"The Awakening" is one of the 19th century outstanding novels written about the affairs of women in the patriarchal society of that time. Kate Chopin wrote this novel, and it was published in the year 1899 in the United States of America during which, the novel met numerous negative reviews since its content misconfigured with societal beliefs and traditions of the patriarchal society. The plot of this book depicts the protagonist, Edna Pontellier, struggling with the tough societal pressures and expectations to gain her freedom as a woman. This paper uses Marxist and Feminist theories to explore how the patriarchal society is unfair to women in Kate Chopin's novel "The Awakening," thereby justifying Edna's move for freedom. The main thesis statement is that the patriarchal society undermines freedom of women and their ability to contribute to the development of the society by considering them as properties of men.
Cultural Marxism postulates that the hierarchical position of individuals in a society is determined by their role in the economic production, and explains that ideological and political consciousness is determined by the position of a person's economic class. Therefore, the theory puts more concern for social values than the individual's concerns. This theory is important in understanding the repression for women in the novel, "The Awakening." On the other hand, feminism points to the various movements and struggles that aim to help women secure equal and fair position in society on the bases of social, economic, political, or personal concerns (Clark 1). This specifically concerns the demand for equal rights and freedom for women in society. Kate Chopin's story, 'The Awakening,' illustrates the various types of oppression that the Victorian women experience and ways in which they struggle to achieve their freedom, realizing that they can also be worthwhile individuals with meaningful contributions to the society.
Kate Chopin creates different social and economic status for her characters. Kate makes this vivid just from the beginning of the story. "He was aware of the market reports" (Chopin 4). Elsewhere, Kate narrates, "Mr. Pontellier was going back to his business in the city" (Chopin 8). This shows that Leonce Pontellier is a businessperson who is most likely a rich man and belongs to a high class. Pontellier's wealth sets up the stage for which the Marxist theory is based especially in the way he relates with his wife, Edna Pontellier, who according to Kate, comes from a relatively lower social background. Therefore, Mr. Leonce having more social and economic capabilities is entitled to have the voice over his wife Edna, who as a wife, should live to grant him comfort and pleasure as expected by the societal norms. Based on the Victorian norms, Leonce can comfortably marry any woman of his choice and use her as he wishes because he holds the basic freedom of choice and direction. Kate also presents Robert Lebrun, a young man aged 26 years as a vibrant man who strives to fit himself into the higher social class. "Robert spoke of his desire to go to Mexico in the autumn, where his fortune awaited him" (Chopin 6). This motive confirms the Marxist ideology that is fundamentally based on the belief in the individual's and society's creation of economic motives. According to Karl Marx, these motives create socio-economic demarcation among the people living in a society.
Moreover, a Marxist analysis of 'The Awakening' unveils how the characters' behaviors are shaped by capitalism. The construct of this capitalist society, that is, individualistic passions and motives to excel and achieve both social and economic success, causes Leonce to take his wife, Edna, for granted. Mr. Leonce mostly considers his business more precious and worth his time than staying with his wife just for pleasure. According to Kate, Mr. Pontellier regards his wife as merely a valuable piece of property just as his other materialistic properties. Kate writes that "Mr. Pontellier looked at Edna as if she was a beautiful piece of property" (Chopin 5). As a result, Edna lives a life that consists of "an outward existence that conforms and the inward life that questions" (Green 3). This goes on until Edna cannot take it anymore when she becomes a dissatisfied wife to Pontellier, an inappropriate mother to her children, as well as an unideal woman in the society. Edna realizes that the capitalist ideology is repressing her and forcing her to remain in the relationship that is not satisfying her wants as a woman and as a wife. She decides to take a step of confidence to rise above the impact of alienation and exploitation that the capitalist society had given her. She recognizes the great potential in herself and starts exploring her identity, her sexuality, personal awareness, control, and makes herself a free human being in the society. In this case, Kate Chopin lets her character, Edna Pontellier, to isolate herself and break the existing stereotypes from the structure of the classist society to become independent and create her identity as a worthwhile person for her future. However, "No such future is possible within the conditions of her reality" (Ramos 152).
