Interpretations of Nature and Gender in Kate Chopin's "The Awakening" and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "Herland"

Examination Thesis 2009 74 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Comparative Literature


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Conceptions about the Nature of the Different Genders in Nineteenth-Century American Society .

3. Nature and Gender in The Awakening .
3.1 Female Nature
3.2 Male Nature
3.3 The Role of Nature in its Physical Appearances and Natural Processes
3.4 The Role of Human’s Inner Nature .

4. Nature and Gender in Herland
4.1 Female Nature
4.2 Male Nature
4.3 The Role of Nature in its Physical Appearances and Natural Processes
4.4 The Role of Human’s Inner Nature

5. Contrasts between the Conception of Nature and Gender in The Awakening and Herland and their Rationales
5.1 The Relationship between Humans and Nature
5.2 Female Nature in General
5.3 Female Sexuality
5.4 The Relationship between Female and Male Nature

6. Conclusion

7. List of Works Cited

1. Introduction

The following thesis will deal with Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening.

Herland, a utopian novel published in 1915, in which Gilman satirically portrays and denaturalizes “gender relations in the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century” (Chloé 23), is “recognized as a feminist classic” (Gough and Rudd 1), and its author was renowned as “America’s leading feminist writer and lecturer at the turn of the century” (Solomon (1992) xi-xii). The Awakening, a novel published in 1899, in which the female protagonist rebels “against female conformity” (Kinnison 23), has also often been considered a feminist work for its—for the time—daring subject, and also Helen Taylor points to “its feminist subtext” ((1989) 202).

Near contemporaries, Chopin and Gilman have both been “described as ‘New Women’” (Beer 93), as they have both challenged assumptions about the female nature in their works—correspondingly, The Awakening and Herland can both be called “dissection[s] of the ways in which society distorts a woman’s true nature” (Wolff (1996) 77)—and as both have passed criticism on prevailing roles and restrictions of women in their society and “laid claim to new freedoms” for women (Beer 93). Furthermore, both had freed their mind from what was told and expected by their society and instead formed their own views on life, with regard to which both can be said to have been in some ways ahead of their time.

In consideration of these common grounds, it is tempting to treat Herland and The Awakening as kindred in their underlying motivations and also, to put Chopin and Gilman on one level with each other, concerning their attitudes, when dealing superficially with them. Nevertheless, caution should be exercised in this respect, as it would definitely be oversimplified and inadequate to do so, as in fact, the two women’s beliefs and respective philosophy of life differ considerably. Hence, The Awakening and Herland are largely based on different underlying motivations and therefore, are to be understood and interpreted in different ways.

The following work will analyze the way Gilman and Chopin respectively deal with nature and gender in Herland and The Awakening, as these subject matters are central to both works, and the issue of gender seems to superficially affiliate the works as both feminist works. The focuses will be, firstly, on how they depict the different genders and portray their respective natures and, secondly, on what kind of relationship each of them devises between humans and nature, that is, the role they assign to nature in its different manifestations—its physical appearance and natural processes, as well as human’s inner nature—in each work. Moreover, the thesis will point out contrasts between the respective depictions and provide explanations for these by drawing on personal convictions of Chopin and Gilman, as these are the key to achieving a full understanding of each of the works and of the respective underlying motivations. In doing so, some of the authors’ differences in conviction shall be clarified, thereby distinguishing them from each other.

The first section will provide important background information concerning prevalent convictions about the nature of the different genders in Chopin’s and Gilman’s time, as well as where those convictions originated in and how they affected men’s and women’s respective roles in American society then. To be familiar with this historical and cultural background is essential for a proper understanding of both works, as it constitutes the background on which both authors drew for Herland and The Awakening, and to which both works can be understood as a reaction, albeit in different ways. In two subsequent sections, an analysis of each of the works with regard to the conception of nature and gender will follow, and the final section will deal will the said contrasts.

2. Conceptions about the Nature of the Different Genders in Nineteenth-Century American Society

During the lifetimes of Gilman and Chopin, highly stereotypical conceptions of the nature of the different genders were prevalent in America. Men and women were respectively ascribed certain fixed stereotypes of character traits, dispositions and capabilities, which were believed to be given by biology. Therewith, each of them was essentialized to be a highly consistent group, differing fundamentally from the other gender. As a consequence of this, they were assigned different roles in society, which nature allegedly dictated for them.

Women’s assigned role was the domestic sphere, where they raised children and did domestic kinds of work. For any kinds of work outside the domestic sphere they were regarded as not fit, which was again regarded as dictated by biology. Men, on the other hand, were regarded as naturally fit to do all kinds of work outside the domestic sphere, for example, engage in politics, do business and earn money. The “most extreme form of gender segregation yet seen in an industrialized nation” was prevalent in the “Victorian period” (Danahay 2).

