It is nearly impossible to completely separate the text and the character of Edna from the author of “The Awakening," Kate Chopin. The feminist ideas presented in The Awakening begin as mild sentiments but as the story progresses these suggestions of women’s empowerment become full-blown declarations, especially as Edna begins to awaken. Although one can certainly argue whether Edna was a noble or exemplary early feminist—or if she was merely a selfish woman who chose the easy path in the end—the text is valuable outside of the sheer literary aspect.
“The Awakening" contains a great deal of revealing information about the nature of gender relationships in the Victorian era and thus is able to define its feminine response by first detailing the setting from which it spawned. While one could suggest that Chopin was in fact a Victorian feminist ahead of her time, especially when one considers other stories by Kate Chopin, as by the end of the story categorizing this work in any way (as feminist or pro-Victorian) would be a mistake because of the complex nature of the period it is set in. A reader may not understand or like Edna and while many find her selfish and rash (and even manic-depressive) it is important to draw together the clues about her society, especially in terms of gender relations and standards to see what she was rebelling against before judging her. As a side note, it should be remembered that Chopin had enjoyed great success as a writer of “local color" stories that dealt mildly with issues of gender and sexuality but that “The Awakening" did not receive the great praise of her other, more “tame" stories. She died only a few years after the publication and subsequent ill reception of the story of Edna’s awakening and in this sense, it hard to separate Chopin from her female heroine.
Chopin had been raised in an intellectually open environment and was less familiar with the typical marital relationships of the Victorian era than many of her contemporaries. This set her apart as a unique, but ultimately too potent writer in a literary period that had not yet awakened to the more modern notions of feminism. Overall, for the purposes of this study, the fine line between author, narrator, and heroine is crossed and it seems useless to view this work as independent from the author’s most intense convictions. To make her points about the role of women in Victorian society, Chopin often presents a model of a certain ideal of the Victorian age and then offers the antithesis. In many cases the “model" is Madame Ratignolle or another “domestic goddess" and the antithesis of her is most certainly Edna.
To offer contrast to Edna’s rebelliousness in domestic and social affairs in “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin, there are a number of brief scenes, almost like paintings or a series of tableaux that are clean, direct reminders of how far the protagonist has strayed from her assigned duties as wife and mother as well as, on a much grander scale, the conventions of Victorian society. More often than not these reminders are expressed through glimpses into the world of Madame Ratignolle who is, unquestionably, the symbol of wifely perfection in Chopin’s story. Through these contrasts in domestic duty many of the central themes of the text are explored and the finer points of Victorian masculinity, femininity, social obligation and structure, and familial relationships are more fully developed. Admittedly, “The Awakening” concentrates, as per the title, on Edna’s awakening or rebirth into her “true" self but there are a number of other comments Chopin offers about these varies themes and it is impressive that so many ideas about the whole of life can be expressed through these images rather than direct character dialogue or narration.
Consider for example scenes that depict a distanced view of Madame Ratignolle and the images she represents. In one of the important quotes from “The Awakening” the narrator says, “She stood watching the fair woman walk down the long line of galleries with the grace and majesty which queens are sometimes supposed to possess. Her little ones ran to meet her. Two of them clung about her white skirts, the third she took from its nurse and with a thousand endearments bore it along in her own fond, encircling arms. Though, as everybody well knew, the doctor had forbidden her to lift so much as a pin" (27). This image, while fleeting and apparently used only to establish setting is filled with a number of insights into Victorian ideals of femininity. Mme. Ratignolle is the quintessential “mother-women" the text directly states Edna is not (22). Here we see from a distance, a woman in white with a great height and grace who may at first seem like a queen or other independent figure. The entrance of children who “cling to her skirts" as she lavishes kind words upon them and opens her arms to receive them overshadows this grace. She is at once like the Virgin Mary and Mother Earth—the symbol of piety (since she conforms to domestic/religious ideals of Victorian society) while also “the salt of the earth" as she is referred to as at one point in the text. It becomes apparent later in the text that she would be willing to sacrifice her life for her children, thus she is Holy Mother, Mother Earth, and Martyr clad in white—as pure as the Victorian ideals of her setting. Even with this seeming strength in bearing and being surrounded by her young, she is still appropriately vulnerable as she is not to “lift a pin" as per the doctor’s requests. Therefore, throughout “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin we have the picture of the ideal turn-of-the-century woman (although quite possibly not in the author’s eyes)—strong enough to bear children yet weak enough to be the pets of man.
