Edna Pontellier, the protagonist of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) who would not allow anyone to possess her, is an example of how the cult of domesticity, prevalent in the nineteenth century, oppressed women as passionless mothers who worship their husbands. While Edna isolates herself from her husband, Leonce, she also isolates herself from her children and, thus, from motherhood. However, Chopin utilizes the motherhood metaphor to illustrate Edna’s own rebirth as she awakens throughout the novel. Exploring Chopin’s tale through feminist literary theory and the cult of domesticity, the metaphor of motherhood through Edna’s own maternity as well as her metaphorical rebirth becomes apparent.
Lois Tyson’s text, Critical Theory Today (2006), explains the various theories that are utilized to critique literature and explain plots, themes, and characters. With feminist literary theory, Tyson writes, “Broadly defined, feminist criticism examines the ways in which literature (and other cultural productions) reinforces or undermines the economic, political, social, and psychological oppression of women” (83). With Edna Pontellier, her place in the story relies on her husband’s social status; her husband, Leonce Pontellier, is a successful businessman in New Orleans and wants to maintain appearances of success and marital stability. With Leonce, a product of society, he sees and treats Edna as an object: “‘You are burnt beyond recognition,’ he added, looking at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage” (Chopin 44).
Leonce then demonstrates patriarchy in The Awakening, an aspect of culture that portrays the intellectual, physical, social, and psychological dominance of men over women. On patriarchy, “traditional gender roles,” according to Tyson, “cast men as rational, strong, protective, and decisive; they cast women as emotional (irrational), weak, nurturing, and submissive.” With Leonce, he, the solid patriarch of his family, believes that his wife may be suffering a mental breakdown because of her “odd” actions. Leonce says things like, “I don’t know what ails her,” “She’s odd, she’s not like herself. I can’t make her out,” and “She let’s the housekeeping go to the dickens. Her whole attitude—toward me and everybody and everything—has changed” (117-18). While Doctor Mandalet recognizes that Edna may be having an affair, Leonce does not come to this conclusion; instead, Leonce is more inclined to believe that Edna’s mental health is the cause for her “odd” behavior.
Leonce does not consider Edna’s emotional well-being when he tries to calculate the cause of her attitude change; he does, though, view her as his wife, whom he possesses, and admonishes her for not taking better care of their two sons. Chopin writes, “[Leonce] reproached his wife with her inattention, her habitual neglect of the children. If it was not a mother’s place to look after children, whose on earth was it” (48)? Edna...