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Literary Conventions of Realism in The Awakening by Kate Chopin

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In the aftermath of the Civil War, many artists and writers were inspired to reject the lofty ideals of romanticism and focus attention on a new movement – one representing aspects of everyday life. American realist authors such as Mark Twain and Charles Chestnutt are well-known for their depictions of life in the South around the time of the Civil War. These authors relied heavily on setting and historical context to mold their characters, unlike romantics, who isolated their protagonists from the social context. In this manner, realist authors sought to portray their lives as objectively as possible. Regionalism, a popular branch of realism, emphasized the realistic depiction of life in a particular region. Like Twain and Chestnutt, writer Kate Chopin believed that regional elements such as speech, social structure, and customs were crucial to an understanding of the condition of the characters. Chopin’s “The Awakening” utilizes four literary conventions of regional realism: 1) a protagonist rooted in a complex social environment, often involving oppressive conditions; 2) an emphasis on regional details such as dialect; 3) a psychologically complex protagonist; 4) an objective and amoral stance toward the protagonists’ condition (this convention draws from the closely-related school of naturalism). By calling attention to the impact setting has on a character’s life, and by creating a psychologically complex character, Chopin breaks away from the literary conventions of romanticism, which would have isolated the sharply defined hero-or-villain protagonist from his or her social environment. “The Awakening”, however, contains elements of romantically-influenced transcendentalism, as demonstrated by the protagonist, Edna’s, desire to explore her spirituality and defy societal expectations.

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In order to fully understand Edna’s condition, Chopin recognizes the need to familiarize the reader with her world. “The Awakening” thus provides a vivid illustration of Creole life in the late 1800s. Chopin, although not an activist herself, was well aware of the various women’s rights movements stemming from the 1890s (Campbell 62). The ultra-conservative South was a prime location to explore the affects of sexism on a female protagonist. The Napoleonic codes in Louisiana created separate gender spheres – men existed in the public sphere, while women existed in the private sphere, or “cult of domesticity” (Schedler, lecture 9-28-04). Women were expected to be pure and loving wives and mothers, and were scorned by society for failing to play this role. Sexuality was bound to marriage, and sex was only valued for procreation. Women were objects to be owned by their husbands. Such rampant sexism is revealed in “The Awakening” when Edna’s husband, Leonce, looks at her as if she is “a valuable piece of property” (Seyersted 882). Edna is a product of society: her self-worth is determined by her performance in a role that has been thrust upon her. It is not until Edna “awakens” to realize that she lacks a true sense of self that she rebels by disregarding societal expectations. By placing Edna in such an oppressive yet realistic condition, Chopin employs the first convention of regional realism.

The second convention of regional realism used by Chopin in “The Awakening” is a generous helping of region-specific details such as dialect. Regional realists strived to familiarize readers with places and people they were unlikely to encounter in their daily lives. Chopin lends an exotic flavor to the text with elaborate descriptions of New Orleans architecture (such as the description of the Pontellier home) and the frequent utilization of French phrases. In fact, the first lines of the novel are spoken by a multi-lingual green and yellow parrot: “Allez vous-en! Allez vous en! Sapristi! That’s all right” (Seyersted 881). The parrot exemplifies the French influence in Louisiana but, more importantly, serves as a symbol for Edna herself.

Birds are key symbols in “The Awakening”. The parrot in the beginning of the novel represents Edna: living in a cage and forced to spend a lifetime repeating the words society expects to hear from her, yet able to speak “a language which nobody understood, unless it was the mocking-bird that hung on the other side of the door” (Seyersted 881). Here, the mockingbird serves as a symbol for Mademoiselle Reisz, Edna’s deeply spiritual friend who acts as a role model for an alternative lifestyle. Mockingbirds are commonly perceived as “annoying” birds; similarly, Madame Reisz is an annoyance to society. She is rude and rebels against the sexist environment through her outspoken nature. However, Madame Reisz is the only one capable of understanding Edna’s condition.

While listening to Madame Reisz’s piano playing, “the very passions themselves were aroused within her soul” (Seyersted 906). It is Madame Reisz’s music that awakens Edna’s desire to explore her sexuality and develop her spirituality. Edna abdicates her role as wife and mother, eventually moving out of her family’s house. She rebels against her father, and misses her sister’s wedding. She begins to exist for her own selfish whims, and spends a great deal of time lost in self-reflection or painting.

