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By reading The Awakening, the reader gets a sense of what the life of a Creole woman is like. In actuality, though, it is not until reading the etiquette books, Chopin’s biographical information, and essays about the treatment of women at the time that there can be a deeper understanding of the rules Edna is breaking.
Passages from Chopin's Biographical Information
Fawned over as a society belle, admired for her cleverness and musical talent, Kate wrote what she really thought in her diary: “I dance with people I despise; amuse myself with men whose only talent is in their feet.” She wrote advice about how to flirt (just keep asking, “What do you think?” and you will be praised everywhere for your intelligence). (116)
The sarcasm and wit of Kate Chopin can be seen and heard through the character of Edna Pontellier. Just from this small excerpt in Chopin’s diary, we can hear the similarities. In The Awakening, Edna seems to move through the Creole social scene in a daze, possibly because she despised all of it. But when she was alone with her thoughts, she appears quite aware of what she wanted and needed to be happy.
I feel that although many critics say that The Awakening is not based on Chopin’s own life, the author has taken many aspects of her own personal life to develop characters. For example, the biographical information says that Chopin’s husband is an attentive, loving man. I think that Robert is, in part, modeled after him.
Here is a passage dealing with the rules of etiquette that Edna is breaking:
Let nothing, but the most imperative duty, call you out upon your reception day. Your callers are, in a measure, invited guests, and it will be an insulting mark of rudeness to be out when they call. Neither can you be excused, except in case of sickness. (123)
The amount of etiquette that must be learned by these women is astounding. The articles give the reader a real appreciation for the social faux pas that Edna is committing. Before reading this, I did not quite understand how far from the norm Edna is straying. After reading this excerpt, I fully realize why it is such a dire situation to Leonce when Edna went out on her reception day. The rules made it sound like women needed to be home on their day to have guests; and on the other days, they needed to be out visiting.
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Passage from Southern Womanhood
They are accomplished women rather than intellectual. Women’s rights, for them, are the right to love and be loved, and to name the babies rather than the next president or city officials.
They are not club women, they do not aspire to fame, and it is true that the average Creole woman cannot compete, in some respects, with her American sisters. (139)
This passage is interesting to me because it made it sound as though Creole women are very highly esteemed, but at the same time they are not as competent as other American women. This made me think of play dolls. The Creole women are the dolls to look at, and the other American women are the dolls that could be played with. Although the author comes across as saying Creoles are less than other women in the country, I think the real message is that the Creole woman is above reproach because she is well rounded and content with every aspect of her life.
Passage from Are Women Growing Selfish? (145-46)
This is my favorite passage in my entire section. I think people are scared when women began to take more of an interest in themselves because then they are more aware of what they want and less dutiful in making everyone else happy. While I enjoy this passage, I also feel that there should be some middle ground between being a devoted wife and mother, and being independent. At the time, it seemed that rich women did not have a lot of contact with their children anyway, so when Edna talked of her children as if they were a burden, I did not have much sympathy for her. In the story, she maybe spent three months with her kids. Even when they were around, a quadroon was watching them.
Cully, Margo, ed. The Awakening. By Kate Chopin. 1899. New York: Norton, 1994.
Dix, Dorothy. "Are Women Growing Selfish." Cully 144-51.
---"An Etiquette/Advice Book Sampler." Cully 122-30.
Koloski, Bernard. Approaches to Teaching Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. New York,1988.
Tillet, Wilbur Fisk. From Southern Womanhood. Cully 139-44.