This cycle of imagery repeats throughout “The Awakening”; women who conform to the Victorian domestic ideal are described in the most romanticized manner and their interactions with their children and husbands seem almost angelic to the narrator. One must wonder, however, how much irony Chopin is interjecting when she states in one of the important quotes from “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin, “The mother-women seemed to prevail that summer at Grand Isle. It was easy to know them, fluttering about with extended, protecting wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened their precious brood. They were women who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels" (22). These “mother-women" are described as angels but one must wonder if the fluttering wings are more like those seen in the opening sentence—the fluttering wings of a caged bird that grows tiresome and is able only to speak in repeated sentences. Here the clever irony and subtle word-play of Chopin is visible at its finest and although there is no real way to tell if there was something malicious in equating the caged parrots with the “ministering angels" it makes for fine fodder in the overall question of what the ideal Victorian woman should represent.
The reader—even from the postmodern feminist viewpoint—might view this as a symbol of absolute female perfection and ecstasy, Edna feels the exact opposite. Instead of her interactions being highlighted through short romanticized images, her interaction with her children as described in the text is perfunctory and without any of the same imagery or associations invoked by the “pictures" of Mme. Ratignolle. Her thoughts take precedence over images, “She was fond of her children in an uneven, impulsive way. She would sometimes gather them passionately to her heart; she would sometimes forget them. The year before they had spent part of the summer with their grandmother Pontellier in Iberville. Feeling secure regarding their happiness and welfare, she did not miss them except with an occasional intense longing. Their absence was a sort of relief, though she did not admit this, even to herself. It seemed to free her of a responsibility which she had blindly assumed and for which Fate had not fitted her" (24). Instead of being offered with images of her children, the reader is left only to imagine these fleeting moments of mother-child interaction. Unlike with the idealized relationships of Mme. Ratignolle, much of Edna’s raising of her children is out of necessity (tucking them in, scolding, etc.) and these events are minor parts of the story, only occasionally supplemented by her internalization of motherhood.
In the society represented in “The Awakening" it is clear that mothers who stray from the codified patterns of married female behavior are subject to the disapproval of their husbands. It is also clear that the husbands in the text, particularly Edna’s, feel it is necessary to intervene in the “sphere of woman" to make judgments of their profession as mother and wife. In her husband’s relationship with Edna there seems little question of his devotion to her, but one cannot ignore the pressing issue of economics that continually crops up anytime he finds himself dissatisfied with his wife. ““He reproached his wife with her inattention, her habitual neglect of the children. If it was not a mother’s place to look after children, who’s on earth was it? He himself had his hands full with his brokerage business.
He could not be in two places at once; making a living for his family on the street, and staying at home to see that no harm befell them" (31). Certainly gendered divisions of labor were the norm in Victorian society and it was considered a woman’s profession—her employment—to take care of the home and children. As evidenced in the text, if a woman (Edna, at least) were to fall short of the job requirements, she would get a reprimand from her overseer, her boss—her husband. The Colonel, Edna’s own father, reinforces this masculine duty in his son-in-law when he encourages him to apply practical business skills to domestic strife. He encourages, “You are too lenient, too lenient by far, Leonce,” asserted the Colonel. ‘Authority, coercion are what is needed. Put your foot down good and hard; the only way to manage a wife. Take my word for it." The idea that a wife should be managed as if an employee is an interesting insight into the late Victorian times especially in terms of the growing middle class and the dominance of industry, thus more capital. While much of the talk of the women is focused on the domestic, the men’s is centered in commerce, thus marriage itself is merely a part of the large world of trade, economics, and business generally.