The novel continues as Edna escapes her cage only to sadly discover that her spirit isn’t strong enough to exist independent of her maternal obligations. Mademoiselle Reisz wisely points out that “The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth” (Seyersted 966). Having spent her entire life caged in by society, Edna’s wings have grown too weak to enable her to soar above the societal obligations of motherhood, yet remain too strong to permit her to submit to her intended role. Her death is foreshadowed when she sees a bird with a broken wing “beating the air above, reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water” (Seyersted 999). Here, Edna is portrayed as simultaneously weak and strong, which brings to light the third convention of regional realism.

Edna’s psychological complexity stands in sharp contrast to the romantic literary convention of having a sharply defined hero-or-villain as the protagonist. Edna’s character, with its abundance of flaws and vices, epitomizes realism. She is no idealized heroine, but rather a raw presentation of realism in its purest form. Edna doesn’t seem to understand how her actions impact other people. Her attitude of “conditions would some way adjust themselves” (Seyersted) coupled with her intense desire for independence surely has a negative impact on her children. It isn’t until the end of the novel that Edna remembers her maternal obligations, and even then it is only in response to a plea from her friend, Madam Ratignolle, who urges her to “Think of the children, Edna. Oh think of the children! Remember them!” (Seyersted 995). When Edna realizes that she can never be an entirely independent woman in her present society, she selfishly decides to drown herself, never considering how her suicide will impact her family. Interestingly, Chopin never condemns Edna, despite the fact that she gives her a great many flaws: this is in keeping with naturalism, and with the fourth convention of regional realism.

Realist literature is similar to naturalism in that both schools view a character’s behavior as a direct result of their instinctual drives; therefore, man must be presented objectively, free from the judgment by the writer. In “The Awaking”, Edna’s sexual desire is fueled by her physical attraction to Alcee Arobin. After their first kiss, “there was neither shame nor remorse” (Seyersted 967) but merely a “dull pang of regret because it was not the kiss of love which had inflamed her, because it was not love which had held this cup of life to her lips” (Seyersted 967). Edna is stepping outside of societal boundaries by actively exploring her sexuality. She engages two men: one who she loves (Robert), and one who she lusts for (Arobin). Edna celebrates her sensuality and sexuality, indicating that her sexuality is not bound by marriage, and clearly defying the expectations of Creole society.

In keeping with naturalist tradition, Chopin presents Edna’s condition from an amoral stance; she never suggests that Edna is at fault for her actions. This is another example of Chopin’s determination to break away from the romantic convention of using a sharply-defined hero/villain protagonist. Even though the novel contains numerous other examples of literary conventions that defy romantic ideals, Chopin’s romantic influences can still be felt.

Transcendentalism was a philosophy practiced by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau in the mid-1800s. Transcendentalists appreciated independence, even in defiance of societal expectations. An example of this mindset can be found in Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”: “What I must do, is all that concerns me, not what people think” (Emerson 1163). This quote recalls Edna’s struggle to win her independence from society, only to discover that complete independence is impossible in her situation. How appropriate that her first night alone in the mansion “she sat in the library after dinner and read Emerson” (Seyersted 956).

Edna feels a sense “of having descended on the social scale, with a corresponding sense of having risen on the spiritual” (Seyersted 97) when she first moves into the pigeon house. This new sensation reinforces Edna’s decision to dive deeper into her spirituality. She spends a great deal of time focusing on self-reflection, thereby employing even more aspects of transcendentalist philosophy.

In “The Awakening”, Kate Chopin asserts her belief that human behavior is contingent on the social context. By using four specific conventions of regional realism combined with naturalism, she breaks away from the prevalent literary tradition of romanticism while still maintaining certain elements of transcendentalism. Even though “The Awakening” was initially criticized and labeled “morbid” (Campbell 62) for examining such risque subject matter as a married woman who neglects spousal and maternal obligations in order to celebrate her own sexuality, Chopin ultimately won sympathy through her portrayal of the character of Edna Pontellier and her tragic, yet unquestionably real life.

Works Cited

Campbell, John. Ed. The Book of Great Books. New York: The Wonderland

Press, 1997.Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Self-Reliance.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature.

Eds. Nina Baym, et al. 6th ed. Vol. B. New York: W.W. Norton and Company,

2003.Schedler, Christopher. Lecture. 28, September, 2004.

Seyersted, Per. “The Awakening.” The Complete Works of Kate Chopin. Baton Rouge:

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The Louisiana State University Press, 1969. 881-1000.

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