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Kate Chopin’s The Awakening focuses on Edna Pontellier’s sexual and emotional maturation as the protagonist frees herself from the restraints of patriarchal society. Nancy Walker in her critical essay “Feminist or Naturalist?” instead perceives Edna to be a timid woman who fails to mature emotionally, specifically citing her suicide at the end of the novel as a key example of indecisiveness. In fact, Edna over the course of the story continues to reflect on both society and her emotional state, and her many actions, suicide included, are increasingly calculated and deliberate. Walker’s assertion that Edna lacks emotional command is thus too narrow in scope given that she only provides two other examples: the character’s initial difficulty in participating in Creole traditions and her desire to be separated from Léonce (Walker 255). As such, the essay’s three arguments for Edna’s emotional instability—that she openly conveys her feelings to others, that she is blindly in love with Robert, and that her decisions are largely made impulsively—are invalid.
Walker claims that Edna frequently shares her emotions with others; in fact, Edna keeps her feelings private from most people, since she comprehends her effect on others. When she moves into the pigeon-house and becomes comfortable in the new setting, Edna “beg[ins] to look with her own eyes; to see and to apprehend the deeper undercurrents of life” (Chopin 89). Given that she is finally separated from her husband, Edna is able to absorb life to a fuller extent; she is increasingly becoming solitary, even turning down Madame Ratignolle’s offer to stay with her (Chopin 91). One can therefore see that Edna refuses to accede to others’ wishes, taking pride in her individuality instead. Becoming more solitary also allows her more time for emotional contemplation. Next, Edna in interacting with Alcée Arobin shows her emotional secrecy when she bursts in anger at Alcee; despite the close relationship between the two, Edna refrains from detailing what has made her mad. As the two converse after dinner, Edna becomes peeved by a small scar on Arobin’s wrist and immediately dismisses him: “No. Good night. Why don’t you go after you have said good night?” (Chopin 73). Edna soon after acknowledges “that her words lacked dignity and sincerity, and she knew that he felt it” (Chopin 74). Despite recognizing how her words have hurt Alcée, Edna stands by her statement, displaying her deliberation and decisiveness. In this instance, it thus becomes more clear that Edna wants to remain shielded, and her lashing out and subsequent realization show that she realizes how her actions affect Arobin and others.
The author of the essay further describes Edna’s emotional immaturity with the assertion that Edna finds sexual attraction in Robert and justifies it as love, but that she does so blindly and impulsively (Walker 254). Edna certainly grows to connect with Robert emotionally, but she is fully aware of—and at times even facilitates—the process. Primarily, as Edna expresses her emotions with regards to her separation from Léonce, she understands that Robert is an option for love but explicitly states that she will go where she pleases: “I am no longer one of Mr. Pontellier’s possessions to dispose of or not…If he were to say, ‘Here, Robert, take her and be happy; she is yours,’ I should laugh at you both” (Chopin 102). Here Edna is asserting her individuality but more importantly is distancing herself from Robert, regarding him as an option available to her when she wants it. This display of doubt suggests that Edna isn’t fully in love with Robert, not because she harbors feelings for someone else but rather because she prides herself on her newfound individuality. In addition, Edna remains cautious with regards to her physical intimacy with Robert. Given that the awakening she experiences has a large sexual aspect, it is especially important that she remains so timid. When the two are conversing, Edna “took his arm, but she did not lean upon it. She let her hand lie listlessly, as though her thoughts were elsewhere—somewhere in advance of her body, and she was striving to overtake them” (Chopin 29). Edna’s physicality has not matured at the same rate as her emotions, which directly causes her to doubt her feelings for Robert; while the two connect emotionally, she remains ambivalent as to her physical attraction to him. Such hesitancy reinforces that Edna deliberately restrains her feelings for Robert, and that she does not love him blindly. Therefore, Walker’s point that “Edna translates her sexual feelings into love for [Robert]” is factually incorrect and myopic given that from the beginning to the end of the story, Edna consciously refuses to give in fully to her love (Walker 255).
Having previously attributed Edna’s romantic immaturity to alleged impulsive behaviors, Walker remarks that Edna’s actions are often of a subconscious nature and thus lack full thought. She first states that Edna’s decisions are “made below the conscious level, so that they surprise even her” (Walker 256); in fact, while Edna does act hastily at times, her awakening is fully self-aware and therefore not surprising. Edna follows her own whims, specifically leaving Léonce’s house instead of attending to guests, even though they usually contrast with societal norms. Although Léonce expects her to remain at the house, since interaction with guests will strengthen his business connections, Edna begins “to do as she liked and to feel as she liked. She completely abandoned her Tuesdays at home, and did not return the visits of those who had called upon her. She made no ineffectual efforts to conduct her household” (Chopin 54). Such actions cannot be classified as subconscious, which Walker does, since they represent Edna’s direct involvement in her own decisions. While Edna may initially feel surprised by her own daring nature, she soon accedes and follows her desires. In this regard, her emotional maturation is evident; more importantly, her deliberation is quite clear, since she is willing to face the social repercussions of leaving her house are quite severe. Léonce describes the consequences of this action vividly, and so the reader can infer that she is willing to face these outcomes. Edna’s conscious decision-making is further evidenced by her peaceful suicide, which initially seems a subconscious action but upon further analysis is revealed to be the product of careful thought. As she walks towards the beach at the end of the novella, the narrator comments that “She had done all the thinking which was necessary…” (Chopin 108). Here, Chopin has directly described Edna’s suicide as a product of careful thought, a final act of rebellion against societal norms. As such, Walker is incorrect in characterizing Edna as an impulsive decision-maker, since Chopin frequently provides evidence in her work of her long thought process prior to action.
Nancy Walker’s criticism of Edna in The Awakening is ultimately misguided since she falsely asserts a belief in Edna’s emotional immaturity, failing to take into account the point of the novel: Edna’s internal metamorphosis. Walker’s assertions are incorrect in particular because they harp on the few instances in which Edna displays characteristics that seem to suggest immaturity. Certainly, such a hefty process as a social and emotional reflection brings with it occasional instances of regression, and therefore it is unfair to focus on these few counterexamples. Chopin poses many rhetorical questions to the reader, such as whether or not Edna loves Robert, that leave room for interpretation, but she makes it quite clear that Edna experiences a great emotional maturation through the course of the novel.
Walker, Nancy. “Feminist or Naturalist.” The Awakening: An Authoritative Text, Biographical and Historical Contexts, Criticism. By Kate Chopin. Ed. Margo Culley. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 1994. 254-57. Print.
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening: An Authoritative Text, Biographical and Historical Contexts, Criticism. Ed. Margo Culley. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 1994. Print.
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