Past feminist examinations of Kate Chopin's work have focused on the question of whether the heroine's suicide in The Awakening was intended to signify rebellion or defeat, most commonly reaching the conclusion that the author intended to leave this point ambiguous. No critic, however, has considered how this issue relates to Chopin's experimentations with androgyny. The author recognized a need for androgyny in the behaviour of the New Woman, but also understood the limitations posed by centuries of conditioning. In her novel, she seeks an identity for women that is neither wife nor mother. To achieve this end, she incorporates progressive ideas of androgyny and female-female intimacy into her writing; yet ultimately the text, through characters who cannot escape essentialist and sentimental ideologies, demonstrates the failure of her attempt. In The Awakening, Chopin questions fin-de-siecle gender roles, but also shows that, because of years of conditioning, many women are unable to escape those roles by any satisfactory means. Confused by the pull of a new desire, Edna Pontellier does not possess the skills needed to become independent and, despite attempts to escape through androgyny, succumbs finally to the doomed dream of romantic love.
Chopin sets up a contrast between Adele Ratignolle, "the bygone heroine of romance" (888), and Mademoiselle Reisz, a bluestockinged recluse. Edna falls somewhere in between, but distinctly recoils with disgust from the type of life her friend Adele leads: "In short, Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother-woman" (888). Madame Ratignolle is described as "the embodiment of every womanly grace and charm" (888) and Edna respects her for it, but without a corresponding desire to replicate her charm. To be womanly by traditional standards apparently requires the kind of self-sacrifice at which Madame Ratignolle excels, and the narrator is much less in awe of this quality than Edna. But Edna wants to be womanly in her own way--to keep her own identity, her goals, her artistry, and to live a sexual life, liberated from the confines of societal expectations. Mrs. Pontellier admires the Creoles with which she is thrown together at Lebrun's, Adele among them, because they represent something which she longs to have: "A characteristic which distinguished them and which impressed Mrs. Pontellier most forcibly was their entire absence of prudery. Their freedom of expression was at first incomprehensible to her, though she had no difficulty in reconciling it with a lofty chastity which in the Creole woman seems to be inborn and unmistakable" (889). Albeit shocking, she finds this freedom desirable, even though she would not adopt the chastity that reconciles such freedom in the motherly, angelic Creole woman. While desiring to emulate the Creole confidence and sensuousness, she wishes to leave out the austerity which in the end conforms the Creole woman to the patriarchal society of her extended family. She wants to be a part of scandalous books being "openly criticised and freely discussed at table" (890), and begins to rebel instinctively against the narrowness of her upbringing, which has forced her to hide her opinions and criticisms on literature and life "in secret and solitude" (890). Madame Ratignolle becomes her model of sensuality, but not her model of behaviour.
Edna admires her friend with an almost sexual interest. Chopin writes that she "liked to sit and gaze at her fair companion as she might look upon a faultless Madonna" (890), mirroring the oppressive male gaze. She paints her portrait because "Never had that lady seemed a more tempting subject at that moment, seated there like some sensuous Madonna, with the gleam of the fading day enriching her splendid color" (891). However, Edna sees this woman as more than a pretty picture, an ornament, or an elegant possession, in the way her husband might--she sees her as a living, sensuous woman. The influence of Adele Ratignolle encourages Edna to shed her reserve:
When Edna begins to open up to Adele, Madame Ratignolle takes her hand and strokes it, surprising Edna with her physical affection. Her previous habit of self-containment seems ridiculous next to this demonstration of love. Turning away from the isolated reserve of her upbringing, Edna sees that women can have meaningful, and intimate relationships with other women. This discovery leads her to realize that such intimacy can be achieved with men as well. When she compares such unreserved love to the bond of property she has with her husband, her old life comes up short.