What is more, women were regarded as inferior to men by nature and therefore did not have many rights. Their lives were circumscribed by severe restrictions, for example concerning their “permissible sexual activities,” “range of role choices” (Ortner 26) and behavior in general, and prevailing laws made them economically dependent on men who, for the most part, had the right to decide over their lives, as “[l]egally, marriage made a woman’s body the property of her husband” (Chloé 30).

But, nevertheless, these convictions were not a nineteenth-century novelty. One has to go further back in history to trace back the origin of women’s and men’s respective situation, standing, and relation to each other in nineteenth-century and, to some degree, still in early twentieth-century America.

A good starting point for this is the eighteenth century, in which there was a “bio-medical tradition [which] observed and defined humans” (MacCormack 21). This medical tradition established and “employed” a “nature/culture dichotomy in relation to gender” (Jordanova 53), which was mainly based on the differences between the male and the female body, and had consequences for the way men and women, as well as the relationship between them, were regarded and treated by society for a long time.

According to this nature/culture dichotomy, women were regarded as “subsumed under nature’s laws” (Jordanova 66) more than men, generally speaking, and therefore, were associated with nature. This association of woman with nature was based on the processes that are going on in a woman’s body, for example menstruation, which equals the “cyclicity” nature features (MacCormack 9). Another motivation to associate women with nature was that, in general, “proportionately more of a woman’s body space, for a greater percentage of her life-time, and at a certain […] cost to her personal health, strength, and general stability, is taken up with the natural processes surrounding the reproduction of the species” (Ortner 13). For this reason, woman was regarded as—as de Beauvoir phrased it—“more enslaved to the species than […] the male,” as her “animality is more manifest” (255). In other words, woman appears “to have stronger […] connections with nature” (Ortner 20) than man, on whom nature does not have such a great hold, as it were, as he was able to make himself more and more independent of nature, that is, to achieve more “transcendence of nature” than woman (Ortner 25).

Men, on the other hand, were associated with “culture” (Rosaldo 31). The rationale for this association was that man—in addition to being more independent of nature than woman—with his “capacity for abstract thought and intellectual genius” (Jordanova 44) was “celebrated” as having “the capacity […] to delve into the secrets of nature” (Jordanova 45) and thus having the capacity to “[bend] Nature to his will” (qtd. in Jordanova 53), which in the Enlightenment was “conceptualized as a male gift” (Jordanova 45). Women, contrariwise, “were deemed incapable of contributing [to “culture”] because of their [alleged] lack of analytical modes of thought” (Jordanova 62), and because—in contrast to men’s physical strength—their “general physical weakness” was regarded as making them unfit for “projects through which culture is generated and defined” (Ortner 14). A further reason why woman was deemed incapable of contributing was the fact that man had “constructed civilization for the purpose of distancing nature and reducing its ability to limit him” (Gentry 23), and woman obviously was not able to distance herself from nature to the same degree. Moreover, as Ortner put it, man creates “lasting, eternal, transcendent objects” and thus “remodels the face of the earth,” whereas woman merely “creates […] perishable human beings” (14).

Regarded from this point of view, it is male activities that “sustain culture” (Ortner 16).

This nature/culture dichotomy in relation to gender then constituted the rationale for the fact that men were regarded as superior to women. As “nature was […] that part of the world which men”—associated with culture—“mastered […] and made their own” (MacCormack 21), and woman was regarded as “a part of nature” (Ortner 12), and as “culture […] asserts itself to be […] superior in power to […] nature” because of its “ability to transform […] and ‘culturalize’ nature” (Ortner 11), the inferiority of woman was regarded as a fact, and “the secondary status of woman in society” (Ortner 5) thus justified.

Correspondingly, “[h]uman history, the growth of culture through the domination of nature, was the […] assertion of masculine ways over […] women” (Jordanova 61).

As a consequence—amongst others—of these theories, women and men were assigned fixed and separate respective roles in society, for which, as male physicians in the nineteenth century asserted, nature determined them (Smith-Rosenberg 260). To put it bluntly, the “medical argument” then was that “genitals determined gender, gender determined social role” (Smith-Rosenberg 23).

Hence, in the eyes of male physicians in the nineteenth century, “those aspects of woman’s physiology that were uniquely female—[…], pregnancy, childbirth, lactation, […]—determined all of a woman’s other physical and social experiences” (Smith-Rosenberg 22-3), and “established the reason and the rhythm of women’s lives” (Smith-Rosenberg 23). Consequently, because of women’s procreative function, it was regarded as their naturally assigned role to be mothers and care for their children and family in their homes, thereby also doing all kinds of domestic work (Rosaldo 24).

