Feminism has consistently been a major theme of literature throughout history. It has been used as a commentary on the status of women in a given time period, or to show how people’s attitudes have changed over time. Feminism in literature can also be used, as in the case of The Awakening by Kate Chopin, as a way to show how individual people, especially women can have a positive effect on the world around them. The actions of Edna and Adele Ratignolle in The Awakening are examples of how women can advance feminist ideals, even if it is not done in the conventional way.
Edna does this by becoming her own individual person throughout the story. Adele does it by simply her life the way she wants, even if that means stay home and being a housewife. The most important point to discuss when on the subject of feminism in literature is, of course, feminism itself. Feminism is the idea that men and women are fundamentally equal and should be treated as such in terms of social, economic, and political standing. Feminism also relates to how men and women have been unequal for most of human history.
In The Awakening, we see examples of how men are viewed as superior in 19th Century society. They can become anything they want to and can have any career or be any type of person they wish to be. Feminism argues that women have the same physical and mental capabilities to be equal to men. Furthermore, they should not be ridiculed or ostracized from society, as they are in The Awakening and society as a whole. Now, there are of course those that defy the social norm of whatever time they are living in. Otherwise, nothing would ever change. One example of this type of person is Edna Pontellier.
Throughout the storyline of The Awakening, Edna gains her independence and becomes her own person. In the beginning of the story, she is the submissive wife to an abusive husband. She simply follows along with whatever her husband, Leonce, tells her to do because that is what women were expected to do in that time. Slowly, however, she starts to shed that submissive role for a more independent one. The first instance of this happening is in the hammock scene on page NUMBER. It seems small and insignificant, but the simple act of Edna refusing to leave the hammock when Leonce told her.
She decided for herself that she wanted to lay there, and does not give in, even when Leonce becomes really angry that she is not listening to him. Another, more significant instance of Edna’s blossoming individuality is her decision to move out and live on her own. This is a huge step forward for her and for women in general. It was simply unheard of for women to live on their own without their husband to support them. This, however did not stop Edna. She decided that she could do it. That she could support herself and break the stereotype that women need someone in their life.
It does not get any more equal than a woman buying her own house, making her own money, and most importantly, making her own decisions. Many of these decisions were centered around her love life. Edna takes astonishing control over her love life and makes unprecedented decisions regarding who she loved and who she wanted to be with. First and foremost, Edna decided she no longer loved her husband. This alone would have been an absolutely amazing leap forward. A woman who decided she did not love her own husband because he did not treat her with respect?
That was unheard of, More importantly, however, it was not unheard of for a man to do the exact same thing. No one would have bat an eyelash if Edna’s and Leonce’s roles were reversed and he decided to leave her. In fact, people would likely blame Edna for not providing her husband with a loving environment and that is why he left her, but they were not reversed. Edna left her husband and proved once again that she was breaking down barrier after barrier and social norm after social norm by simply being her own person. Before she even left her husband, however she does something else that is just as revolutionary.
She dares to have feelings for a man who is not her husband. The first such man was Robert LeBrun. The story opens with Edna and Robert going swimming together without Leonce there. They enjoy themselves immensely and even then it is clear that Edna likes spending time with Robert more than Leonce, even if she still loves Leonce at that point. Then, throughout the rest of the novel, Edna and Robert spend more and more time together and grow more and more fond of each other. Then something intensely interesting happens. Robert leaves.
And Edna moves on and begins to show interest in another man, Alcee Arobin. The reason this is so interesting is because it shows how much Edan has grown as a person. Instead of wallowing in the fact that the man she had started loving had left, she moved on and kept on living. Edna embodies everything most people associate with feminism, that is to say, she is independent and does not rely on anyone by the end of the story. Conversely, the character of Adele Ratignolle is extremely dependent on her husband and appears to need him to make even basic decisions.
This is most evident when Madame Ratignolle has difficulty deciding which bon bon to eat when offered one by Edna, “That lady seemed at a loss to make a selection, but finally settled upon a stick of nugat, wondering if it were not too rich; whether it could possibly hurt her” (Chopin 9). Now, all of this evidence may seem to point to the conclusion that Adele Ratignolle’s character opposes everything that feminism is and stands for, but the truth is quite the opposite. Adele embodies the ideals of feminism just as much as Edna.
Adele lives her life the way she wants to. Yes, she is a housewife who does not have many responsibilities or obligations, but that is what makes her happy. She does not have to worry about anything in life. And despite being so dependent on her husband, Adele commands an extremely high level of respect from other members of her social circle. Part of the definition of feminism is that women should be allowed to lead their life the way they choose to and not fear being ridiculed for it, and Adele does that in every way.
So, while Adele Ratignolle may seem to be someone who stands in the way of the advancement of feminist ideals, in reality, she embodies those ideals just as much as Edna. Edna comes to be what people often associate with feminism. She was strong and independent and did not rely on anyone. But she was not the only character in The Awakening to be the poster child for feminism. Madame Ratignolle led a life that made her happy. And if people could start seeing characters like her as just as important a role model as characters like Edna Pontellier, the message of equality and feminism would strengthened tenfold.