This intimacy with another woman propels Edna into Robert Lebrun's arms. After experiencing the closeness possible with a member of her own sex, she desires the same rewarding pleasure in a relationship that is both more conventional and, for her, more likely. When Edna begins to see more of Robert, she also begins to look more towards the sea--a vast body of water that is analogous to the uncharted frontier of her submerged identity and sexuality. Edna instinctively knows there is something not quite platonic about her recent visits to the beach with Robert, and she connects the sea to this intuitive understanding. Aroused first by Adele, Edna's new sexual self-awareness finds encouragement with Robert, and a light begins "to dawn dimly within her,--the light which, showing the way, forbids it" (893). Chopin's narration describes this sexuality as something liberating and subject-affirming:
Society and religion, as forms of patriarchy, blind women to the restrictions of their gendered identities and promote the "angel in the house" image of perfection as their happiest role. But Edna's new-found identity is much more ambiguous than that of the "mother-woman," Adele Ratignolle. Within Edna's identity, categories like sex and gender are combined with psychic sexual characteristics unarticulated by even Edna herself. Chopin writes, "But the beginning of things, of a world especially, is necessarily vague, tangled, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing. How few of us ever emerge from such beginning! How many souls perish in its tumult!" (893); woman, identity, sexuality, gender--all are mixed up in the ambiguous metaphor of the sea, "inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation" (893). And the same word that is used to describe Adele Ratignolle--"sensuous"--also describes the sea, suggesting even further the vagueness and ambiguity of Edna's struggle: "The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace" (893). Edna turns to the sea as she embraces the ambiguity of her gender identity.
Although Chopin hints that Edna is one of those who will perish in the tangled fin-de-siecle struggle for gender equality, the heroine herself is not yet aware of it. Edna is a smart woman, and not overly naive: "At a very early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life--that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions" (893)--but even she is not strong enough to survive the battle. She is caught up in the struggle to find a balance between two seemingly opposite pulls, independence and love. If Edna's break with her husband represents a type of regression rather than growth (Martin 22), then we can see The Awakening as a tale of frustration. The New Woman wants freedom, and deserves it, but has not been given the skills necessary for survival. Images of birds, from the caged bird at the story's beginning to the symbolic one of the "pigeon-house" into which Edna retreats, suggest that the New Woman is a bird with broken wings. In the best way she knows how to escape her caged domestic life, Edna chains herself to another man because she is unable to choose freedom in the way later feminists would claim she must.
After she leaves her husband, Edna believes her new sexually independent power will make her master of her own life. But, as Martin points out, she has overestimated her strength and is still hampered by her "limited ability to direct her energy and to master her emotions" (22). Unfortunately, Edna has been educated too much in the traditions of society and not enough in reason and independent survival, admitting to Robert that "we women learn so little of life on the whole" (990). She has internalized society's conception of woman as guided by her emotions and not her mind and, therefore, in the search for another man to fill the void of love in her life, lets her goal become clouded instead of learning to depend on herself alone. Edna wants to overcome gender stereotypes, and is already using behaviours such as assertiveness and independence to question them, but the struggle is new to her and she fails to discover a method that would allow her to successfully leave behind society's preconceptions. Martin writes,
Even in her defiant disobedience to her husband, she is subconsciously aware of the futility of her struggle. During a fit of violent frustration with her marriage, "she stopped, and taking off her wedding ring, flung it upon the carpet. When she saw it lying there, she stamped her heel upon it, striving to crush it. But her small boot heel did not make an indenture, not a mark upon the little glittering circlet" (934). The grand patriarchal tradition of marriage refuses to be so easily destroyed.
Realist resistance to the romantic ideal was necessarily vague during the fin de siecle, partly because of intensifying competition between the irreconcilable paradigms of Victorian domesticity and the feminism of the New Woman. Raised to believe that such a woman as Adele Ratignolle is Madonna-like in her passivity and self-effacement, Edna is unavoidably confused by her instinctive rebellion: "She was flushed and felt intoxicated with the sound of her own voice and the unaccustomed taste of candor. It muddled her like wine, or like a first breath of freedom" (899). The same vague confusion and hazy awareness that comes with intoxication fills her mind when she becomes drugged with freedom. Chopin uses dream imagery to contribute to the atmosphere of ambiguity. Edna's sleep is "disturbed with dreams that [are] intangible, that elud[e] her, leaving only an impression upon her half-awakened senses of something unattainable" (913). She is only half-awakened because she is like a child not knowing what to do with her new toy, and does not possess the skills to turn idealism into realism. According to Michael T. Gilmore, both Chopin and Edna
As much as she likes Mademoiselle Reisz, for instance, Edna does not approve of the older woman's solitary lifestyle, so completely divergent from the expectations of society. The narrator describes her as "a disagreeable little woman, no longer young, who had quarreled with almost every one, owing to a temper which was self-assertive and a disposition to trample upon the rights of others" (905). Associated with a circle of intellectual women which Edna never completely enters, the older woman seems too independent for Edna, who remains, in this regard, indoctrinated in the prejudices of her culture. Even at the scene of her final orgiesque dinner party in her husband's house, "Edna may look like a queen, but she is still a housewife" (Showalter 52). The Awakening's ending, then, is ambiguous. Edna has achieved her independence from her husband, but cannot progress beyond the tangled emotions of love for her children and love for her freedom. She had thought she could choose one, and she was wrong. Papke writes that "for Chopin, each individual--particularly each woman--possessed infinite potential for self-fulfillment and expression but also, at the same time, the greater possibility for self-compromise and self-destruction" (30). As hard as Edna tries, she is doomed to failure from the start.