Men’s “sphere of activity,” on the other hand, was “defined at the level of interfamilial relations” (Ortner 18), because they are less physically involved in procreation and child-rearing. Moreover, because of their greater physical strength as well as their, allegedly, higher intelligence and thus capacity of transcendence of nature, they were assigned more varied roles. Hence, men’s “natural environment” was “being defined as the public sphere” (Danahay 15) and therefore, men were regarded as “the ‘natural’ proprietors of religion, ritual, politics, and other realms of cultural thought and action” (Ortner 18).

Accordingly, “gender-role-divisions” were once seen as simply “natural,” that is, as “the product […] of biological forces” (Smith-Rosenberg 12), because Victorian male medicals “clothed gender distinctions […] in the unchangeability of human biology” (Smith-Rosenberg 289). According to them, “[g]ender distinctions were rooted in biology, and so, therefore, was the patriarchal world order. For either women or men to question conventional gender distinctions […] would violate nature” (Smith-Rosenberg 47). Consequently, in late nineteenth century America and in part still in the early twentieth century, these separate roles and spheres for men and women were prevalent.

The already mentioned restrictions which were “placed upon” women and their activities (Ortner 26) also assumed their most extreme form ever in America in Victorian days. Ortner proposes as one rationale for these restrictions that, as “it is [woman] who transforms the newborn infant […] into a cultured human” (19), the “domestic unit and hence woman” is of high importance for culture and therefore, the “functions of the domestic unit must be closely controlled in order to ensure this outcome” (25). A further rationale for the said restrictions was that medical scientists were convinced that women were “more instinctive creature[s] than” men (Jordanova 64), which made them “prisoner[s] of tidal currents of an animal and uncontrollable nature” (Smith-Rosenberg 196). For this reason, they were thought to be “more easily dominated by extreme emotions” (Jordanova 66) and therefore, “conceptualized as dangerous because less amenable to the guiding light of reason” (Jordanova 66-7). Consequently, to minimize their “potential for disorder,” “strong social boundaries” were drawn “around them” (Jordanova 67).

What contributed to keeping up convictions about the natural differences between men and women in the nineteenth century was the emergence of evolutionary theories, which “provided a ‘natural’ explanation of gender differences” (MacCormack 7). Intellectuals believed, for example, that “differences in intelligence […] had developed naturally through the process of evolution” (Cotkin 79), as Darwin had suggested “that the struggle for existence […] had selected for men the qualities of courage, strength, imagination, and intellect. In contrast, women had developed a quickness of perception and strength of intuition (to better anticipate the needs of husband and children), as well as maternal tenderness” (Cotkin 76). So evolutionary theory “became popular in American social theory as a way to explain social differences between […] the sexes as essentially hereditary differences” (Hausman 494) and was, for example, “commonly used to defend a thesis of women’s intellectual backwardness” (Cotkin 76). Thus, scientific theories further “advocated the ‘natural’ subjugation of women to men” (Hausman 493) and endorsed the maintaining of separate spheres.

Besides the field of intellectual capacities, Darwin also supported the propagation of further sexual stereotypes. His “theory of sexual selection,” for example, “which aligns natural human impulses with those found in the animal kingdom,” also claimed the human male to be “the active agent in competition for available females” and therefore being “endowed with great passions. The female,” on the other hand, was claimed to be “passive” and “devoid of sexual appetites” by nature, as her “role” was “to attract the male whilst simultaneously curbing his enthusiasm through her modesty and maternal instinct” (Beer 67).

Moreover, in the nineteenth century, a crucial phenomenon with regard to gender was that “biological sex” was “pictured as pervasive,” that is, as prevailing in the whole body of a human, not just his or her sexual organs (Moi 11). Accordingly, “every habit, gesture, and activity” was “sexualized and categorized as male or female, masculine or feminine” (Moi 12). This gave way to the categorizing of “natural” female habits, gestures and occupations, as well as “natural” male ones (Beer 5), and “any transgression against [such] sexual norms” was regarded as “unnatural” (Moi 13). For example, activities like child-rearing and housework came to be regarded as naturally female occupations, whereas work outside the home and earning money as naturally male occupations. In the process, the “natural” and the “social” became intermingled and blurred and thus, also culturally constructed differences between men and women came to be held as grounded in biology and hence natural. As a consequence, women and men “developed a gender-specific sense of […] behavior” (Smith-Rosenberg 88), as they internalized the assertions about what is natural behavior for each of them. So, one could say, assertions about the genders became self-fulfilling prophecies.

Getting back to medical science, as already mentioned, medical science was crucial in promulgating gender stereotypes. Particularly in the nineteenth century, it promoted that “[w]omen and men were endowed with significantly different physical organizations” (Cotkin 76) and hence, were different in principle. Especially concerning women, medicine promulgated various fanciful stereotypes. It set up “apparently universal categories […] which implied the profound similarities of all women” (Jordanova 67) and thus “essentialized” them (Bauer and Lakritz 48). In the following, some examples will be provided to convey an impression of such stereotypes.

