is competitive and ambitious, which often leads to selfishness. He has attained greater eminence in deep though, reason, imagination and in using his senses and hands. "Thus man has become ultimately superior to woman" (Darwin, p. 585).
Bender argues (p. 461) that Chopin found the general principles of Darwin's natural and sexual selection...