Edna's sexual need for Robert undermines her autonomy because it only furthers the teachings of her upbringing, which have told her that woman is dependent on man and cannot be happy without him. "We shall be everything to each other" (993), she tells him. Although the heroine attempts to use her self-proclaimed sexual independence in order to achieve mental independence, she fails. Letting her freed sensibility run wild, she "becomes ensnared by romantic love," and her "unrequited sexual need . . . seems to be a masochistic exercise in negative capability" (Martin 23). Neither the romantic nor the domestic traditions work for the New Woman, and she fails to find a middle ground that would give her the strength she needs. Instead she falls into an aimless depression, caught between cultural and emotional limitations. Edna, not yet prepared to risk a romantic attachment in favour of autonomy, represents the bridge between the passive, dutiful wife and the more aggressive, independent New Woman.
She mistakenly associates her growing sexual awareness with a new-found personal liberation. Although her desire for Robert leads her to separate from her controlling husband, it misses the point. Chopin's story implies that Edna needs to become more significantly independent of men and to adjust to being self-reliant, before she can have a successful and fulfilling love relationship. Her senses are awakened by Robert, and she begins to break with some of society's conventions, but she is still consumed by a romantic need for a bond with a man. Life with Robert would be passionate, at least, but still domestic. At Madame Antoine's house on the island, Robert "was childishly gratified to discover her appetite, and to see the relish with which she ate the food which he had procured for her" (919). The food that Edna eats with such vigour has not been obtained by her own hands; she is still passive, acting only in blind obedience to her sensual impulses. Still in some ways dependent, she attempts to use sex as a passive form of power. After learning of Robert's imminent trip to Mexico, she "laid her spoon down and looked about her bewildered" (922). At the first sign of his leaving, all her new confidence is gone. In Robert's absence, she becomes despondent and depressed, not self-sufficient and independently content:
With the purpose of her own life determined solely by her relationship to a man, her rebellion against traditional gender roles becomes less a positive action toward women's emancipation than a passive backward fall into the arms of romantic sensibility. She is still "under the spell of her infatuation . . . [T]he thought of him was like an obsession, ever pressing itself upon her . . . [I]t was his being, his existence, which dominated her thought" (936). She does not have enough of what Mademoiselle Reisz calls the "courageous soul" (946) to endure the loneliness of total freedom. This separation does not strengthen her independence; in fact Chopin writes that "all sense of reality had gone out of her life; she had abandoned herself to Fate, and awaited the consequences with indifference" (988). After attempting a more forceful and independent way of life, she thus negates the positive consequences of androgyny through a romantic dependence on Robert.
Her sexual relationship with Alcee Arobin also throws her back into the role of object. Overtaken by the fever of physical passion, Edna is in danger once again of losing her independence. She gives herself to Alcee with careless disregard, not having taken the time to think of any possible consequences to herself: "Alcee Arobin was absolutely nothing to her. Yet his presence, his manners, the warmth of his glances, and above all the touch of his lips upon her hand had acted like a narcotic upon her" (961). She is too "drugged" to fully take control of her life, and seems to be giving it over instead to a different, yet parallel, form of entrapment, since her thoughts and reactions are too unclear to provide any positive direction for her future. She is also vaguely aware that, underneath all the excitement, she is neglecting to consider her life seriously. She tells Arobin, "One of these days . . . I'm going to pull myself together for a while and think--try to determine what character of a woman I am; for, candidly, I don't know" (966).
But she does not think about it. Still plagued by internalized values, Edna is never clear about what she wants or who she is. Andrew Delbanco writes, "Arobin, Edna knows, is nothing more than a measure of her desperation to find an antidote to numbness" (102). After her first sexual encounter with Arobin, she cannot truly accept what she professes to believe--that she can handle sex without love. Although Chopin tells us Edna feels no shame, "There was a dull pang of regret because it was not the kiss of love which had inflamed her, because it was not love which had held this cup of life to her lips" (967). She seems to be choosing solitary freedom, but is bound to her romantic desire for oneness with a man. Showalter agrees: "Although her affair with Arobin shocks her into an awareness of her own sexual passions, it leaves her illusions about love intact" (50). Her relationships with both Robert and Arobin, although sexually charged, are in effect no more liberating than the stifling marriage to her husband. However, she does come to more of an understanding of her own androgynous nature.