Medical scientists “presented evidence of women’s intellectual inferiority” in various ways. The “science of craniology,” for example, “demonstrated that women possessed smaller brains than men. Since bigger was better […] women could never hope for intellectual equality” (Cotkin 77). Accordingly, medical scientists were convinced that “reason and intelligence” are masculine (Jordanova 63) and made men the “bearers of modernity” (Jordanova 53), whereas they asserted that “passions and the emotions” were feminine (Jordanova 63) and made women “backward-looking” (McCormack 61) and capable of no more than repeating “hearsay and tittle tattle” and thus “impediments to […] progress” (Jordanova 51).

Moreover, the “female nervous system, doctors argued, was physiologically more sensitive and thus more difficult to subject to the will” (Smith-Rosenberg 206). Their rationale for the higher sensitiveness of women was that their fibers—in contrast to men’s—showed a “great mobility” (Jordanova 48).

What is more, the comparative “softness of women” was used as “a metaphor that was imaginatively built on to construct a whole image of the dependent nature of woman” (Jordanova 49). It was, for example, used to explain women as “delicate, passive and domestic” (Beer 5), “acquiescent” (Fox-Genovese (1979) 258) and “nervous” (Smith-Rosenberg 23) creatures by biology.

Moreover, Victorian physicians asserted that whereas “[w]ithin the male body, […] the brain and the heart […] dominated,” “the female’s body” was “dominated” by “the reproductive organs” (Smith-Rosenberg 258). Accordingly, “female physiology made women incapable of intellectual and physical exertion” (Cotkin 77). If they, in spite of warning, tried to pursue such exertion, it would have bad consequences for their health. In this way, scientific argumentation was used to justify some activities as permissible for women and others as not, as physicians also asserted that “physiology and lifestyle” affect each other (Jordanova 47). Psychologist, for example, claimed still at the turn of the century that “when adolescent girls subjected their nervous system to vigorous thought, they endangered their reproductive and emotional powers […] because excessive thought drained energy from their reproductive systems” (Cotkin 78). Physicians were convinced that the body of a woman “contained only a limited amount of energy” which was “needed for the full development of her uterus and ovaries.” Therefore, “virtually any interests outside the home […] were deplored” (Smith-Rosenberg 187), as the “woman who favored her mind at the expense of her ovaries […] would disorder a delicate physiological balance” (Smith-Rosenberg 258) and hence, “the woman who work[ed] outside of the home” was accused of committing “a biological crime” (qtd. in Bauer and Lakritz 48). Hence, the “lifestyle most frequently advocated for the young woman consisted of a routine of domestic tasks” (Smith-Rosenberg 187), as these “would appropriately serve […] to provide the best regimen for the full and proper development of her maternal organs” (Smith-Rosenberg 187-88).

“Such medical admonitions, published […] by America’s most eminent physicians […] exerted a strong influence” (Smith-Rosenberg 259) and “served as an absolute biological justification for woman’s […] role” (Smith-Rosenberg 195) as wife and mother and hence, for her assignment to the domestic sphere. They even “turned into political campaigns” (Smith-Rosenberg 23), as “physicians had formed an alliance with state legislators” (Smith-Rosenberg 24), and hence, were another crucial reason for the said restrictions placed upon women.

Relying on such ostensibly medical facts, Victorian physicians asserted that men’s superiority to women was a natural fact and justified “male dominance” over women as “’eternal verit[y]’ rooted in human biology” (Smith-Rosenberg 178). Consequently, “the authority of the husband over that of the wife” was taken for granted until “well into the twentieth century” (Chloé 30), and was secured by law.

Summing up, nature “has in the past provided both the conditions and the rationale for female subordination” (Rosaldo and Lamphere 14).

A further female stereotype which was promulgated by physicians was that women do not possess sexual feelings, which was the “official ‘scientific’ and ‘medical’ view” (Wolff (1996) 74) in the nineteenth century. “[R]espected medical writers,” by the 1860s and 1870s, argued that “frigidity was rooted in women’s very nature” and that women’s “only sexual desire […] was reproductive” (Smith-Rosenberg 23). Hence, in the nineteenth century medical view, all forms of sexuality which were not for reproduction were “organically ‘unnatural’” (Smith-Rosenberg 40).

A further significant phenomenon which supported the segregation of the different genders and women’s subordination to men in the nineteenth century was the formulation of the “Cult of True Womanhood,” with which “the male bourgeoisie elaborated, in an increasingly deterministic language, the original medico-scientific insistence that women’s biology was women’s destiny” (Smith-Rosenberg 178), in order “to justify economic and social inequalities between the sexes” (Papke 18). The “Cult of True Womanhood” “prescribed a […] role” for women “bounded by kitchen and nursery” (Smith-Rosenberg 13) and attributed to “true women” the characteristics of “piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity” (Welter). According to this cult, true women were “emotional, dependent, and gentle—[…] born follower[s]” (Smith-Rosenberg 199). Women who did not adopt these traits and instead asserted their own will were “defined as ‘unnatural’” (Smith-Rosenberg 245) by male physicians and pathologized as “hysterical” (Smith-Rosenberg 179). This view of women was “well-promoted and maintained […] until well after the turn of the century” and “supported by […] scientific theories” (Papke 12).

