What does it mean to be a wife? How does the role of wife impact a woman’s identity?
These are the core questions we address in a project called Literary Wives. We read novels with an eye on what they have to add to our understanding of what it means to be a wife and a woman.
Our most recent pick: The Awakening by Kate Chopin. Check out other responses and reviews on the same novel from Literary Wives bloggers! You can find them all through the Literary Wives page.
The Awakening is a classic; you probably read it in high school. The narrative centers on Edna Pontellier at the end of the 1890s, as she becomes increasingly dissatisfied with her role as wife and mother.
Edna’s experience of wifehood is what we’ve come to expect from feminist literature. It’s important to remember that “feminist literature” wasn’t a category when Chopin as writing. The stereotype of “woman lashing out against a marriage she experiences as a prison” wasn’t yet a stereotype — she’s the one who invented it.
Still, because the “feeling trapped by marriage” narrative is so strong in our culture, it feels unhelpful to elaborate on that aspect of the novel. So instead: thoughts on what The Awakening tells us about selfhood, and some reflections on why it was once so dear to my heart.
Edna’s foil, Madame Ratignolle, seems to develop a sense of self through motherhood and her experience of nurturing her children. But in Edna’s life, maternity hasn’t provided her the same experience of development. For Edna, a sense of self is something she comes to primarily through her relationship with men. It’s through her conversations with Robert that she first begins to define herself apart from her husband, and to assert her desires for her time against his expectations of her time.
As an adult reader, I have a few problems with this.
She doesn’t define herself so much as she opposes her husband’s definitions. What’s painful to watch as an outsider is her husband’s struggle to understand. He has every reason to expect her to maintain the household and social functions that he does. Not because of society, but because she’s been doing them — seemingly with contentment — for their life together thus far.
What’s especially frustrating about Edna is that she still defines herself through others’ desires for her — it’s just men other than her husband now. Relationally, I feel ashamed to see her use men to bolster her sense of self (especially Arobin, who she bangs hours after proclaiming her love for another man — what the hell?).
Finally, it chafes me that her self is only focused on her own self. She doesn’t want freedom from the constraints of marriage and motherhood in order to pursue Truth, Beauty, and Goodness in work that benefits humankind in any sense or scope. She’s not pursuing a passion or a question. She’s not advancing science or art. We see her struggle with what exactly she wants, and can imagine her trying to articulate: She wants freedom so that she can, erm, be free?
As a teenage reader, I loved the book. And, as I look back on that time in my own life: of course I did. I used boyfriends to define my self. (I write the word used with intention.) And Edna validated those decisions, legitimized unhealthy relationships with multiple men as a way to develop. It’s only on the far side of those experiences that I’m able to see how much I was hurting the people I was in relationships with, and how much I was sabotaging the very self I hoped to develop.
Which is maybe the real takeaway from The Awakening. That developing a self, done poorly, sends you out into an ocean — not in pursuit of rebirth, but of death.
What has helped you develop a sense of self?
Don’t forget to check out other thoughts and reviews on the same novel from Literary Wives bloggers! You can find them all through the Literary Wives page.