First published in 1899, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (New American Library, 1976), begins with the warnings of a yellow parrot, mimicking the words, “Allez vous-en! Allez vous-en! Sapristi,” translated as Get out! Get out! Damnation! These forebodings haunt the narrative and alert us to the imprisonment of Chopin’s heroine, Edna Pontellier. Her prison is not made up of mortar walls and iron bars, but rather, of invisible, dense walls of socially constructed codes and norms established to keep her and all women in their rightful place. These social constructs that come in the guise of social titles, such as obedient woman, dutiful wife and sacrificial mother, have been implemented to secure the oppression and subjugation of the powerless, the prisoners.
In The Awakening, the prisoner is Edna Pontellier, and her incarceration is to last the duration of her life. The impenetrable walls that fasten and render her immobile are those of marriage and motherhood. The warden is her patriarchal society composed of dominant masculine authorities, such as church, law, medicine, government and economy, and her correction officer/guard is her husband, Mr. Pontellier, who ensures her submission. The shackles that chain her to these socially-coded institutions, limiting her choices, suffocating her will and depriving her of freedom are Etienne and Raoul, her children. They are the symbols that mark her existence as a, “valuable piece of personal property,” (7) an owned article, a reproductive slave, and prisoner of nature and society.
It is early on in the text that we learn that Edna Pontellier is, “not a mother-woman” (8). Kate Chopin defines, “mother-women” as maternal women who, “idolize their children, worship their husbands, and esteem it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels” (8). Chopin juxtaposes Edna, a “non-mother-woman,” to Adele Ratignolle, the absolute embodiment of a true “mother-woman,” who spends her days sewing her children’s clothing and taking care of all their needs. When Edna tries to emulate the likeness of Adele by drawing her, she fails. Symbolically, Edna is attempting to see if she too can achieve this mother-woman ideal that seems to have been inscribed upon her body. Despite her “natural aptitudes” as an artist, she is still incapable of copying or reproducing Adele. She realizes that not only can she not draw an accurate likeness of Adele, but also that she can not imitate her as a mother-woman.
Motherhood to her is obtrusive, stifling and oppressive. It is a “responsibility which she had blindly assumed and for which Fate had not fitted her” (19). With the constant recurrences of her “awakening” experiences, Edna is gratified to learn of and from her “present self,” an awakened self. This new self introduces Edna as a woman who has just roused from a deep sleep, a societal-injected stupor. In this state of alert consciousness, “she (is) seeing with different eyes and making the acquaintance of new conditions in herself that color and change her environment” (43). Edna gives herself permission to admit to truths she never would have given voice or credence to during her past “unthinking” self. She consciously recognizes that nature, providence and fate assert their will on women’s biological functions, fostering the power of dominant authorities of patriarchy, which assert their oppressive limitations and views on women’s freedoms and personal desires.
It is because of this enlightenment, this self-consciousness that Edna changes her life to suit her own needs and desires. At first, she refuses to partake in conjugal rituals with her husband, opting to sleep outside instead of in the bed they share. Eventually, she leaves him and their children altogether. Instead of marriage and motherhood, Edna, for the first time in her life, chooses art and the life of an artist.
To afford her little home and her independence, Edna enters the work force by seriously pursuing her painting and receiving wages from the sales of her art works. It is Shari L. Thurer who reminds us of Virginia Woolf’s call to women to murder the “Angel of the House” before they can begin to write, or in this case, paint (191). In order for Edna to be able to pick up her phallic pens to draw for the sake of making a living, she has to “murder” the natural roles that define her identity and demand her complete and irrevocable incarceration. Thurer goes on to say that, “the (maternal) role assigned to women is so restrictive that it is incompatible with artistic endeavor or virtually anything outside itself: women are held hostage to an impossible ideal” (191).
Edna has relinquished the hindering role of motherhood by freeing herself of the care of her children and by refusing to have sexual intercourse with her husband, and, therefore, is free to delve into her artistic productions. Edna’s pigeon-house becomes what Woolf terms as a, “room of her own.” In that room, Edna is able to act as an individual without incarcerating mechanisms, such as motherhood, holding her face under water and overwhelming and destroying her independence. She, like her art, “grows in force and individuality” (86). It is in this room that Edna reproduces parts of herself, her ideologies, her insights and views in the form of her art. This is a reproduction that she has voluntarily chosen, and gives new definition to her chosen motherhood. She is the mother of her artwork, but this motherhood does not stifle or imprison her. She is one with her art: pregnant with her art. Her paintings are reproductions of herself as a free and independent being without restrictions or limitations. This is a freeing and liberating motherhood. This is the maternal role that she has chosen for herself and her quality of life. These reproductions, unlike her children, are not forced upon her by her husband and his demands, or by society and its social constructs of feminine success.
And although Edna Pontellier takes her own life at the end of Chopin’s tale, it is seen as an act of self-possession. Her body and her reproductive rights belong only to her – not her husband, her children or her lovers. Whether we agree or not with this protagonist’s decision to end her torture, Kate Chopin has introduced us to a heroine of great courage – a woman who liberated herself from the confines of patriarchal institutions, such as marriage and motherhood, in order to pursue her art, her freedom, a room of her own, wherein only her voice dominated and her desires thrived.
Marina DelVecchio is the author of The Prostitute’s Daughter, a memoir in which she shows how she has used literature to combat a life of abuse and poverty. She blogs about female agency and the necessary empowerment of our daughters at http://marinagraphy.com. Her work can be found at the Huffington Post, The New Agenda, the WM Parenting Connection, and BlogHer. She teaches writing and literature on the college level.