“In short, Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother-woman. . . . [mother-women] were women who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels.“–(The Awakening, pp. 10)
Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, first published in 1899, met with mixed reviews. Chopin lived during a time when the home was a women’s proper place; when the titles of wife and mother were a woman’s most acceptable and expected roles. In Kate Chopin’s writings, we find a stand against the cultural norm of her day. As Edna Pontellier grasps for something beyond the life she’s grown accustomed to, the reader sees a search for the freedom of self–for the right to be an individual in a world of ministering angels.
A Quick Summary:
The Awakening opens with Edna Pontellier spending the summer with her family at the seaside. Edna is the wife of a wealthy, generous man and the mother of two young boys whom she dotes on but mostly leaves to the care of their nanny. Disinterested in normal motherly occupations such as mending, she spends most of her time in the company of Madame Ratignolle and Robert Lebrun. As the summer progresses, and Edna’s relationship with Robert grows more familiar, she slowly finds herself changing. Her complacency with life shifts as she becomes aware of a longing inside her. And as that longing grows, so does her determination to be her own person, not belonging to anyone.
“Edna had once told Madame Ratignolle that she would never sacrifice herself for her children, or for anyone. . . . Edna tried to appease her friend, to explain. ‘I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself. I can’t make it more clear; it’s only something which I am beginning to comprehend,’ ” (The Awakening, pp. 63).
As Edna begins to awaken to herself and recognize her longings, dreams, and inner life, she becomes defensive of it. She has taken so long to recognize her own thoughts and hopes that she isn’t willing to give them up once she finds them. Her inner life has bloomed, and she refuses to let it wilt again.
When she returns home after the summer, she changes her lifestyle little by little. She lets go of the obligations that she has dutifully fulfilled for so long and allows herself the freedom to do as she pleases. Later in the story, her husband leaves for business, and her mother-in-law sweeps the children away to stay with her for a time. Edna remains at home, working on her art and eventually takes up a smaller residence. She supports herself with her paintings, glad for the chance at independence. It seems she has finally gained the chance to breathe. To live for herself alone. But then she remembers the children.
“The children appeared before her like antagonists who had overcome her; who had overpowered and sought to drag her into the soul’s slavery for the rest of her days. . . . She thought of Leonce and the children. They were a part of her life. But they need not have thought they could possess her, body and soul,” (The Awakening, pp. 155).
At the end of the story, Edna feels trapped. Her soul feels hemmed in by the obligation to her children and her husband, and so she escapes the only way she can think of. She abandons them and life with it and delves into the sea.
What bothers me about Edna’s story is that in her struggle for freedom, she gives up on the possibility of maintaining her identity in the context of relationship. She equates the bonds of family with possession; her children as threats to her self-hood. When I read her story, it felt like the implication of her life is that the only choices were to erase herself on behalf of her children or to abandon them to preserve herself.
Her life seemed to imply that the freedom of self requires total independence.
There are times this can feel true. The obligations and responsibilities that come with relationships are hard to balance. Sometimes it’s hard to feel free to reach your goals when those around you need you. Whether in friendships, marriage, or family connections, relationships require sacrifice. Sometimes, we have to put aside our goals, our needs, and our plans to take care of the people we love.
And the world around us tends to downplay that responsibility. We live in a culture of self-care; of putting ourselves first. Because if we aren’t at our best, we can’t help others. Because my mental well-being and my needs should always be my priority. In our culture, Edna’s decision to move out of her home and become an artist would be heralded as inspiring. Her decision to escape into the sea rather than sacrifice herself would be viewed as a tragic but brave end. At the end of the day, her choice to preserve her freedom at any cost would be celebrated because we value individuality above everything else.
But relationships don’t work that way.
While individuality is important, it isn’t the purpose of life. The purpose of my life isn’t to live for me. True connection with other people means that I have to be willing to put them first. I have to be willing to extend myself to them: to give up an hour of my time or something I had planned to meet their need.
And while those sacrifices can feel like fences locking yourself in, loving others doesn’t stunt inner growth but nourishes it. I get that we can go to far in this direction, too. We can burn ourselves out doing too much. Rest and self-care are important. But we shouldn’t use our needs as an excuse to ignore those around us. Our need for freedom and individuality doesn’t negate our responsibility for the people in our lives.
Kate Chopin’s work was written in a different time, for a different audience. In her era, the trend was to identify women in terms of their husbands and families. Perhaps for Edna, there really were only two options: her self-hood or her obligations. But we have to be careful not to view her example as the absolute truth.
We don’t have to choose between being faceless ministering spirits or being vibrant individuals wholly independent from the world. Loving others, and sacrificing ourselves for them, doesn’t mean our souls are locked away. Caring for others offers us the opportunity to grow as individuals because we are able to look beyond ourselves. In giving, we receive new perspectives, new purposes, and new insights that can feed our inner lives and make them richer.
Experiencing the awakening of ourselves should prompt us to reach out more, not less.