“Victorian gender ideology was riddled with contradictions” (Danahay 17), but still, “[m]ost people in the nineteenth century accepted the rigidly defined boundaries separating men and women into their respective public-private spheres” (Hill 13) and internalized the stereotypical views about the genders, accepting them as “universal ‘truths’” (Papke 17).

Nevertheless, in Chopin’s and Gilman’s time, women had begun to fight for more freedom, and circumstances for them were changing. Between 1880 and 1900, women “increasingly entered the public sphere to demand political and social equality,” and “the conceptual foundations for women’s rights were being laid” (Cotkin 74). Moreover, there was a “multiplication of female role alternatives” (Smith-Rosenberg 34) in these years. Furthermore, these years “saw the emergence of […] the New Woman” (Smith-Rosenberg 176) who repudiated “conventional gender distinctions and restrictions” (Smith-Rosenberg 288). As can be imagined, she met “resistance” (Beer 5) and was defined as “physiologically ‘unnatural’” (Smith-Rosenberg 245-46). But feminists, also “increasingly employ[ing] a […] scientific perspective,” just the way “antifeminist arguments […] had relied on […] science” (Cotkin 80), “insisted that […] [g]ender distinctions were artificial […] constructions” and hence, “[g]ender, not the New Woman, was ‘unnatural’” (Smith-Rosenberg 288).

Furthermore, by 1900, “significant numbers of women intellectuals” had become “proudly visible,” nevertheless, male intellectuals remained “reluctant to drop the idea of differences in intelligence between the sexes” (Cotkin 79).

For all the new opportunities that “were opened to women” in the late nineteenth century, “gender discrimination” was still rampant (Cotkin 83) and “freedom [for women] was limited” (Cotkin 93), as there were persistent “attempt[s] to maintain” Victorian convictions (Cotkin 131).

Those contemporary convictions about the nature of the different genders during the nineteenth and to some extent still in the early twentieth century, as well as the resulting roles for men and women in American society, constitute the backdrop of The Awakening and Herland, and to read the works against this background is essential for a proper understanding of them.

3. Nature and Gender in The Awakening

This section will provide an analysis of the way Chopin depicts the nature of the different genders in The Awakening, as well as of the role she ascribes to nature in its different manifestations—its physical appearance and natural processes, as well as human’s inner nature—and of how she devises the relationship between her characters and nature.

3.1 Female Nature

In The Awakening, there are several female characters which differ substantially in their respective traits, contrary to nineteenth-century stereotypical conviction.

The female protagonist, Edna Pontellier, is a quite complex character. In many respects, she is endowed with traits which were regarded as unnatural for women and, in turn, lacks traits which were deemed essential to women’s nature, but she still has some feminine traits as well. Another important female figure in the novel, Adèle Ratignolle, on the other hand, fits all female stereotypes that were common in the late nineteenth century, that is, she “epitomizes the traditional feminine role” (Gentry 30). A third female figure which is worth mentioning is Mademoiselle Reisz. She, on the contrary, is delineated as a stereotypical spinster, devoid of any feminine traits that were regarded as natural in women. She is an outsider in society because she refuses to live in accordance with convention and prefers living independently, even at the expense of personal relationships with others.

Nevertheless, this analysis of the novel’s female characters’ nature will exclusively concentrate on Edna and Adèle, with a special focus on the protagonist.

What is striking in the depiction of Edna’s body, to begin with, is that she is described as having “strong” hands (TA[1] 21) and “strong limbs” (TA 55) and as being “robust” (TA 105), which is contrary to the Victorian conception of woman as delicate and weak.

One aspect of her character which makes her “unnatural” for a woman from the point of view of nineteenth-century society is the way she feels for and behaves towards her husband. After several years of living as an obedient wife, she sheds her submissiveness and stops obeying to his wishes and commands and starts to assert her own ideas and wishes. That is, she stops satisfying his needs in favor of satisfying her own ones, and the author has her saying to her husband things like “Don’t speak to me like that again” (TA 50) and “I don’t wish to go in, and I don’t intend to” (TA 50). Edna’s behavior towards her husband conflicts with the stereotypes of woman as “acquiescent creature” (Fox-Genovese (1979) 258) and as naturally submissive, that is, as “born follower” (Smith-Rosenberg 199).

