The Awakening is a powerful historical novel of a woman struggling to degenerate from the ideal vision of a woman in 19th century society, the Angel of the House. However, the pressures from social institutions such as psychology, marriage, and class, are too overwhelming to bear, and ultimately leads to the book's tragic conclusion.
The Awakening takes place at the turn of the twentieth century in Louisiana. The novel starts out in the Grand Isles while the main character, Edna, and her family, consisting of her husband, Léonce and two boys, are there for the summer. While there, she develops a relationship with the property owner’s son, Robert Lebrun. There is no doubt that she loves her family, but as she says, “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” (Chopin 80). Her friend, Adèle Ratignolle, on the other hand, represents the idea of the Angel in the House, or what is known as the ideal domestic mother in this time. During Edna’s and Robert’s evolving affair, Edna starts to awake from her domestic slumber, until the relationship is suddenly interrupted by Robert’s departure to tend business matters in Mexico. Edna spends the remainder of the summer there with her family, and then returns to their charming mansion on Esplanade Street in New Orleans. There Edna continues to neglect her domestic duties, and continues in her affair with Robert via letters sent to Mademoiselle Reisz. Léonce begins to worry for his wife’s diminishing mental well being, and consults Doctor Mandelet, the family physician. The doctor advises Léonce to let Edna be, and she will return to her normal self in no time. Eventually, Léonce leaves for business in New York, while simultaneously, the children are swooped off to Iberville by their Grandmother Pontellier. During her isolation, Edna gets bored of domestic life and decides to abandon the vacuous mansion and moves into a modest house down the street. Robert eventually returns, and upon meeting with Edna, they rekindle the flames of passion! But the fire is quickly doused once again, because Robert leaves her again soon after. The book ends when Edna drowns herself in the sea at the Grand Isle. During the time period that this novel was written, men maintained class status through marriage and family rather than wealth. Women as property were key to defining this idea of family by representing the Angel of the House. Yet,simultaneously, women of color were barred from this ability to attain higher class status, thus, race served as an institution that policed marriage and class.
You Can't Choose Your Family
Marriage is an institution of ideals that Edna eventually chooses to resist. The ideal for the male is the patriarch; the ideal for the female is the angel of the household. There are examples of each role directly portrayed by other characters. The Ratignolle’s signified the epitome of the unification of these roles. They follow the social standard and the structure of the patriarch described by Carole Pateman. They uphold their standing in society by displaying the control of the patriarch, the presence of children, and the angelic woman secured within the home. In Carla Peterson's Keywords entry on Family, she states, "The father alone is entitled to property, which includes his wife and children, while the wife, as feme covert, is herself property and denied power of ownership" (Peterson 114). The children, considered property as well, signify the act of sex being solely reproductive giving light to the private sphere that the sexual contract was sent to. Marriage in The Awakening is portrayed as a necessary part of life and characters without this norm fit in the spheres outside the norm.
The separation of private and public produced the significant effect women’s behaviors have on men. The interaction between mother and children exists problematically because, historically, they are two properties functioning under a male's authority. This shows how “Men can be men only if women are unambiguously women…” (Carolyn Heilbrun 20). This is seen in The Awakening through Edna's relief at the absence of her children when they are sent to Iberville. Through her single discourse we see how she constantly compares herself to Adele. She describes herself as “not that type of woman”. Yet at the same time Adele represents the only “acceptable” woman in that time period. Adele’s personification of the Angel of the household, as the perfect acceptable woman, is supported by the lack of discourse of her children. She is given privacy because of her representation of normalcy. Therefore, Monsieur Ratignolle does not fear judgment because his property interacts according to acceptable notions of society. Yet Monsieur Pontellier does fear judgment because of Edna’s actions. This illustrates that in order for men of this time to maintain the appearance of class, they had to depend upon their wives to embody the Angel of the House. Preserving class status was not so much about money, but portraying society's notion of the ideal family.
The men in the novel display a social consciousness of their status in respect to their wives. For instance, when Edna decides to move to her humble house, Léonce goes through extensive preparations in order to uphold the appearance of upper status. He remodeled his house in order to make it seem like Edna wasn’t moving out on her own accord. “…in one of the daily papers appeared a brief notice to the affect that Mr. and Mrs. Pontellier were contemplating a summer sojourn abroad, and that their handsome residence on Esplanade street was undergoing sumptuous alterations, and would not be ready for occupancy until their return. Mr. Pontellier had saved appearances!” (Chopin 156). This scene is ironic because he wasn’t suspecting scandal. Instead, Léonce was more worried that the public would interpret this act as the family not being able to maintain their class status. In Foucault’s argument about discourse, in this instance Léonce is forced to speak in order to maintain his appearance in society, thus continuing to regulate the norm. Also, another example would be that of Arobin. He says, “There are so many inquisitive people and institutions abounding…that one is really forced as a matter of convenience these days to assume the virtue of an occupation if he has it not” (Chopin 146). Again, he is forced to get a job in order to maintain his status in society. Both men are trying to secure their class rank through means that assure their whiteness. Mr. Pontellier secures his whiteness through his wife by trusting that she has the ability to be the Angel of the household. Arobin, since he is not married, places himself under society's commonplace notions by maintaining an occupation. This secures his status and therefore whiteness in society because it is within the norm that emerged for a middle class white man. Men, and women, of other heritage did not have the opportunity to function as these men did.
