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The “unlawful mixing between sexes leads to the arrest of the violators and criminal charges” is just one example of how Saudi Arabia’s laws are “protecting” the women of the country (“Eleven Things Women in Saudi Arabia Cannot Do” 1). Throughout history, women have been viewed as inferior to their male counterparts, and this direct belief is represented in Saudi Arabian law, as those of the female sex are currently fighting for their individual rights, rebelling the fact that they are restricted due to their place in the gender-based society they live in. Women have been repeatedly rebelling against constricting laws in their environment, finally being able to vote in metropolitan elections in the last year; however, Saudi Arabia’s laws are still continuously restrictive upon women (1). In a country where a rape victim will be punished through the court due to women’s “vulnerab[ility] to sins,” where females who are stubbornly fighting against the limitations surrounding them are told to “accept simple things,” and where women must enter a separate entrance from a man, the repressive approach towards the female gender is one that individuals struggle with today (2). As the world develops, women will also develop and will strive for their inalienable rights. This idea of a female’s limitation in society is one that Kate Chopin explores in her own writing. In The Awakening, Chopin utilizes characterization and symbolism to portray the theme that women have only two possible, inescapable roles in society.
Chopin utilizes the characterization of Adele Ratignolle as Edna Pontellier’s foil to represent the first role of women in society, the ideal that Edna is supposed to embody and duplicate. When first introduced in the novel, Adele is presented as an image of a “mother-woman” as she embodies the mentality of “idoliz[ing]” her children and “worship[ing]” her husband (Chopin 16). Not only is she the representation of what a mother-figure in a household is meant to be, but even with her initial entrance, she is characterized as the embodiment of beauty, a lady who has “nothing subtle or hidden about her charm” (17). The reader is told that there is nothing concealing her allure, and that instead, [her allure] is “flaming” and “apparent” (17). This glamorization of Adele serves its purpose as the conjunction of her ability as a mother-woman and her beauty emphasizes the idealistic form that she embodies and Edna must emulate. However, Edna is seen as a wife who has “failed in her duty toward [her] children” as she is habitually perceived as neglecting them (16). Unlike Adele, who lives for her children as a mother, in a life which demands selflessness, Edna views motherhood as sacrifice. She clarifies her position during an argument with Adele, stating that she “wouldn’t give [her]self” for her children or any other (Stange 6, Chopin 80). Schweitzer expands on Edna’s position toward her children, stating, “the fact of her being a mother entails the sacrifice of herself, her desire, and her freedom to an imposed responsibility, social convention, stifling respectability, and domesticity” is exactly why Edna is unable to develop into the role Adele portrays (6). This limitation that she would feel is further extended during Edna’s dinner with Adele and her husband, in which, after seeing the “little glimpse of domestic harmony,” it “gave her no regret, no longing” as their relationship “is not a condition of life which fit[s] her, and she could not see it but an appalling and hopeless ennui” (93). This comparison displays Edna’s rejection of Adele’s role as a woman who sacrifices for her husband and children. Edna is unwilling (and perhaps unable) to give herself up for a marriage that she views as “purely an accident.” Moreover, she is unwilling to sacrifice herself for her children with whom she feels disconnected (32). Chopin reveals an important theme of the novel to the reader with this rejection of the only “acceptable” role society has ascribed to women.
