Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening presents a woman’s quest for self-fulfillment in a society that limits the freedom of women. Through Chopin’s depiction of Edna Pontellier’s individualistic awakening in 19th century society alongside characters that exude the custom and expected qualities esteemed for women of her class, Chopin shocked her contemporaries by illustrating a woman’s quest for personal desires. Although “The Awakening” was initially criticized because of its controversial subject matter, most critics today applaud Chopin for her feminist portrayal of an individual woman’s quest for self-expression, for she utilizes local color such as setting and Edna’s fellow characters to emphasize this awakening. However, bringing a critical eye to Chopin’s novel, some critics call attention to the limits of Edna’s awakening because even though she pursues individuality she never fully succeeds in her quest for selfhood because she still adheres to the confines of her society. In this way Chopin’s novel uses contrasting cultural forces in Edna’s society to reveal an unfulfilled quest for individuality.
Current debate regarding The Awakening involves a close analysis of Edna’s awakening and its juxtaposition in a society that oppressed women. Although almost all critics celebrate Chopin’s novel as a feminist depiction of a woman’s search for self-expression, some critics do point out the limits of this awakening. Edna’s awakening is so sudden during this one particular summer that critics question the seriousness of such an abrupt change in her view of herself as an individual. Likewise, while Edna breaks free from the constricting roles of wife and mother in 19th century society, she still views herself in relation to her husband and children, thus limiting her self-ownership as a true individual. My paper will engage in this critical discussion about The Awakening, examining Edna Pontellier’s awakening and its limitations due to her accordance with her society. By first introducing Edna’s 19th century society, in my paper I will discuss the role of the “mother-woman” and use Edna’s female contemporaries as examples of the esteemed qualities venerated in women of this society, such as Adele Ratignole who sacrifices herself for her children. After contrasting Edna’s unique individualism with Chopin’s other female characters, I will then present key readings of Edna’s awakening from Per Seyersted versus critics Michael Gilmore and Percival Pollard who call attention to her awakening’s shortcomings. While Seyersted compares Chopin to other American realists to reveal her fearless depiction of women’s quest for self-fulfillment, Gilmore and Pollard take a critical eye to The Awakening and exemplify Edna’s adherence to her society’s values even during her search for individuality. I will then extend Gilmore and Pollards argument regarding the limitations of Edna’s awakening, illustrating that Chopin’s modernism is conflicting because it blends elements that go against and at the same time support the ideology of Edna’s culture, thus leaving Edna with overwhelming loneliness instead of blissful freedom. In my research paper I will contend that although Chopin’s depiction of Edna’s awakening does capture her quest for individuality in a constricting society that oppresses women, Edna’s quest is ultimately unfulfilled because she never truly breaks free from the conforms of this society.