by Allison Siegel
Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening challenges the stereotyped roles of women in society during the nineteenth century though the protagonist Edna Pontellier. Two other women from New Orleans, Louisiana, Madame Adele Ratignolle and Mademoiselle Reisz, are polar opposites. Chopin uses Madame Ratignolle to demonstrate the accepted conventions of Creole womanhood and Mademoiselle Reisz, the challenge to those conventions by the “New Woman.” Edna’s relationship with these two women throughout the novel embodies the journey she takes in her “awakening” and transformation from the accepted roles of wife and mother for which she is unsuited towards modern feminine independence (Chopin, 182).
Adele Ratignolle is the perfect Creole woman – a loving mother and wife dedicated to making those she loves happy. Her constant entertaining and catering to the needs of those around her leaves Madame Ratignolle with little time to pursue her own interests; Chopin never indicates that Madame Ratignolle has any passions outside of her relationships. Her self-image is superficial and material; she relies completely on her beauty and ability to woo people with charm, “There was nothing subtle or hidden about her charms; her beauty was all there, flaming and apparent” (Chopin, 17). When her hands are described, it is in the context of sewing child’s clothes – bringing together the image of absolute beauty and motherhood into one. In traditional Creole culture, this is the expected role that women should play. The Creole community relies on traditional roles for their close-knit society within New Orleans and their way of life on Grand Isle.
Mademoiselle Reisz is the polar opposite of Madame Ratignolle. Mademoiselle Reisz is a recluse who follows her own desires and passions with an obsession that her acquaintances see as selfish. Her disposition and appearance could not be more different than Madame Ratignolle; Reisz is described as, “a disagreeable little woman, no longer young, who had quarreled with almost everyone, owing to a temper which was self-assertive and a disposition to trample upon the right of others” (Chopin, 43) This description of Madamoiselle Reisz is completely opposite that of Madame Ratignolle in that it focuses on personality more than appearance. Mademoiselle Reisz is unmarried and rarely seen interacting with people unless she is invited to play piano at a gathering hosted by someone else, such as the one the Lebruns host. Her pursuit of music is her ultimate passion, and many admire her incredible talent, but her companions in this vacation spot have a hard time relating to her single-minded and unconventional pursuit and ostracize her because of it. She is the embodiment of Chopin’s idea of an independent woman pursuing her own goals –the opposite of what Creole society believed in.
Edna Pontellier falls in the middle of the spectrum set by these two women. Edna is said to be “rather handsome than beautiful” and not particularly feminine much less like Madame Ratignolle than Mademoiselle Reisz, but regardless of her appearance, she is pursued by multiple men throughout the novel because “her manner was engaging” (Chopin, 9). Her development into womanhood is hard to interpret because she is going through a period of self-discovery that causes all of her beliefs to change. The uncertainty and adventure involved in her stereotype-breaking transformation is reminiscent of a self-involved teenager. At the beginning of the novel, Edna is immersed in the Creole culture and therefore closest to Madame Ratignolle, opening her up to her feelings in a way that Edna’s Protestant upbringing didn’t allow. Once in-tune with these emotions, however, Edna realizes how unhappy she is with her life and her marriage and seeks the aid of Mademoiselle Reisz, who may help guide her in satisfying her own personal desires.
Edna’s relationship with Madame Ratignolle is closely connected with her infatuation with Robert. What Edna soon finds out, however, is that the two women have completely different mindsets about the young man and while Madame Ratignolle treats him as a plaything, Edna has serious romantic feelings for him. The distance between the two women’s thinking becomes more apparent as the two start to open up to each other and Edna cannot understand Madame Ratignolle’s desire to focus solely on family. Edna tries to share her passion for art with Madame Ratignolle, but when her attempted portrait looks nothing like her friend, Madame Ratignolle is, “greatly disappointed to find that it did not look like her” (Chopin, 22). Madame Ratignolle acknowledges that it is not a terrible attempt at art, even though Edna only “dabbles” with drawing saying, “it was a fair enough piece of work, and in many respects satisfying” (Chopin, 22). Madame Ratignolle cannot appreciate the things in life that do not benefit her relationships with other people, therefore not understanding the beauty or satisfaction that Edna finds in her art. Given their views on Robert’s companionship and their inability to connect on a higher level with personal interests, Edna realizes that the traditional Creole lifestyle is not something that she is cut out for.
Upon this “awakening,” Edna continues to transform her thinking with the help and guidance of Mademoiselle Reisz (Chopin, 182). The initial magnetic attraction that Edna has to Mademoiselle Reisz at the dinner party comes from the connection she feels to her artistic passion. Edna’s shift in admiration happens on that night, and the tables are officially turned. After leaving Grand Isle for the winter, Edna seeks out Mademoiselle Reisz multiple times, and only sees Madame Ratignolle in a social setting when Madame Ratignolle initiates the meeting. This shift also coincides with her level of seriousness towards Robert because the only way that she can hear from him while he is in Mexico through the letters Robert sends to Mademoiselle Reisz. Suddenly for Edna, all of the things she desires for her new self are in the hands of Mademoiselle Reisz. Even when away from Madamoiselle Reisz, Edna is consistent in her rejection of the Creole image of womanhood – rejecting the material things in her home that Madame Ratignolle would have admired and instead preferring her simple lifestyle in the pigeon house that she moves to signal her transformation.
The breaking point between Edna and Mademoiselle Reisz that separates Edna’s character from the extreme that Mademoiselle Reisz holds is when Mademoiselle Reisz tells her that moving into the pigeon house is a bad idea. She does not believe that total isolation is something that will be healthy for Edna, and does not want her to lose touch with all of her old life. Edna has all the ideals of the progressive Mademoiselle Reisz, but desires to connect with others in a way that Mademoiselle Reisz was unable to. Chopin distinguishes Edna from the traditional Madame Ratignolle, however, when Edna attends Madame Ratignolle’s childbirth. The entire time that she is there, Edna is uncomfortable with the event, “with an inward agony, with a flaming, outspoken revolt against the ways of Nature, she witnessed the scene of torture” (Chopin 182). Despite a woman’s biological ability to bear children, Edna does not think every woman is naturally drawn to motherhood.
Given her suicide at the end of the novel, Joseph Urgo argues that what Edna really accomplishes is not the full-fledged rebellion of Mademoiselle Reisz, but the feat of learning, “how to speak out; or, simply put, how to say No.” Urgo points out that Edna, “progresses…from a woman who appears to be muted, inarticulate, and incapable of telling a story to one in full possession of her own voice” (Urgo, 22). Edna may not have fully rebelled from society like Mademoiselle Reisz, but she opens her mind, recognizes the wrongs in her life, and speaks out against them. Edna arrived on Grand Isle for vacation with a closed mind and a timid nature, and under the friendly watch of Madame Ratignolle and the culture of comfort and openness of the island, she began to acknowledge her feelings Edna left Grand Isle, she was comfortable enough in herself to seek out the aid of Mademoiselle Reisz and actually articulate those new feelings and begin to act on them. By being brought into the center of Creole culture by Mademoiselle Ratignolle, Edna was able to find herself but it is the return to New Orleans and the growth of her friendship with Madame Reisz that fuels the fire of Edna’s rebellion.
Original Cover of The Awakening, 1899. Digital image. http://teacherpress.ocps.net/wellsml/files/2013/10/awakening1899.jpg
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. New York: Avon, 1972. Print.
Urgo, Joseph R. “A Prologue to Rebellion: “The Awakening” and the Habit of Self-Expression.” The Southern Literary Journal 20.1 (1987): 22-32. JSTOR. Web. 20 Mar. 2013. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/20077844>.