Nevertheless, we also learn that “[a]nother time she would […], through habit, have yielded to his desire; […] unthinkingly, as we walk, move, sit, stand, go […]” (TA 50). This alludes to the fact that she had obeyed his commands and thus complied with the “role” which was expected from her, as a woman and wife, by her society without questioning it so far, because it had seemed just natural to herself, just like so many other natural human actions, to be obedient and submissive. It had come to seem natural to her, because she had internalized the convictions of her society, which the people around her have preached all her life. One could say that extensive social training had deafened her natural instincts.

Moreover, the fact that she resolves to move out of the house in which she lives together with her husband into a house of her own (TA 99), and that she is convinced that she will “like […] the feeling of freedom and independence” (TA 100) which living by oneself involves, contradicts the conviction about “the dependent nature of woman” (Jordanova 49). With regard to this and the nineteenth-century view of women as “creatures in need of domestic security and comfort” (Solomon (1988) 119), provided by husbands, this character trait of Edna makes her appear highly unnatural.

Adèle Ratignolle, on the contrary, is pictured as “waiting for [her husband] at home” when he is away, and we come to know that she “was filled with vague dread, which only her husband’s presence could allay” (TA 110). This signifies that, in contrast to Edna, she is dependent of her husband’s comfort, and even more, also in other respects, Adèle feels for and behaves towards her husband the way it was regarded as natural for a wife. In one passage, we learn, for example, that she was “keenly interested in everything he said, laying down her fork the better to listen” (TA 76), which implies that—in contrast to Edna—she looks up to her husband as superior to her by nature and makes him the center of her life.

After Edna’s visiting them one day, we come to know that this “glimpse of domestic harmony […] gave her […] no longing. It was not a condition of life which fitted her, and she could see in it but an appalling and hopeless ennui” (TA 76). We get to know that marriage and a domestic kind of living do not satisfy her true nature, although marriage was regarded as the condition of living which satisfies every woman’s nature and women were deemed “domestic” (Beer 5) by nature.

A further aspect of Edna’s nature, which probably contradicts the nineteenth-century conception of women’s nature most of all, is the way she feels for her children. We come to know early in the novel that “Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother-woman” (TA 26) and that “she would […] sometimes forget [her children]” (TA 37). Over and over in the course of the novel, “the house-maid [takes] charge of the children” (TA 77), as Edna feels no inner drive to spend much time with her sons. We even learn that their “absence was a sort of relief, though she did not admit this, even to herself” (TA 37). This implies that Edna lacks the “strong maternal instinct” (Fletcher 195), that is, the overwhelmingly strong feelings a mother was claimed to have for her children by nature. As nineteenth-century society regarded the bearing and raising of children as women’s purpose in life and as satisfying them to the highest degree, Edna is “an anomaly” in her society (Lattin 41). She feels that she does not fit into the mother-role, which she feels is “a responsibility […] for which Fate had not fitted her” (TA 37), although it was regarded as determined by biology that every woman fits into this role. Nevertheless, she is not yet conscious of that, which is implied when we come to know that she does not admit it to herself. The reason for that is that she has been conditioned by her society to believe that it is natural to be a “mother-woman,” and thus cannot imagine otherwise. That is, her conditioning by society and her internalization of the convictions of her society have led to a blocking of the connection between her consciousness and her true nature. As a consequence, she has no access to her true nature and thus, is thoroughly the product of her culture, as it were.

Adèle, in contrast, is pictured as a “mother-woman” to the core. We learn, for example, that “[a]bout every two years she had a baby,” and that she is “always talking about her ‘condition’” (TA 27), and when, in one passage, “[h]er little ones ran to meet her. Two of them clung about her […], the third she took from its nurse and with a thousand endearments bore it along in her own fond, encircling arms” (TA 31), the contrast of the relationship between Adèle and her children to that of Edna and her sons is striking, as Adèle’s children are crazy about her, and she is about them.

A further prominent aspect of Edna’s nature which was regarded as unnatural for women is her self-centeredness, which marches upon selfishness at times. In the nineteenth century, it was regarded as natural in women to be selfless and modest and live merely to satisfy the needs of their families, but Edna, instead, puts her interests first. This is made strikingly clear, for example, when Adèle is depicted sewing “a marvel of construction, fashioned to enclose a baby’s body so effectually” (TA 27), while Edna is related to be “quite at rest concerning the present material needs of her children” (TA 27). Generally speaking, whereas Adèle exclusively has the well-being of her children and her husband on her mind, Edna is more interested in her own concerns than in the well-being of her family. This becomes also clear with regard to the two women’s respective hobbies—Adèle’s piano-playing and Edna’s painting. Whereas Adèle is “keeping up her music on account of the children” (TA 43) and not for her own satisfaction, “because she and her husband […] [consider] it a means of brightening the home” (TA 43), Edna “dr[a]w[s] satisfaction from the work in itself” (TA 93), that is, she works solely for her own satisfaction. What is more, she even declares that she “do[es]n’t want anything but [her] own way” (TA 133) and tells Adèle “that she would never sacrifice herself for her children, or for any one” (TA 67), the latter of which is an especially unnatural attitude for a mother from the point of view of nineteenth-century society. Besides, Edna’s adding that “it’s […] something which I am beginning to comprehend” (TA 67) implies that she starts becoming aware of her true nature which had been repressed for so many years, as a consequence of the indoctrination of the convictions of her society.

