Margit Stange’s Literary Criticism of Chopin’s The Awakening
Margit Stange makes a series of meaningful connections between Kate Chopin’s dramatization of Edna Pontellier’s “awakening” and the historical context of feminist thought which Stange believes influenced the novel. Part of understanding Edna’s motives and Chopin’s thinking are Stange’s well-chosen references to the contemporary ideology that shapes Edna’s thinking and her choices. Stange argues that Edna is seeking the late-nineteenth-century conception of self-ownership, which pivots on “voluntary motherhood.” Edna’s awakening, her acquisition of self-determination, comes from identifying and re-distributing what she owns, which Stange argues is her body. For example, Edna’s skin indicates early in the novel her more complex relationship with her husband. Her sunburned hands seem to indicate a woman who has performed a labor of some necessity, therefore making her “unrecognizable” as the wife of a respected and prosperous businessman. At the same time, those who see her and know who she is are reminded of Leonce’s status by the tan his wife has acquired while visiting an elite resort (279-80). The clash between the appearance of labor and leisure in Edna’s form gradually comes to favor the look of leisure, but it is Edna who increasingly defines how she spends her time, and what constitutes leisure.
By casting off the duties that come with being Mrs. Pontellier, Edna is devaluing the “currency” with which her husband buys respectability and esteem. By withholding sexual and social favors, Edna ruptures Leonce’s privileged comfort and establishes herself as femme seule, literally providing for herself with an independent income (282, 286). Stange links this situation, reinforced by Chopin’s choice of Kentucky as Edna’s birth place, with the contemporary Married Women’s Property Acts, feminist-friendly attempts to secure married women’s finances independent of their husband’s, seriously diminishing the breadth of women’s status as femme couverte This practical freedom of self that Edna obtains supports a more symbolic sense of self-ownership.
Originally, Stange believes, Edna asserts her sense of self-ownership by refusing the role of mother-woman. While she never does embrace that role, indeed has difficulty explaining to Adele or herself precisely how she envisions herself as mother, she comes to realize that refusing the role is not making motherhood voluntary, only a more arbitrary condition that robs her of control (284). She shifts her focus to controlling what...