Numerous examples of androgynous behaviour appear throughout Chopin's text. At the most basic level, Edna possesses characteristics that are not traditionally feminine:
She is attracted to Adele's physical beauty because of the contrast to her own more androgynous appearance. Unlike Madame Ratignolle's "more feminine and matronly figure," Edna's body is "long, clean and symmetrical" (894). She develops her own androgynous type of beauty, looking "handsome and distinguished in her street gown," (936). She also exhibits what is, in Leonce's view, a "habitual neglect of the children" (885), failing to conform to societal expectations of a woman's duty. Instead of devoting her life to family, she would rather spend time on her art, since "She felt in it satisfaction of a kind which no other employment afforded her" (891). "Fate had not fitted her" for motherhood but for the more traditionally masculine traits of independence and candor (899). She is drawn to people with intellectual interests, and takes an unfeminine notice of "religious and political controversies" (897). During her period of awakening, Edna becomes much more physically active and robust than most "ladies," swimming and eating with "manly" vigour, not minding her slightly soiled appearance, wanting to "swim far out, where no woman had swum before" (908). The confines of cultural femininity are too narrow to suit her.
She begins to do as she likes, sitting outside late at night, skipping church, and canceling her usual Tuesday visits at home, much to the dismay of a husband unused to such willful disobedience. Shopping for new fixtures with her husband holds no interest for her, and she prefers solitude to the company of anyone but Robert. Even then, she takes the role of the aggressor in her relationship, sending for Robert when she wants him, unconscious that "she had done anything unusual in commanding his presence" (914). She can see nothing but "an appalling and hopeless ennui" in a purely domestic life (938), and Mr. Pontellier interprets her new assertiveness as the result of some mental imbalance. She "lets the housekeeping go to the dickens . . . [and] goes tramping about by herself, moping in the street-cars, getting in after dark" (948). She tells her husband that "a wedding is one of the most lamentable spectacles on earth" (948), defying the stereotype that claims women seek marriage above all else.
Edna's new sexual charge and intense sensuousness are also thought to be unusual in a woman. When she talks to Victor, she "laugh[s] and banter[s] him a little, remembering too late that she should have been dignified and reserved" (943). She allows herself to revel in her own sexuality. She begins to place bets frequently at the horse races, and to spend time with intellectual women and men of questionable morality, such as Arobin. At the races, she notices, "she was talking like her father as the sleek geldings ambled in review before them" (957). She decides to try to make a living by selling her sketches, adopting more and more the lifestyle of an independent man. "By all the codes which I am acquainted with," she says, "I am a devilishly wicked specimen of the sex" (966). And yet many of the habits she begins to acquire are considered acceptable for men.
As a moderate feminist, Chopin desires an androgyny for women that reflects her beliefs. Women should be allowed a career, a chance for self-expression, and more leeway in terms of what social behaviours are deemed appropriate for them. However, ideas of an essential femininity seem to linger, tangling themselves up in a hesitant view of androgyny. The author seems to hold on to an image of woman as inherently instinctive and passionate, although Chopin's exposure of this conflict highlights her own frustration with these "leftover" learned behaviours. Although Edna begins to take androgyny in a positive direction, her rejection of socially proscribed femininity and her subsequent infatuation with Robert is dangerous because it shifts, rather than solves, her problem. Rather than forge a new hybrid identity that is neither traditionally masculine nor feminine, Edna vacillates between exchanging roles of power with men and subordinating herself once again, this time to a sentimental obsession. As a woman who has just realized her unconscious perpetuation of patriarchal dominance, she develops the mistaken notion that to be more masculine--more powerful, self-interested, and self-indulgent--is to achieve equality and freedom. By changing the traditional content of the novel to allow for experimentation with the freedom available to men, Chopin attempted to blur gender lines. But Edna, due to her limited and prejudiced education, fails to cast out entirely the ideas she has ascribed to certain genders. Instead, she flounders in a mimicry of the male artist figure, and cannot find her own identity in this scenario any easier than in her marriage. With nagging doubts about her self-proclaimed freedom from all bonds, her level of conviction sounds far too hesitant when Dr. Mandelet asks if she is going abroad with her husband:
Dr. Mandelet, speaking more as a wise, older man than as a medical authority, seems to understand Edna's predicament. When Mr. Pontellier asks for his advice concerning the strange behaviour of his wife, the doctor immediately wonders, "Is there any man in the case?" (950). While Edna thinks she is expressing her independent rights, Dr. Mandelet knows her heart is still tied to the need for a man in her life, and to an uncontrolled submission to sexual passion. After her self-proclaimed release from her husband's narrow world of prescribed gender roles, Edna begins to act spontaneously, without considering, as Leonce would wish, "what people would say" (977). During a visit to Mademoiselle Reisz, she boldly displays her new attitude, refusing the more modest hot chocolate in favour of a "man's drink":
However, she will be moving "[j]ust two steps away" (962), she admits, betraying the fact that her feminist step forward will be hindered by at least two steps back. Her new assertiveness will not be enough to shield her from the difficulties of her changing life. Although she expresses herself to Robert in what she deems an "unwomanly" style (990), she is still a victim of societal conditioning, wanting to surrender her identity to another person.