Summing up, although it was regarded as essential to women’s nature, Edna sees her husband and her sons “not as the reason for her existence but rather as antagonists who seek to thwart her growth” (Gilmore 62), which for her becomes the center of her life in the course of the novel.

When we become further acquainted with Edna’s nature, we get to know that she has various appetites, “for anything that will heat her blood” (Delbanco 101), but mostly for sensuous experiences. Thus, Edna subverts the prevalent assumption that women have no appetites apart from childrearing and living to satisfy the needs of her family.

Correspondingly, Edna is related to feel “very hungry” (TA 135) with striking frequency in the novel, and to eat in order to satisfy her hunger, for example, when she “was hungry again […] [and] opened a bottle of beer […] and munched a cracker” (TA 95). Her frequent hunger might symbolize that various unsatisfied desires and yearnings are slumbering within her, which long for satisfaction. So, eating seems likely to be a substitute action for the satisfaction of other appetites. We also come to know that her “heart” is “hungry” (TA 124), which likely symbolizes hunger for love and passion.

Adèle, on the contrary, is related to have “so little appetite” (TA 116), which might imply that she does not have desires that yearn to be satisfied, as she is absolutely fulfilled by her role as mother and wife.

A further trait of Edna which is utterly at odds with the convictions about women’s nature is her manner of openly expressing her thoughts and feelings and actively trying to get what she wants. One example is her calling on Robert one day, to ask him to come with her to a nearby island (TA 51), as she feels the desire to spend time with him. In doing so, she steps out of her passive role into an active role, which was regarded as unnatural for women, who were deemed “passive” by nature (Beer 67). What is more, her act of calling on Robert can be regarded as an act of sexual selection, as she is genuinely interested in Robert as a potential lover. This makes her appear even more unnatural, as men were regarded as the natural selectors at that time.

A further example of Edna’s active and outspoken manner occurs much later in the novel, when she reproaches Robert for his distant behavior towards her. In this scene, Chopin has her saying to him: “I suppose this is what you would call unwomanly; but I have got into a habit of expressing myself” (TA 127). She even says to him frankly: “I love you” (TA 130) and “we shall love each other” (TA 130) and takes the initiative of kissing him, “put[ting] her hand up to his face and press[ing] his cheek against her own” (TA 128). She also takes “his face between her hands and look[s] into it as if she would never withdraw her eyes more” (TA 129). With such a direct and desirous behavior, that openly expressing her feelings for Robert, she completely subverts the conception of natural passivity and “modesty” in women, which was said to serve to “curb” men’s natural “enthusiasm” (Beer 67). Instead, in this scene, it is Edna who displays the said enthusiasm, whereby she symbolically reverses gender roles.

A further aspect of Edna’s character which was then regarded as being at odds with female nature is revealed when, in a later passage, we learn that Edna “could picture at that moment no greater bliss […] than possession of the beloved one” (TA 133). With regard to the nineteenth-century view of the natural relation between the genders, Edna’s desire to “possess” a man is highly unnatural, as men were ascribed the role of “possessors” of women, which was regarded as justified by biology.

A further way in which Edna is an unnatural specimen of a nineteenth-century woman is that she—as mentioned before—does not feel comfortable in the domestic sphere. We come to know that she prefers the public sphere instead, as she is related to leave the domestic sphere whenever she has the opportunity, in favor of seeking open places. We learn, for instance, that she “[feels] like going out” (TA 70) time and again as she likes “to wander alone into strange […] places” (TA 78). The public sphere was exclusively assigned to men, though. In nineteenth-century New Orleans society’s view, “the unaccompanied stroller, the observer of the ‘spectacle’ of the city—[was] invariably masculine” (Beer 78). This means that Edna once again subverts the ostensible natural order for the genders by claiming “masculine freedom” (Schweitzer 91), as it were.

