A study of the extent to which Edna Pontellier marks a departure from the female characters of earlier nineteenth-century American novels
by Emma Jones
The Awakening was published in 1899, and it immediately created a controversy. Contemporaries of Kate Chopin (1851-1904) were shocked by her depiction of a woman with active sexual desires, who dares to leave her husband and have an affair. Instead of condemning her protagonist, Chopin maintains a neutral, non-judgmental tone throughout and appears to even condone her character's unconventional actions. Kate Chopin was socially ostracised after the publication of her novel, which was almost forgotten until the second half of the twentieth century. The Awakening has been reclaimed by late twentieth-century theorists who see Edna Pontellier as the prototypical feminist. A woman before her time, Edna questions the institution of marriage, (at one point she describes a wedding as 'one of the most lamentable spectacles on earth')  has sexual desires of her own, and becomes completely independent of her husband. The central purpose of this essay is to assess to what extent the figure of Edna Pontellier marks a departure from the female characters of earlier nineteenth-century American novels, such as the character of Hester Prynne, of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, Cora Munro from James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans, and the unnamed protagonist (and narrator) of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper. How does society, and its effect on women change throughout nineteenth-century American literature?
Society of the nineteenth-century gave a heightened meaning to what it means to be a woman. According to the commonly known 'code of true womanhood', women were supposed to be docile, domestic creatures, whose main concerns in life were to be the raising of their children and submissiveness to their husbands. Kate Chopin's The Awakening and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper capture, in their respective works, two women who have turned down these expected roles, and, consequently, suffer because of it. The husbands of these women, entirely because they stand to represent patriarchal society, are a great deal to blame for the "condition" of their wives. In the first scene of The Awakening, after being scolded by her husband about not being a good mother, Edna responds by crying, and later with defiance, refusing to come in to sleep, according to her husband's wishes. This behaviour, as well as the journey into the sea at the end of the novel suggests that she has become awakened to the oppressive nature of her husband, and that of the institution of marriage in general. The very act of Edna's struggle, her resistance, suggests her awareness that there is a way of speaking and thinking that will accurately reflect her desires, her worldview and her 'self'. She muses on the gap between what she feels and what society decrees must be:
The Yellow Wallpaper is a story which shows the anatomy of an oppressive marriage. Simply because the narrator does not cherish the joys of married life and motherhood, and therefore, is in violation of the rigid code of true womanhood, she is classified with a nervous condition, and sentenced to passivity. Under the cover story, the compliance of a woman to her husband, is the story of a heroine rebelling against the social constructs that deny her. In The Awakening, Edna Pontellier also rebels against the social constructs that confine her, especially the notion of 'true womanhood'. She tells Robert:
This outburst tells us how Edna predicts the society around her will react to her ability, and need, to express her feelings, and relate her thoughts to others. The opinions of others are of little concern to Edna. She refuses to change herself in order to fit into the restrictive mould that society has created for her. The novel is an account of Edna's rite de passage - her movement out of ignorance into knowledge - the account of her quest to discover self; the moment when she begins to loosen and unfetter all her repressed desires.
It is interesting to compare the character of Edna with that of Cora Munro, from The Last of the Mohicans. Cora is the elder sister of Alice, and the voice of reason and strength. She is one of the most admirable characters, with a mothering, selfless nature that cares only to keep her sister safe. Cora's relationship with Alice demonstrates a distinct mother-daughter pattern that manifests itself in every interaction between the two women. Throughout the novel, Cora continuously hides her sister's face in her bosom as an indication of undying protection from the ravages of the American frontier. Alice depends on Cora as her champion and defender, but, most unmistakably as a mother figure. When Alice shows doubt and fear, Cora immediately rushes to protect and soothe her. Cooper writes:
Her motherly feelings towards Alice verge on the saintly; Cora often rises above common human sensibility and takes on the role of a martyr in the manner that a mother would for her child.
Edna, on the other hand, neglects her children throughout the novel. She sees them as a hindrance to her freedom, feels "relief" when they are away and irresponsibly leaves them in the care of the pregnant Madame Ratignolle so that she can be with Robert. She almost seems to have an 'out of sight, out of mind' attitude when it comes to her children. In a significant conversation with her friend Adele Ratignolle, Edna declares:
Edna is unwilling to give up her individuality for her children, although she would give her life for them. She finds it difficult to express how she feels about this, she seems unable to put her finger on it, which reminds of us a novel written by Betty Friedan, about "the problem that has no name"  which confined women to the sphere of domesticity and consequently, an unbearable feeling of emptiness. Edna is not satisfied with devoting her life to her husband and children, she craves more, she needs to be her own person. She wants to be Edna, a woman, instead of merely a mother, or a wife. Whereas, in The Last of the Mohicans (published in 1826), it is implied that a maternal nature is instinctive to women, even, in the case of Cora, when the younger dependent is not actually one's offspring. Cora is willing to do anything for Alice, yet there are things that Edna would not do for her children. Cora reinforces the stereotype of the doting mother, whereas Edna refuses to conform, and questions the codes of the society in which she lives.
