A Spineless Submission

December 8, 2010
By Samantha Skelton SILVER, Shadow Hills, California
Samantha Skelton SILVER, Shadow Hills, California
5 articles 0 photos 0 comments

In The Awakening, by Kate Chopin, the struggling protagonist of the novel, Edna Pontellier, is warned that, like a bird, if she does not fly away from the ties of society and tradition that she has been caged in, she will find herself spiraling back into a weak and broken place. The author uses certain characters as foils for Edna to relate who they are in contrast to her and to fully illuminate who she is and who she wants to become. Edna’s choices directly reflect her goal to dare and defy the warning, but ultimately land her fluttering back to another locked cage. Mademoiselle Reisz, Adèle Ratignolle, and Edna’s children are all individuals who highlight central themes of the book, the search for personal identity and the consequences of passion vs. reason, which lead Edna’s suicide to be the price of a spineless submission.
Mademoiselle Reisz, the self motivated independent artist, is one of the first to constitute Edna’s search for her personal identity, but when Edna is challenged by the opportunity of self-devotion, she finds that dedication to her individuality and artistic expression alone will not satisfy her needs. For example, Edna claims herself an upcoming artist, but Mademoiselle Reisz proclaims that “one must possess many gifts-absolute gifts-which have not been acquired by one’s own effort. And moreover, to succeed, the artist must possess the courageous soul” (84). This statement proves that Mademoiselle Reisz provides and encourages Edna with the option for a social lifestyle that is not acceptable. This is valuable because it helps to illustrate the line Edna draws from where she is influenced enough to make that sacrifice to individuality and the artistic lifestyle, and where she simply will not have the drive to do so, nor will that satisfy her. Mademoiselle Reisz represents the alternate to the standard Victorian woman. For example, when she performs for Edna on her piano with such passion “The music grew strange and fantastic-turbulent, insistent, plaintive, and soft with entreaty…the music filled the room. It floated out upon the night, over the housetops, the crescent of the river, losing itself in the silence of the upper air” (84). Piano playing was ordinarily just a hobby or a form of entertainment, but this shows how her provocative passion has become a form of self-expression. This is crucial because it attracts Edna’s rebellious nature, but at the same time that is the one and only thing Mademoiselle Reisz is passionate about; the rest of her life, in Edna’s eyes, is incomplete without one to love. Mademoiselle Reisz used her ‘wings’ the most to get away from society’s ties. As a result, Edna discovers that if she were to direct all her strength into becoming the individual artist, she will be wasting her time trying to distract herself from loneliness- the debt of pushing everyone away for that lifestyle.
Through her relations with Adèle Ratignolle, Edna finds that she cannot associate her personal identity with that of a “mother-woman”, which further develops her character. As Adèle strongly limits herself to an acceptable standard and employs a foil from the unconventional, Chopin begins to shed new light on the second path that Edna turns away from as she says, “She was moved by a kind of commiseration for Madame Ratignolle, - a pity for that colorless existence which never uplifted its possessor beyond the region of blind contentment, in which no moment of anguish ever visited her soul, in which she would never have the taste of life’s delirium” (74). This demonstrates Edna’s perception that Adèle lives her life solely for her husband and her children and has never looked beyond that. This is a key thought because Edna’s desire for individuality does not exist in Adèle’s shade of grey existence. Edna proceeds to express the contrast between sacrificing her being or, like Adèle, sacrificing her soul as she says, “I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself” (62). This shows how Adèle urges Edna to give in to the role that she herself has taken on. This is an important factor in Edna’s journey because her defiance further develops the plot and leads her farther away from a life where she complies to subdue her sensual thoughts and actions.
Edna’s childlike urges and perspective on life represent her repressed youth, but this born again enlightenment leads her to confront her children, Raoul and Etienne, and to decide whether the consequences of passion is greater than that of reason. For example, Edna’s children momentarily disrupt her ‘flight’ as Chopin adds that their existence also provides her with another option; “The children appeared before her like antagonists who had overcome her; who had overpowered and sought to drag her into the soul’s slavery for the rest of her days. But she knew a way to elude them” (151). Edna has to make the decision of whether she can still keep her soul, but sacrifice the value of her time for the sake of her children, but she finds that because of the pressures of society, it is impossible to do both. Unlike being married, Edna finds there is no way out for this rut in her self-discovery. For example, Edna does not take into consideration the significance her decisions will make and Madame Ratignolle says to her, “In some way you seem to me like a child, Edna. You seem to act without a certain amount of reflection which is necessary I life. This is the reason I want to say you mustn’t mind if I advise you to be a little careful while you are living her alone” (127). This proves that her rash actions will not always be the best choice. Although her children might have been a block in the road to the novel’s ending, they represent a final decision that will make or break her life. When weighing the consequences of freeing herself from her children and retaining her withheld individuality, Edna decides that self-expression will satisfy her more, ultimately leading straight into to ‘flight’ down into another cage.

Mademoiselle Reisz, Adèle Ratignolle, and Edna’s children are all key characters that Chopin uses to accentuate central themes of the book, the search for personal identity and the consequences of passion vs. reason. Throughout the novel, they each pose different pathways and explorations to Edna’s individualistic solitude which directly contrast and help advance the plot to her suicide. Edna’s failure to dare and defy, and inconsideration of the warning issued toward her, leave her feeling as if there is no way out. Kate Chopin chose to write this novel not only to tell the story of one woman’s journey to get to the goal of freedom from the ties of society, but of Victorian women of that era, and furthermore for eras to come. The search for personal identity and weighing certain consequences are apparent not only in my adolescence, but this novel reflects the contemplation I will encounter later in life; can I dare and defy? Like Edna, I can either make a decision to fly high above the ties of society or to come back weak and disabled. I would strongly recommend this novel to people of all ages because it makes you think twice about your own outtake on life. I would most definitely suggest more males to read this novel in order to reach a more profound understanding of a female mind; but beware this is not the tale of an empowering fulfillment it is the journey to a spineless submission.

The author's comments:
For Edna Pontellier, this was not the tale of an empowering fulfillment; it was the journey to a spineless submission.

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