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Kate Chopin uses Creole society in the 1890s as a basis for her novel and expresses this through Creole women, personal relationships, and etiquette. "The Awakening", is a novel based on the lifestyle of French Creoles. Creoles, the descendents of French and Spanish colonists, comprised the French Creole Society of the 1700's. They had strong family unity based on the teachings of Catholicism, but they were considered outcasts of Anglo- American society. Clement Eaton stated, "the Creoles, to a greater degree then Anglo-Americans, lived a life of sensation and careless enjoyment. They loved to dance, gamble, fish, attend feasts, play on the fiddle, and to live without much thought of the morrow." (Eaton 252). Creoles were very lively outgoing people because of their comfortably tight society. Activities such as Mardi Gras and holiday spirits from Sunday afternoon Mass contributed greatly to the liveliness of these people (Walker 252). A large reason for their comfort and "live for the moment" attitude was that Creoles did not move west like most other colonists to claim land. Instead, they stayed in relatively the same area and grew in population without consumption of other lands. This caused a shortage of land, which had to be frequently divided among the families. This made it difficult for the plantation system to operate successfully (Walker 253).
In traditional Creoles marriages, such as in the time of 1888, the husband was the legal guardian and was given custody of children in a divorce. In the 1890's, the Jim Crow law legalized segregation, but African American horizons continued to expand. "In Louisiana after the Civil War, African American men voted in large numbers, held public office, served on juries, and worked on the railroad"(Culley 119).
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Robert is the only person Edna is not distant with. Unfortunately their relationship is limited to only a friendship. Since Adele Ratignolle doesn't want this relationship to be taken too far or too seriously, she tells Robert, "She is not one of us; she is not like us. She makes the unfortunate blunder of taking you seriously" (Walker 254). The relationship that Edna has continues to both confuse her and inspire her at the same time. This confuses Edna by making her think she is fitting in when, in fact, she is in a mess and is too deep to be changed into a French-Creole women of any standards.
French-Creole women are thought of and shown to be very well rounded, admirable women. They have many talents, skills, and a special way of life. "Creole Women are artistic by nature; they paint, play and sing" (Shaffter 137). They not only speak French, but they usually speak several other languages as well. In their speech, they are usually very clear and articulate using gestures to ensure their point. Women in the Creole culture tend to be beautiful with a dark complexion, with long black hair, and deep, dark eyes (Shaffter 137).
Walker describes Chopin's context of the story through this quote: "The community about which she wrote was one in which respectable women took wine with their dinner and brandy after it, smoked cigarettes, played Chopin sonatas, and listened to the men tell risqué stories. It was, in short, far more French than American, and Mrs. Chopin reproduced this little world with no specific intent to shock or make a point . . . Rather, these were for Mrs. Chopin the conditions of civility . . .. People openly like [d] one another, enjoy[ed] life, and savor[ed] its sensual riches." (Walker 253). Creole women are very open and forward, but they were also very careful with whom they make friends with (Shaffter 138). They show no shame and are very modest, never expressing their hardships. Shaffter stated, "As wives, Creole women are without superiors; loving and true, they seldom figure in domestic scandal" (138). Also, they generally, " are good housekeepers, are economical and industrious" (Shaffter 138). Creole women are mostly surrounded by religion, which is spread throughout their large families and helps give them a sense of belonging and an identity.
During the 1890s, women began to become more recognized and started gathering power and strength in their society. They also were being allowed to expand their possibilities, which are strongly shown through the French-Creole culture. The New Orleans Daily Picayune was the first newspaper to be edited by a woman and to become a well-known American paper (Culley 121). During the 1890s, this paper helped a number of women's causes. Their rights grew because of several women's rights groups such as the Portia Club and the Era Club, which helped provide more opportunities for women. Eventually women won the right to vote on issues such as local taxation, and their voice was being felt on political matters (Culley 121). Unfortunately, they had to deal with a great many restrictions. For example, most of all married women were legally considered property of their husbands. All possessions a woman had attained and worked for including money were property of the husband (Culley 120). Women were getting many jobs as physicians, captains, storeowners, florists, and many other positions, but they were not being accounted for. "The national census of 1890 showed 9 of the 369 professions listed for the city were women non-represented" (Culley 121).
In Creole culture, etiquette and behavior plays a large part in their society. That is why it is very important to be as proper as possible. Otherwise, it could be very offending to another party or especially their friends. At all times, it is best to "avoid all causes for complaint" (Wells 122). It is necessary for a woman who wants recognition in society to display " her politeness and engaging manners, or skill in music ", along with the dressing up of her house (Wells 122). It should never be allowed by a lady to disrespect her husband, degrading him because " confidants are dangerous persons" (Wells 122). When a Creole woman is walking through the streets, she should walk quietly while being unnoticeable as possible. If she comes upon someone she recognizes, they should be acknowledged with a bow and friends addressed with a verbal greeting (Young 125). When riding in a carriage, a women's dress should not be flashy or expensive. It should be made of silks, velvets, and laces. The dress can drag a little, but if it drags too much, dirt or soil could destroy it. A lady in Creole culture should always dress for the occasion, especially when going out to dinners or any special occasion. When going out to dinners, the dress should be a full-length silk or velvet material for winter and a light, lavish material for summertime. Jewelry should be worn all over and should be the best that can be attained. The dress color should be of light neutral tint (Young 127). When receiving calls, a female's dress should be of silk or other light materials, yet plain with dullish colors (Young 126). It should be worn with cuffs, lace collars, and a light amount of jewelry, but when it is worn for special holidays or evenings, the dress should be livened up.
As a whole, "The Awakening" vividly describes French-Creole culture and gives a strong feeling of its Society in the 1890s. Women's individuality and independence is the main theme in this story. Chopin also describes Creole women, personal relationships, and the etiquette of Creoles throughout her novel. These concepts were definitely shown in "The Awakening". However the main character, Edna Pontellier, did not feel them. She was just trying to find herself throughout her entire life. When she spends time around true Creoles, she realizes what she is missing but is unable to attain. If she could only be a Creole, she could finally fit in to society.
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Eaton Clement. The Civilization of the Old South. Ed. Albert D. Kirwan. Lexington: U of Kentucky P, 1968. 83. Qtd. in Walker, 252.
Shaffter, Mary L. "Creole Women." The Chautauqua 15 (1982) : 346-347.
Rpt. in "The Awakening": An Authoritative Text. Ed. Margo Culley. New York: Norton, 1994. 137-139.
Walker, Nancy. "Feminist or Naturalist?" The Social Context of Kate Chopin's The Awakening. 17(1979) : 95-103.
Rpt. in "The Awakening" : An Authoritative Text. Ed. Margo Culley. New York: Norton, 1994. 137-139.
Wells, Richard A. "An Etiquette Advice Book Sampler." Decorum: A Practical Treatise on Etiquette and Dress of the Best American Society. (1886): 248-49.
Rpt. in "The Awakening": An Authoritative Text. Ed. Margo Culley. New York: Norton, 1994.122-125.
Young, John H. "An Etiquette Advice Book Sampler." Our Deportment, Or the Manners, Conduct and Dress of the Most Refined Society. (1882): 56.