Date of Award

11-2015

Document Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

Department

English

First Advisor

Denise D. Knight

Abstract

Kate Chopin’s female protagonists have long since fascinated literary critics, raising serious questions concerning the influence of nineteenth-century female gender roles in her writing. Published in 1899, The Awakening demonstrates the changeability of the various representations of woman. In the nineteenth century, the subject of women may be divided into two categories: the True Woman and the New Woman. The former were expected to “cherish and maintain the four cardinal virtues of piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity” (Khoshnood et al.), while the latter sought to move away from hearth and home in order to focus on education, professions, and political and/or social reform. Both categories of women point to the socially constructed ideas surrounding femininity in the late nineteenth century. In her highly influential work Gender Trouble, Judith Butler argues: The very subject of woman is no longer understood in stable or abiding terms. There is a great deal of material that not only questions the viability of “the subject” as the ultimate candidate for representation or, indeed, liberation, but there is very little agreement after all on what it is that constitutes, or ought to constitute, the category of women. (2) The Awakening coincided with a proliferation of magazines that helped craft and define the social roles and expectations of the nineteenth-century woman. However, since the subject of woman does not signify one common identity, issues concerning differences in religion, class, and ethnicity arise, resulting in exclusionary practices within nineteenth-century society. The problem with endeavoring to construct the True Woman or the New Woman lies in the inability to negotiate these multiple intersecting identities, and in the failure to combine them into one unifying concept. Thus far, critics remain divided when it comes to Edna Pontellier’s “awakening;” however the general consensus views her suicide as a failure to conform to either the True Woman or the New Woman identity. One critic argues that the “hegemonic institutions of the nineteenth century required women to be objects in marriage and in motherhood…with little opportunity for individuality” (Gray 53)1. However, while it is true that opportunities for women were limited in the nineteenth century, the emergence of the New Woman, an identity that manifested itself through the development of women’s social clubs, the creation of ladies’ magazines, etc., gave women the ability to step outside of traditional domestic roles. Edna, in an attempt to experiment with the roles of both the True Woman and the New Woman (the former embodied by Adèle Ratignolle, the latter by Mademoiselle Reisz), does not fit into either category. Nevertheless, this is not due to a failure on her part to conform. It is instead a triumph in that, right before her death, she eventually manages to live outside of the power structures that exist in order to shape and restrict female identity. Another critic explains that the novella is not simply about repression, but is instead: a novel about a woman whose shaping culture has, in general, refused her right to speak out freely; this is, moreover, a culture that construes a woman’s self-expression as a violation of sexual “purity” and a culture that has denied the existence of women’s libidinous potential altogether—has eliminated the very concept of sexual passion for “normal” women. (Wolff 6)2 While it is true that nineteenth-century American women were not permitted to express their sexuality (nor was it believed that they possessed sexuality at all), they did hold the right to speak out freely against fictitious gender roles and sexist male ideology in women’s magazines and journals. Wolff’s argument, however, implies the existence of a “normal” woman, or a common subject that denotes “woman.” Finally, another critic posits that Edna’s death at the end of the novella serves as an “example of what can happen to a protagonist whose unwillingness to continue dedicating herself to any of the available social roles leads her to abandon all of them in favor of an…elusive freedom [associated] with…idyllic childhood” (Ramos 147)3. While Ramos sees Edna’s unwillingness to dedicate herself to any of the available nineteenth-century social roles because she favors the idea of freedom associated with a so-called “idyllic childhood,” it is far more likely that her inability to conform to a socially constructed female identity (be it the identity of the True Woman or the New Woman) stems from the impossibility of overcoming religious, class, and ethnic barriers. This thesis will argue that while articles and images published in magazines and journals during the late nineteenth century, such as Ladies’ Home Journal, The Delineator, and the North American Review, helped produce the “cultural values and ideals against which…Edna Pontellier was measured and found wanting” (Walker 140), the social constructions of the True Woman and of the New Woman were still restrictive despite their seemingly opposite ideologies. Furthermore, Edna’s suicide did not indicate a failure on her part to conform to one identity or another. Instead, Edna triumphs at the end of the novella through her dismissal of either constructed female identity. Though her religious background, class, ethnicity, and sexuality precluded the possibility of her ever coming to embody the morals of the True Woman, as Adèle Ratignolle does, and though she never quite manages to succeed in becoming a New Woman, like Mademoiselle Reisz, Edna transcends these limiting categories of woman, eventually freeing herself from oppression in the final moments before her implied death. Like the contrasting identities, the setting of the novella is divided: the first half takes place in Grand Isle, where Edna befriends Adèle Ratignolle, the exemplary True Woman. The second half traces Edna’s friendship with Mademoiselle Reisz—a spinster, though a fiercely self-sufficient New Woman—along with her attempts at becoming independent. Even the novel itself, with its interesting split in representation of women causes the reader to ask: is this a New Woman novel or a True woman novel? Did Chopin mean it to be one or the other? Did she simply intend to write a study of women in her era? Or is it an examination of an empty marriage?

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