Minor Female Characters
Looking at the situation of women some centuries ago, one can hardly deny that women had permanently been discriminated: Neither were they allowed to take part in political life, nor did they get a proper education or were granted any kind of selfhood. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, wives were still regarded as “the objects of others rather than as the free subjects of their own fates” (Fox-Genovese 35).
Looking at the situation of women nowadays, things obviously have improved: At least in industrialised countries women and men virtually are on equal footing regarding work, politics and even childcare.
One can only try to imagine the immense changes that must have taken place in society, and the effects those had on both, men and women. Yet those changes did not just happen by chance, they required strong, self-confident women who recognised themselves as individual human beings, who committed themselves to the tough struggle for their personal freedom and were prepared to make various sacrifices. Some were successful, but there are also countless examples of women who didn’t make it.
Kate Chopin´s “The Awakening” deals with the transcendentalist theme of women’s self-discovery and its consequences on the example of its protagonist Edna Pontellier.
Set in the late-nineteenth-century New Orleans, Louisiana, it provides the reader with a “considerable range of women’s behaviour during an era in which women were frequently categorised as similar in instincts and interests” (Solomon 119) and thus serves as a prime example for the analysis of the multiple roles that were open to the women of this time.
Although Chopin was neither a particularly political nor feminist writer, it is important to understand the political and social circumstances of that time; for that reason the novel’s historical context will be dealt with initially. The next step will be to focus on some minor female characters and their roles as well as their acceptance in society , followed by the final characterisation of Edna Pontellier.
The temporal setting Chopin chooses for “The Awakening” is the late nineteenth century.
Formerly, wives with all their belongings were regarded as their husbands´ property and they could not sign legal documents without the consent of their husbands. In the 1591st Article of the laws of Louisiana, women even were treated equally to insane, deaf, dumb and blind persons.
Yet with the end of the Civil War in 1865, changes took place regarding the conditions of life and labour of Southern women: Whereas financial support from relatives or even friends used to be the more dignified alternative of the two options of working or living of charity, the after-war situation made people realise that “a daughter’s bread may some day depend upon herself” (Tillett 125). This lead to an improved education of women, especially of the upper class, and enabled them to enter nearly all kinds of professions.
Furthermore one of the results of the Civil War was granting the blacks the right to vote, which caused revolts among diverse womens´ suffrage movements. Yet they achieved being allowed to vote on matters of local taxation before the nineteenhundreds, and then finally succeeded in their request for the general right to vote in 1920.
But also natural developments like urbanisation and industrialisation changed the traditional ways of life, and spreading Darwinism including its criticism of the Bible made their contribution to questioning traditions and to thinking about human nature and destiny.
Minor Female Characters
In “The Awakening” Chopin describes various kinds of role patterns open to women of that time.
Analysing every single female character, however, would go beyond the quantitative limit of this term paper. That’s why I do not pay attention to Madame Antoine, Mrs. Highcamp, the lady in black or the young pair of lovers, but rather concentrate on Madame Ratignolle, Madame Lebrun, Mademoiselle Reisz and Mariequita. They serve as foils to Edna and thus contrast and set off the main character’s traits and behaviour.
Adele Ratignolle, to start with, embodies the stereotype of the Creole women. As we will see later, this Creole environment is of significant importance to Edna, who, roughly speaking, doesn’t want to adapt to this way of life.
Firstly, one should know that the term Creoles actually describes the descendants of French or Spanish born in Louisiana. They are said to be quite conservative, especially regarding the role of women: “Women’s rights, for them, are the right to love and to be loved, and to name the babies rather than the next president or city officials” (Shaffter 121).
This strong maternal instinct is realised in the frequency of Adele´s pregnancies, for “about every two years she had a baby” (Chopin 527) and she is constantly sewing or knitting clothes for her children. Moreover she even uses her skill of playing the piano “as a pleasant hobby meant to enrich family life” (Solomon 118); in other words, she doesn’t keep up the music for her amusement’s sake, but “on account of the children” (Chopin 535) and as “a means of brightening the home” (Chopin 535).
Unable to dance, yet “gaily consent[ing] to play for the others” (Chopin 535) one night on Grand Isle, she is internally characterised as a very selfless, amiable person, whose happiness depends on the well-being of others.
But she not only worships her children, she is a perfect wife, too. Being a good housekeeper and behaving devotedly, she also is “keenly interested in everything he said 1, laying down her fork the better to listen, chiming in, taking the words out of his mouth" (Chopin 552). In describing the Ratignolle´s relationship to one another, Ringe comes up with the simile of “two individuals who, like right hand and left, heart and soul, have indeed become one” (Ringe 204).
1 “he” refers to Mr. Ratignolle