Race as a barrier
The Awakening serves as a good occasion to think about how the ideas of marriage and class are also simultaneously structured around race. In the novel, the ideals of marriage and class are only available to white women. Women of color, such as Mariequita and the Quadroons, are only afforded certain class statuses that place them below all of the white characters in a class hierarchy system. In this way, race acts as a barrier to marriage and class status. Race also constricts the way in which white women and men are to behave. Edna can never behave or dress the way Mariequita does and must uphold her status as an angel of the house. Simultaneously, the white men must maintain appearances of a higher class. In addition, women of color in the novel are also hyper-sexualized. Even Edna believes that "Mariequita represents unnattainable sexuality" (Rebecca Aanerud 41). This is historically accurate because women of color have been subject to much sexual exploitation, especially during the era when this novel was written. Although the women of color in the novel appear as free sexual beings, they are never given their own agency, in contrary to Edna and Adèle.
Psychology has a presence in the novel portrayed by the time-period. There is a drive within the characters to inquire of, specifically Edna’s, thoughts, past experiences, and feelings. We also see a self-analysis from Edna. She expresses the sensations of feelings but has no vocabulary to voice them. Since this novel takes place near 1900, psychology has just begun a critique into the shift in family conduct, so even by history’s standard there was not a vocabulary to describe this “restlessness in the nations’ women” (Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg 110). Psychology is an institution directly based on discourse, Foucault’s most important concept, and as such was invented mostly to fill in the gaps of other institutions discourse. Psychoanalysis provided an opportunity for there to be a discourse that identified behavioral “disturbances” and gave an opening for those in power to enforce social norms. “…then entering therapy begins a project of retronarration in which desires that exceed social conventions invariably find their origin stories in the rubric of individual trauma or childhood deprivations” (Laura Kipnis 304). Edna wants to understand what she is experiencing but there is no structure for her that will allow her to follow her feelings. This novel is a great example for why psychology began at this time. Discourses began to inquire why people were the way they were and why they made the choices that they did. Dr. Mandalet recognized Edna's behavior but because psychology was not established yet, he could not interfere and advised to let things happen. Perhaps if psychology established itself before Edna began "Awakening" she would not have reached her tragic ending.
1) Who does the speaking?
The public is speaking for themselves on an individual basis. Each account is personal for that character and how that character wishes to be regarded by society. For example, in dealing with class situations, each person has their own responsibility to uphold their position. Doing so, however, reinforces the norms. Edna is unable to speak her true desires because it would go against the norms. Mariequita is not held to those same norms, so she is able to talk freely.
2) What institutions prompt people to speak?
Marriage is an institution that prompts people to speak. The Ratignolle’s tell Edna of their ideal marriage in the scene where Edna visits Adèle in New Orleans. Psychology prompts people to speak because it wishes to identify the anomalies in social norms, or as Foucault would say, “peripheral sexualities”. Race and class as an institution prompt people to speak as well, as seen in the example where Léonce “saves appearances”.
3) How has the "invention of the bourgeois family" contributed new meanings applied to sex/gender?
The invention of the bourgeois family has created norms around the roles that women have in the domestic sphere. This can be seen through the concept of the Angel in the House, which in the novel, is represented by Adèle. Her reproduction and mothering skills in addition to her position as a white upper class woman make her the paradigm for an Angel in the House.
4) How has the family established a system for including or excluding individuals or groups based on race or class?
In The Awakening, all of the individuals who aren’t white seem to live by themselves without a family. The life of the upper class white families are distinct and preserved through social norms, which people of color are not held to. Also, once someone gets married, they tend to be referred to by their married name (i.e. Madame Ratignolle and Monsieur Pontellier) whereas those who are supposedly single are usually referred to by their first name (i.e. Victor or Mariequita). Note how also, without the help of her colored servants, Edna's position as a mother would be unbearable.
Rebecca Aanerud. “Fictions of Whiteness: Speaking the Names of Whiteness in U. S. Literature.” Displacing Whiteness: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism. Ed. Ruth Frankenberg. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1997. 35-59.
Laura Kipnis. “Adultery.” Critical Inquiry 21.2 (1998): 289-327.
Carolyn Heilbrun. Writing a Woman’s Life. New York: Norton, 1988. 11-47.
Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg. “The Rise of the Companionate Family, 1900-1930.” Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life. New York: The Free Press, 1988.
Carole Pateman. “Contracting In.” The Sexual Contract. Stanford: Stanford UP. 1-18.
Michel Foucault. The History of Sexuality. Trans. Robert Hurley. Vol. 1. New York: Vintage Books, 1978. 18.
Peterson, Carla L. "Family." Ed. Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler. Keywords for American Cultural Studies (2007): 112-116.