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Kate Chopin’s “Edna” in "The Awakening"

The involvement of role models in Edna’s failure to find a place in society

Hausarbeit 2012 13 Seiten


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Edna’s role models
2.1. Adèle Ratignolle as a role-model for Edna: The mother-woman
2.1.1. Adèle Ratignolle and Edna Pontellier: Differences
2.1.2. Adèle as Edna’s role model
2.2. Mlle. Reisz: The artist-woman
2.2.1. Mlle. Reisz and Edna Pontellier: Two unlike characters
2.2.2. Mlle. Reisz as Edna’s role model

3. Edna’s failure to find a place in society

4. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Kate Chopin’s the Awakening and especially its ending has been interpreted primarily in two different ways: There are those who believe that the ending, Edna’s suicide, is Edna’s final awakening (among them inter alia Rosowski, cf. “The Novel of Awakening.” p.47) and there are those who argue that the ending is Edna’s final realization of her failure to find a place in society (for example Lattin, cf. “Childbirth and Motherhood.” p.44; Solomon cf. “Characters as Foils to Edna.” p.119). But beyond these contrasting angles of interpretation, there is one common belief: The Awakening is Edna’s struggle to find her own identity, her genuine place in society or, in short, herself:

One of these days […] I’m going to pull myself together for a while and think - try to determine what character of a woman I am; for, candidly, I don’t know. By all the codes which I am acquainted with, I am a devilishly wicked specimen of the sex. But some way I can’t convince myself that I am. I must think about it. (p.103)

As the figures of Adèle Ratignolle and Mlle. Reisz show, it is, after all, possible for women to find an identity of their own. Patricia Hopkins Lattin and Deborah E. Parker have argued that these two women serve as role models for Edna. But both Lattin and Parker fail to give a role model-based explanation of Edna’s failure to find her place in society. The question that shall be examined in the following is therefore the contribution of Edna’s role models to her failure. It shall be analyzed why Edna, unlike Adèle and Mlle. Reisz, does not succeed in finding her place in society, and why she also does not succeed to model herself on Adèle or Reisz. In order to answer this question, especially the differences between Edna and each of her role-models shall be examined. Since many research papers have argued that Adèle Ratignolle and Mlle. Reisz serve as Edna`s role models, this view will not be verified in the following.

First of all, Edna’s relationship with Adèle and, afterwards, with Mlle. Reisz will be examined. It will be analyzed to what degree Edna imitates these role models. By doing so, the discrepancies between the characters of Edna and Adèle Ratignolle and Edna and Mlle. Reisz will be presented, and it will be examined to what degree Edna would be able to lead the same life as her role models do. The last task will be to point out to what extend it is due to these role models that Edna fails to find her place in society.

2. Edna’s role models

2.1. Adèle Ratignolle as a role-model for Edna: The mother-woman

2.1.1. Adèle Ratignolle and Edna Pontellier: Differences

Edna’s first role model is what the narrator described as “the embodiment of every womanly grace and charm” and a typical “mother-woman” (Chopin, The Awakening Ch.IV, p.26).[1] Adèle grows very fond of Edna, (cf. 27) which is astonishing considering the fact that Edna is very different from her: From the beginning on, Edna is “not a mother-woman” (explicitly stated by the narrator in Chapter IV, p.26). This is why they differ to a great extent in the upbringing of their children. Adèle spends almost all her time with her children; Edna prefers to have a quadroon take care of them (cf. 26) and even admits that she would sometimes forget about her children (37). This is absolutely unimaginable for Adèle. The discrepancies between the parenting styles of the two women are also reflected in the behavior of their infants:

If one of thelittlePontellier boys took a tumble whilst at play, he was not apt to rush crying to his mother's arms for comfort; he would more likely pick himself up, wipe the water out of his eyes and the sand out of his mouth, and go on playing. (26)

A further aspect Adèle and Edna differ in is the relationship with their husbands. Adèle is “the embodiment of every womanly grace and charm. If her husband did not adore her, he was brute, deserving of death by slow torture.” (26) Edna, on the other hand, is “not the ideal helpmeet or mother” (Papke 71) and her husband has to reproach her more than once for neglecting the children or for not listening to him (cf. 23f). These discrepancies especially fall into place when Adèle and Edna talk to each other: While Adèle loves to talk about patterns, her husband’s interests or about her “condition”, Edna is rather bored by these topics (cf. 27).