Somewhere in between these two extremes lies the character of Hester Prynne, protagonist of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. The novel, which was published in 1850, yet set in seventeenth-century Puritan New England, tells the story of Hester, an adulterous woman who is punished for her 'crime' by being made to wear a scarlet letter 'A' on her bosom. Hester harboured an intense love for her child Pearl although the child's mischievous and imp-like qualities brought nothing but pain to the child's mother. This is demonstrated as Hester, after having her talents as a seamstress publicised, began to change the attire of her family. For example,
This demonstrates that although Hester herself would dress only plainly in order to redeem her lost purity, she wished to make her child stand out. She had such an intense love for the child that she wanted only the absolute best for Pearl. Also, Hester was simply astounded and horrified at the idea of Pearl being taken away from her when this question was brought to the governor. This is demonstrated in the lines,
Hester's speech demonstrated that her only true reason for life was the child, and that if that the one richness of her life was devoured by Puritan thought and society, she would have lost all. Her child was her heart, love, and life. It was all that she had left to lose, and she would do anything to protect her Pearl. Hester seems to love Pearl to a greater degree than Edna loved her children, and in that respect, in her devotion to little Pearl, Hester could be seen as fitting the mould of a stereotypically 'true woman' more accurately than Edna does. Yet Hester does not fit this mould perfectly. There is the obvious discrepancy of her adulterous affair with Reverend Dimmesdale, but Hester also secretly disobeyed the codes of her society by harbouring visionary thoughts:
These forbidden thoughts were of social reform, especially concerned with the role of women in society. Hester believes that,
Hester, like Edna, believed that society needed to change its attitude towards women, and their role in that society. The difference between the two women was that Hester felt that she had something to lose, and if she voiced these ideas, her precious child, Pearl would be taken away from her. Edna, however, felt so strongly about the injustices within her society that it became a stronger force than her love for her children.
So, in effect, we can observe how society's attitudes changed during the nineteenth century through the characters of the novels written at this time. At the beginning of the nineteenth-century, the character of Cora Munro fits perfectly the role of the ideal, motherly woman, during the middle part of the century (the time in which the book was published, not in which it was set), Hester Prynne disobeys the codes of her harsh society by committing adultery, and during the latter part of the century, Edna Pontellier disobeys completely the set codes of her society, and failing to find a place in that society escaped by means of suicide.
Although these three female characters were from different times, backgrounds and cultures, the three novels were all written during different stages of the nineteenth century. They can therefore show us how the authors of this time became more daring and defiant in the creation of these characters. Kate Chopin was ostracised from society when The Awakening was first published. This was because her character, Edna made such a departure from the female characters of earlier nineteenth-century novels, which shocked and appalled her society. It would seem that, in the course of one century, we have moved from the perfect female character to the complete opposite, in the form of Edna Pontellier. This reflects the changing attitudes towards women's role in society, at least to some degree.
About thirty years after the publication of The Awakening came the release of Virginia Woolf's crusading novel A Room of One's Own, in which Woolf could be seen to have taken the ideas of Edna Pontellier further forward. Edna refuses to be seen as a possession, so she moves out of her grand, comfortable abode into 'the Pigeon House' where she can lead an independent life free from the restraints imposed upon her by her husband, and society as a whole. She strives to find a room of her own, yet towards the end of the novel, she realises that Robert will not follow her in her rebellion against the codes of their society, which would mean that she would live a solitary, and lonely existence, which turned out to be worse than death, in her mind.
1 The Awakening, Kate Chopin, Oxford World Classics, p. 73
2 Ibid. p. 91
3 Ibid. p. 117
4 The Last of the Mohicans, James Fenimore Cooper, Oxford World's Classics, p. 124
5 The Awakening, p. 53
6 The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan
7 The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne, p. 83
8 Ibid. p. 113
9 Ibid. p. 164
10 Ibid p. 165
Kate Chopin. The Awakening. Oxford World Classics
James Fenimore Cooper. The Last of the Mohicans. Oxford World's Classics
Betty Friedan. The Feminine Mystique
Nathaniel Hawthorne. The Scarlet Letter
©April 2003, Emma Jones