Imagine living a particular way of life for quite some time and then gradually realising how you are actually quite dissatisfied with it. What’s worse is that no one else feels that you should be dissatisfied with that life at all. This discontent seems absurd to everyone else except you. No one quite understands your plight. This dilemma was faced by Edna Pontillier, the protagonist of Kate Chopin’s novel, ‘The Awakening.’ In the novel, she realises that she is nothing other than a role in the patriarchal society of the 1890s’ American South. This perturbs her as she desires to be viewed as something more than just a wife and a mother, but as an individual as well.
‘The Awakening’ was written in 1899 and is therefore a pre-feminist text which means that it was written in an era when the feminist impulse was not as strong as in the feminist era of the 1960s.’ It was therefore quite revolutionary to portray Edna as a woman discontented with her position in a privileged society. Edna is the wife of Mr. Leonce Pontillier who owns plantations and is a wealthy man who leads a life of privilege and luxury which also extends to Edna. She leads a comfortable life with her children and husband in a friendly neighbourhood of New Orleans. On the surface, there shouldn’t be any problems in the privileged world of the Pontellier. Leonce is the bread winner as he should be and Edna is the care giver as is expected of her. All is going fine according to the dominant patriarchal discourse that clearly demarcates the roles for men and women. However, scratch the surface and Chopin gradually peels away the normalcy of the situation to expose the seeds of doubt and discontent that grows in Edna as a result of a number of incidents in the novel. She comes to realise her individuality and how she is more than a role and a possession. She sees all social ties as confining her to the prescribed roles. To perhaps escape this discontent she tries falling in love with Robert Lebrun, a friend of Mr. Pontellier. However, he is too conventional for Edna’s revolutionary thoughts and rebelliousness. He cannot help her get out of the despondency she faces over her dilemma to break free from her typical roles. Moreover, none of the women characters like Adele Ratignolle, Mademoiselle Reisz etc. share her sense of discontent. They believe that is absurd to feel that way when one has all the comforts one needs in life. Edna can think of no solution to get past her curiously unique dilemma except one. To find out what it is, go pick up the book and enjoy.
‘The Awakening’ is remarkable in portraying a questioning, rebellious female protagonist who defies the strict norms and rules to chalk her own path out. It is truly commendable given the time period in which it was written to write about a woman’s ‘awakening.’ However, precisely because of that, the novel received a lot of flak from critics which forced Chopin to apologise and this huge mass of negative criticism also crushed her morale to a large extent.
Recently, the novel has been castigated for depicting the ‘awakening’ of only a white privileged woman and ignoring the plight of the countless, nameless coloured working women who made it possible for Edna to lead a privileged life. Edna does not view them as being fellow oppressed women but only as mere servants. They are not even visible to her as individuals. The critics have thus pointed out that the novel is from a white woman’s perspective only and cannot be viewed as representing the plight of all women.
Despite its flaws and its racial bias, ‘The Awakening’ is a worthwhile read which will give the reader a glimpse into the constricted lives of white women in the South at the time. It is a short read which will hopefully make you appreciate the bold step Edna took in defying the societal norms. It is definitely worth one shot.