Edna Pontellier is a victim of the mother/whore duality, unable to escape the conditions of her culture that prevent her from being capable of self-actualization, and so walks into the ocean and never comes out again. This is the conclusion to Kate Chopin's novel The Awakening, in which she creates a character struggling to reinvent herself in the midst of oppressive expectation, to discover that such reinvention is impossible. It is easy to derive hopelessness from such a dismal ending, or a sense of moral redemption for Edna's sinful character (as many critics of her time did), but it is important that Chopin's readers instead consider how the story of Edna Pontellier lends itself to the larger discourse of and about women in a male-dominated society, as she both adheres to and strays from traditional depictions of women. It is through Edna Pontellier and the people in her elite sphere that Chopin makes room for dialogue about what women are up against in seeking liberation from male dominance by trying to level the playing field (sexually and otherwise).
[...] Adele's brand of femininity is expressed in the music she plays, and as Edna listens, she visualizes images that are tame and sentimental. Adele becomes one representation of femininity to which Edna must stand in contrast. While Edna admits that even for her children she is unable to sacrifice her self, Adele has already sacrificed her self to the extent that she can't even understand what Edna means by it. Despite her passive role in the patriarchy, Adele is an important character in Edna's transformation. [...]
[...] While she is celebrating emancipation from her husband by moving into her own house and throwing a dinner party, she still functions within the realm of the domestic. Elaine Showalter writes of the defiant hostess: “Edna may look like a queen, but she is still a housewife. The political and aesthetic weapons she has in her coup d'etat are only forks and knives, glasses and dresses” (81). Can she only escape her inscribed role as a woman in death? The dual existence Edna is leading by the time she commits suicide is evidenced by her motives; she dies because she can no longer live as someone trapped by her circumstances, as a woman in a male-dominated society, without giving up her If she were to pursue her true desires she would be failing at her maternal responsibility by ruining the reputations of her children. [...]
[...] On the opposite end of the spectrum of femininity is Mademoiselle Reisz another representation of womanhood which Edna must react to as she tries to understand her own place as a woman. Whereas Adele is Edna's surrogate mother, Reisz is more erotic and self-centered, fulfilling the role of surrogate lover, as she tells Edna that she is only one worth playing (45). When Reisz plays piano, her artistry transcends the realm of patriarchal discourse, and this is very appealing to Edna. [...]
[...] to the sensual touch of the sea, until she takes up an affair with Arobin, who provides her with a physical outlet for her freshly-discovered urge to feel satisfied and connected. The expression of desire takes so much precedence in The Awakening because it not only rejects the expectation of women to be pure and prudent, but it is also essential in overcoming the oppressive conditions of a male- dominated society. What Edna hardly accounts for, however, is that her attempts at fulfilling her desires are in vain, because they are in contradiction with the society that dictates how she and her family are accepted. [...]
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