Kate Chopin presents an interesting irony in that, Edna Pontellier dislikes being ill-treated by her capitalist husband, without realizing the subjugation she exerts upon her servants. For example, she alienates her servants from enjoying the benefit of their labor by asking them to stay in the backyard room instead of the beautifully built room on which they spent much of their efforts. Kate successfully creates a stream of ideological battles that are aligned with the Marxist melody throughout the novella. Considering the time in which Kate Chopin wrote this story, the class system existed and was highly regarded in society. As a result, the protagonist, Edna Pontellier, gets enlightened of both her class conscience and herself as well. Hence, the Marxist ideology thrives throughout the story.
In her book, "Creole Women," Mary Shaffter explains how cruel the society is, by even determining the dressing code for women. For example, "if a lady has a special day for receiving calls, her dress must be of silk" (Shaffter 126). This undermines the women's freedom of choice. The society kept women in a powerless position by assigning them low profile jobs and duties such as taking care of a home, granting their husbands comfort and pleasure, and bearing children while assigning men more prominent jobs that keep them ahead of women both economically, socially and politically such as doing business. Kate writes, "Mr. Pontellier reproached his wife for her inattention, the habitual neglect of her children. If it was not a woman's work to look after children, whose on earth was it? He had his hands full with his brokerage business (Chopin 7). This shows clearly the repression against women such that they must maintain their low level of social and economic status by discharging their low profile duties without failing whatsoever while men enjoy limitless freedom of excelling both socially and economically through engaging in business.
Edna Pontellier, the protagonist, embodies all the societal ideologies for which a woman in that era would make a great effort. She acknowledges herself as a whole, including her potentials, sexuality, strengths, and courage to act upon them. By falling in love with Robert Lebrun, Edna received the strength to explore her sexuality and got awakened of the freedom she has missed by confiding with the social norm that requires women to remain the property of their husbands. Given the negligent character and behavior of her husband, Edna Pontellier was not able to enjoy herself fully because the relationship robbed her the precious freedom she longed for. "Robert Lebrun was the first man to awaken her" (Eble 2). "As Edna thought about Robert, she realized that she had mistakenly married Leonce Pontellier" (Chopin 59). This shows that Edna had finally been awakened sexually by having a love affair outside her marriage leading to the feeling of great freedom and relief. The subtle and slow transformation from being called Mrs. Pontellier to just 'Edna' lightens the fact that she was never the property of her husband, Leonce Pontellier, but rather she fought to attain her forgotten identity and secured herself a place in the society.
In conclusion, both the Marxist and Feminist ideologies reveal how the patriarchal society undermines freedom of women and their ability to contribute to the development of the society by considering them as properties of men. Feminism, as a sociopolitical ideology awakens Edna to realize the need for being free from the restrictive norms and traditions of the patriarchal society. As a result, she breaks loose of the tight laws and expectations that held her so tightly to the unsatisfactory life as an ideal woman. On the other hand, Marxism, as a socioeconomic ideology puts more emphasis on the general welfare of the society concerning the people's socioeconomic affairs. Marxism reveals how capitalism can ruin the peace of individuals and their relations with each other. Therefore, it justifies the need for Edna to break loose from terrible regression of the female members in a society.
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening: And Selected Short Stories. , 2018.
Clark, Zoila. The bird that came out of the cage: A Foucauldian Feminist Approach to Kate Chopin's The Awakening. Routledge. 2008.
Eble, Kenneth. "A Forgotten Novel: Kate Chopin's The Awakening." Novels for Students, edited by Diane Telgen and Kevin Hile, vol. 3, Gale, 1998. Literature Resource Center, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/H1420012141/GLS?
Green, Suzanne D. "An overview of The Awakening." Literature Resource Center, Gale, 2018. Literature Resource Center, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/H1420000416/GLS?
Ramos, Peter. "Unbearable Realism: Freedom, Ethics and Identity in 'The Awakening.'" College Literature, vol. 37, no. 4, Fall 2010, pp. 145-165.
Shaffter, Mary L. Creole Women. 1898.
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