Cristina Giorcelli writes that "Transitional states are inevitably states of inner and outer ambiguity. In her quest for her true self, Edna loses, or enhances with the addition of the opposite ones, her original gender connotations and social attributes" (121). Such a reading, however, risks simplifying the story in its attempt to clarify exactly that which is ambiguous. Although Giorcelli agrees that the story's message is blurred, she seems to contradict herself when she argues that,
But Edna never does achieve "the wholeness of a composite unity," and this, I believe, is Chopin's point. In the context of this transitional period in women's history, total success is an impossibility, partly because the goal itself is not yet established. The "quasi-divine wholeness" that Giorcelli claims that Edna has achieved by "overcoming gender restrictions" (122) seems to be the product of a critical reading derived more from feminist myth than from close analysis of the text.
Chopin retains traces of an essentialism that, however powerful as a source of sexual identification, tends to cloud her argument, perhaps intentionally. Images of woman as instinctive and animalistic fill her pages. Edna reminds Dr. Mandelet of "some beautiful, sleek animal waking up in the sun" (952), and Arobin appeals to "the animalism that stirred impatiently within her" (961). "The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings" (Chopin 966), and Edna does not. The prejudice of society coats The Awakening with pessimism, and Edna does not have the tools to fight it. At the end of the novella, Chopin tells us, Edna's strength is gone (1000). She fails to achieve complete independence because of her essentialist flaw and never attains the artistic self-reliance attributed to the bluestockinged feminist. She feels empty not, as she believes, because her ideal romantic love is out of reach, but because she has not developed the skills necessary to live with herself, independent from a man and from the excuses that relieve her of responsibility for her life. Chopin was not an active feminist, but represented sides of the human psyche which had previously been repressed under the guise of "moral" fiction. She saw and enjoyed the ambiguity and androgyny of "woman," but was smart enough to realize that small changes (moving into "pigeon-houses") would not be enough to allow a place in society for a new female identity, whatever form it may take.
Showalter believes that The Awakening "may be read as an account of Edna Pontellier's evolution from romantic fantasies of fusion with another person to self-definition and self-reliance" (33), but Edna never reaches this final position. Chopin ends her story with the suicide of the heroine. In order to have both independence and love with a man, Edna seems to believe, in the end, that her escape can only be through death. Gilmore acknowledges that Edna Pontellier's story "has to end in death because there is no way for the world she inhabits to accommodate the change in her. . . . Nothing less than a transformation of social reality would enable the 'new-born creature' Edna has become to go on living" (63). I believe that Chopin would welcome just such a sweeping transformation and that she consciously works toward it, even though she is not naive enough to expect to see it in her lifetime.
Chopin, Kate. "The Awakening." 1899. The Complete Works of Kate Chopin. Ed. Per Seyersted. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1969. 881-1000.
Delbanco, Andrew. "The Half-Life of Edna Pontellier." New Essays on The Awakening. Ed. Wendy Martin. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988. 89-106.
Gilmore, Michael T. "Revolt Against Nature: The Problematic Modernism of The Awakening." Martin 59-84.
Giorcelli, Cristina. "Edna's Wisdom: A Transitional and Numinous Merging." Martin 109-39.
Martin, Wendy, ed. New Essays on the Awakening. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988.
Papke, Mary E. Verging on the Abyss: The Social Fiction of Kate Chopin and Edith Wharton. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1990.
Seyersted, Per. Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1969.
Showalter, Elaine. "Tradition and the Female Talent: The Awakening as a Solitary Book." Martin 33-55.
Skaggs, Peggy. Kate Chopin. Boston: Twayne, 1985.