Chopin then utilizes the characterization of Mademoiselle Reisz as Edna Pontellier’s foil to showcase the second role of women in society, “the outcast.” This is a role that Edna initially believes she can personify. Unlike Adele, Reisz embodies the anomaly of a woman in society, neither a “mother-woman,” nor beautiful, Reisz represents the only other option for Edna. The first impression of Reisz is that her role is one of being rejected, represented with diction such as, “awkward,” “rusty,” and “artificial.” She’s presented as a pariah who enjoys being isolated and described as an “imperious” individual who assumes power and authority without justification (43). However, as a pariah, she is also independent with her autonomy intact, living through her piano for herself, with no husband or children. Reisz represents everything that Edna years for: the lack of responsibility and/or obligation to care for others, the ability to escape the social confinements of her gender, and the ability to enjoy oneself through an art that is just for individual pleasure. Reisz’s influence on Edna begins to contradict who she was just years ago, as before “she would, through habit, have yielded to his desire[s],” but instead, Edna openly disobeys Leonce in a way that she has never done before (52). Leonce believes that she is becoming someone who is not herself. He even visits a doctor to discuss the issue that he believes is afflicting Edna. Although Edna is becoming more like Reisz, she is unable to truly mirror Reisz, as there is not only a “disagreeable impression,” representing how “Edna is both drawn to Reisz and repulsed by her,” but also the issue of what makes the two so different (Chopin 98, Schweitzer 6). Although Edna dabbles in her artistry, she is unable to truly become an artist like Reisz, as Reisz states that an artist must be a “bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice,” and “to succeed, [that] artist must have a courageous soul” (Chopin 106, Chopin 138). Edna comes to realize that although Reisz is autonomous, she is also alone, and Edna has no desire to be completely isolated with no one around her, as that is why she spends her time with Robert and Alcee Arobin – unable to seize independence at the expense of intimacy. Despite her need to be free of social pressure, Edna is not willing to isolate herself from society. Although Chopin portrays Reisz as a nonconformist, she still sits squarely within the box of society, which can only account for two types of women: the domestic and the hermit.
Chopin utilizes the sea as a symbol for freedom in that the only freedom Edna can achieve is through her own death. From the beginning of the novel, Chopin describes Leonce’s ownership of Edna, as he “[looks] at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of property” (7). As property, Edna is unable to escape from her husband and society, representing her lack of freedom. With the dependence she is obligated to have toward her husband, Edna often feels “an indescribable oppression… fill[ing] her whole being with a vague anguish” (14). The inability to break free from the societal control often leads to Edna’s exposure to the sea, which is “seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring” and “inviting the soul… in the abysses of solitude” (25). Chopin utilizes the temptation to convey the sea as an “escape from the confining routines of life on land” where she is unable to be autonomous or carry any self-determination (Evans 6). This concept is further extended to when Edna first becomes proficient at swimming independently, mastering the art alone, thus showcasing the freedom she has in the ocean (6). As the novel develops, Chopin emphasizes Edna’s frustration to the point where she “take[s] off her wedding ring, [flings] it upon the carpet… [stamping] her heel upon it, striving to crush it” (87). However, Edna is unable to mark the ring or put a dent in it, representing her inability to truly have the independence she obtained through her swimming. As the narrative continues, Edna visits the ocean multiple times where she feels currents of desire “[pass] through her body” depicting the desire she has of ridding herself of the conventional role she must fill as a mother and a wife. As she attempts to find her place in life, she comes to the realization that she is unable to break away from the societal pressure and will never have true sovereignty. Instead, she will always be the property of Leonce. It is with this realization that she decides to commit suicide. As she sinks into the water, the “touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace,” luring her to walking further into its depths, as “she [does] not look back” (189-190). Edna thinks of Leonce and her children while she is in the water – these parts of her life that clamor for possession of her soul and her body. It is with this thought that she sinks. Evans expands on the use of Edna’s final swim in the ocean as it exemplifies “her refusal to submit to suffocating social constraints,” which further proves Chopin’s theme that Edna is unable to escape from her expected roles in society, only able to find her independence through suicide.
Chopin frames the novel in a way that Edna feels forced to choose between “become[ing] either Adele Ratignolle or Mademoiselle Reisz,” as the foreground of the novel is set among the suffocating and continuous presence of patriarchy, thus emphasizing that the “individuality” Edna strives for is “an illusion” (Killeen 6). The inability of women to escape from society and the confinements that society creates for them has been continuously battled since the dawn of civilization. In developing countries, there are currently massive battles to simply to allow women the ability to travel to different cities without the permission of a male authority figure such as a husband or father. Even in developed countries such as the United States, there is a lack of women work in government and STEM professions, thus creating a more prejudiced work environment against females. Although society has developed and women have developed, females are still regarded as inferior to men no matter the nation. From the restrictive laws in Saudi Arabia to the subconscious mindset of the developed world, discrimination against women is a global problem. As the world has developed and women have developed, bigotry still remains. Chopin brings to light the discrimination women face in society in The Awakening. Utilizing characterization and symbolism, Chopin reflects the theme that women are able to fulfil only two individual roles in society.
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