The cultural differences between the Creole Adèle and Edna cause problems more than once. Edna is often shocked by the “entire absence of prudery” (28) of Adèle. Adèle, on her part, does also realize that Edna is different: “she is not one of us; she is not like us” (38).

2.1.2. Adèle as Edna’s role model

All in all, the women are hence quite different and their close relationship seems remarkable at a first glance. The narrator does not put forward any reasons why Madame Ratignolle is “very fond of Mrs. Pontellier” (27). As for Edna, it is “the excessive physical charm of the Creole” and “the candor of [Adèle’s] whole existence, which every one might read, and which formed so striking a contrast to her [Edna’s] own habitual reserve - t[hat] might have furnished a link” (32). This “link” is not only a close relationship, but indeed a friendship - the term “friend” is explicitly used by Edna (cf. 31). Another aspect that contributes to their closeness is the fact that Edna accommodates herself to Adèle’s way of life whenever the two of them are together. She acts, for instance, as if she is interested in the patterns of garment although she is not, because “she [does] not want to appear unamiable and uninterested” (27). Besides, she seems to care much more about her children after spending some time with Adèle: When the nurse-maids arrive with the kids “the women at once rose” and “Mrs. Pontellier went over to join them” (37f).

But although Edna views Adèle in the beginning as a “sensuous Madonna” (30) “she had long wished to try herself on”,[2] she soon realizes the drawbacks of Adèle’s existence. After being on a visit at the Ratignolles’,

Ednafelt depressed rather than soothed […]. The little glimpse of domestic harmony which had been offered her, gave her no regret, no longing. It was not a condition of life which fitted her, and she could see in it but an appalling and hopeless ennui. 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. (Ch.XVIII p.76)

This context reveals that Edna does not want to lead Adèle’s life. However, to go to such lengths as to argue that Adèle does not “achieve[…] her full potential as a human being” and leads a “partial existence”, as Skaggs argues (88), is not appropriate. Skaggs fails to perceive the differences between Adèle and Edna. The fact that Edna is not satisfied with playing a role as a mother-woman does not mean that others cannot be perfectly happy with this task. There is no evidence that Adèle suffers from her role; quite the contrary is the case, looking at the harmonious family life she leads (“The Ratignolles understood each other perfectly” (75)). It is clearly inappropriate to constrain Adèle’s life to childbirth and to bring forward the argument of Adèle’s suffering during her labor pains, as Skaggs does, in order to prove that Adèle does not lead a thoroughly happy life. However, Skaggs suggestion that “Edna refuses to settle for less than full development as a person” (88) is definitely true. But this wish does not distinguish Edna from Adèle; it is rather her different character that makes it harder for her to achieve this “full development as a person” and that makes it impossible for her to find fulfillment in the mother-role:


[1] Hereafter, single page numbers in parentheses refer to Chopin, Kate. The Awakening: Complete, Authoritative Text with Biographical and Historical Contexts, Critical History, and Essays from Five Contemporary Critical Perspectives. Ed. Nancy A. Walker. Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1993.

[2] Here a subliminal ambiguity between “trying to draw” Adèle and “trying to lead her life” could be implied. Edna’s failure to draw Adèle then implies that she is also unable to lead her life.


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
546 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg – Anglistisches Seminar
kate chopin’s edna” awakening edna’s



Titel: Kate Chopin’s “Edna” in "The Awakening"