The Courageous Soul: Self Respect vs Societal Acceptance in The Awakening

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In the setting of Kate Chopin's The Awakening, most women have little independence and are expected to be selfless, subservient, child bearing wives. Adèle Ratignolle, the ideal “mother woman” is respected and well loved by society, but she is unable to express herself and is shackled by society's expectations. Mademoiselle Reisz, on the other hand, maintains her independence and freedom to express herself, but at the price of society's acceptance. Throughout her awakening, Edna realizes that in the context of her time, she cannot be respected by society like Adèle Ratignolle, while respecting herself like Mademoiselle Reisz.

In The Awakening, women are considered their husband's possession, and are expected to balance the duties of motherhood with their social duties, which entails protecting the family's reputation. Léonce Pontellier, Edna's husband, views her as his possession. When she comes home from the beach sunburned, he looks at her “as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property that has suffered some damage” (Chopin 3). Because Léonce views his wife as a piece of property instead of a person, he is very unsympathetic towards her desires. When Edna declares that she wants to move out, Léonce responds angrily, arguing that it is the “utmost folly for a woman at the head of a household, and the mother of children” to spend time on herself which “could be better employed contriving for the comfort of her family” (Chopin 76). Léonce is incredulous that Edna could even consider thinking of herself before her family, since it is such a dramatic shift from the protocol of the time. It is nearly inconceivable for society to be structured any other way. It is not only assumed, but expected, that women will be the care...

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... running off, yet after her newly found awakening, she is unable to revert back to being a subservient mother at the cost of her independence. Edna's decision to commit suicide preserves not only her children, but also her reputation and her independence in a society devoid of options for women desiring both.

Edna's decision to commit suicide is the best choice amid a lack of viable options available to women at the time. Society left no practical options for women who refused to conform to its ideals. Women were not supposed to be independent, single or artistic. The fact that Edna had to commit suicide to preserve her independence and reputation is not a commentary on her, but rather the repressive, sexist society that offered women no other legitimate choices.

Works Cited

Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2003. Print.
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