In addition to the already mentioned examples, Edna also violates the conception of the nature of women in that she has sexual appetite. As aforesaid, to nineteenth-century physicians, it “was literally unimaginable that any […] woman would experience sexual appetite as an immediate […] drive” (Wolff (1996) 74). But Edna proves them wrong. Not only does she have sexual desire for Robert, she also starts an affair with Alcée Arobin, to whom she is driven solely by her sexual appetite. She is, for example, related to have reacted to the touch of his skin by feeling a “quick impulse that was somewhat spasmodic” and “impelled her fingers to close in a sort of clutch upon his hand” (TA 96). Furthermore, we come to know that Arobin’s kiss “was a flaming torch that kindled desire” (TA 104), and that Arobin “could feel the response of her flesh to his touch” (TA 113), which implies sexual arousal and desire. The fact that Arobin is related to have “detected the latent sensuality [of Edna], which unfolded under his delicate sense of her nature’s requirements” (TA 126), implies that Edna’s nature even requires sexual satisfaction, and the fact that “her nature had really responded” to Arobin’s kiss (TA 104) implies that it is indeed essential to Edna’s nature to have sexual passions. What is more, her volitional engaging in an affair implies that, once realized that she has the capacity for sexual pleasure, “she does not reject her sexuality but rather embraces it” (Gentry 36) and thus “does become a fully sexual being” (Walker (1979) 254) in the course of the novel, contrary to the prevalent belief of women as “asexual” beings (Smith-Rosenberg 24). Moreover, it is made clear that Edna has no other feelings for Arobin than being sexually attracted to him, that is, she meets him solely in order to satisfy her physical desires. This becomes evident when we learn that “Alcée Arobin was absolutely nothing to her. Yet […] the touch of his lips […] had acted like a narcotic upon her” (TA 98). With regard to the fact that “[e]xperiencing passion separate from love,” that is, “a split between the physical and emotional” was regarded as “natural” for men, “but ‘unnatural’ […] for women” (Schweitzer 91), Edna is once more characterized as an “unnatural” woman.

A further peculiarity of Edna’s nature is that she perceives herself as an individual who has no obligations whatsoever to her husband, instead of conceiving of herself as her husband’s property and defining herself merely in relation to him, which was expected from wives. This becomes clear, for example, when Robert proposes to ask her husband whether he would be willing to set her free so that he could marry her, and she replies: “I am no longer one of Mr. Pontellier’s possessions to dispose of or not. I give myself where I choose” (TA 129).

A further ostensibly natural female trait which Edna disowns is “coquetry,” which we come to know she is “devoid of” (TA 88). Whereas “Madame [Ratignolle] coquette[s] with [men] in the most captivating and naïve manner” (TA 88), Edna “would never have felt moved to any kittenish display […] to any feline or feminine wiles to express herself” (TA 88). This also sets her apart from the then prevalent view of the nature of women.

Recapitulatory, from the examples given here, it becomes apparent that Edna disowns many traits which were deemed essential to women’s nature and, in turn, is endowed with traits that were ascribed to men’s nature. Moreover, she feels that the lifestyle which is expected from her—as a woman, wife and mother—does not suit her true nature, which she is trying to get to know in the course of the novel, as she has lost touch with it as a consequence of years of indoctrination of assertions about how women are. “In her quest for her true self, Edna loses […] her original gender connotations” and “abandons the prescribed ‘womanly’ manners” (Delbanco 121), as she starts following the promptings of her natural instincts rather than societal conventions. Therewith, Edna—and hence Chopin—challenges many convictions of nineteenth-century society.

Nevertheless, Edna also confirms some nineteenth-century female stereotypes, for example, that women are “more easily dominated by extreme emotions” (Jordanova 66) than men and driven by instinct rather than by reason, as will be explored in a later section. And for all her rebelliousness and yearning for freedom and independence, Edna equally longs for a fulfilling love-relationship with a man, which confirms the stereotype of women as emotionally dependent on a man.

With such a portrayal of the nature of a woman, that is, by endowing her female protagonist with contradicting traits and needs and thus making her a complex character, Chopin “suggests an internal landscape quite beyond the sort of reduction” (Bauer and Lakritz 50), which was put upon women in her society, and thus challenges the naturalization of female stereotypes as well as the essentialization of women.

3.2 Male Nature

Although there are more male figures in the novel than Léonce Pontellier, Robert Lebrun, and Dr. Mandelet, this section will concentrate only on these, with a focus on Léonce.

Léonce is endowed with many traits which were deemed naturally male and hence, can be said to embody various nineteenth-century male stereotypes.

One example is that, throughout the course of the novel, he is frequently associated with business and financial concerns. We learn, for example, that he is “acquainted with the market reports” (TA 20), that he has “his hands full with his brokerage business” (TA 24), that he “had gone […], looking up some cotton broker whom he wished to see in regard to securities, exchanges, stocks, bonds, […]” (TA 59), that “in his vest pocket […] was a ten-dollar bill” (TA 21), and that he “left his home in the mornings” and “returned […] in the evening” (TA 69). Thus, he is associated with the public sphere, in accordance with the conviction that this was men’s “natural environment” (Danahay 15). With reference to the nature/culture-dichotomy introduced above, one could say that he is thus associated with culture. The reference to the apparently trivial fact that he has money in his pocket alludes to his financial autonomy, which also was regarded as natural for men.


[1] Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. 1899


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Title: Interpretations of Nature and Gender in Kate Chopin's "The Awakening" and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "Herland"