When, in Kate Chopin’s 1899 short story The Awakening, Edna Pontellier declares in Chapter 36 that she is “. . . no longer one of Mr. Pontellier’s possessions to dispose of or not . . .,” she is making a bold declaration that her status in life has changed radically, and that she is asserting her independence from a possessive husband and repressive social structure that has kept her confined. The key to understanding the context of this particular quote is provided earlier in the story, in Chapter 17, when Chopin provides the following description of Edna’s strict, Presbyterian husband, Leonce, she is providing the suffocating and dehumanizingatmosphere in which Edna’s marriage has existed:
“Mr. Pontellier was very fond of walking about his house examining its various appointments and details, to see that nothing was amiss. He greatly valued his possessions, chiefly because they were his, and derived genuine pleasure from contemplating a painting, a statuette, a rare lace curtain – no matter what – after he had bought it and placed it among his household gods.”
By deliberating using the word “possessions” in her declaration of independence, Chopin/Edna is reaffirming her self-perception of just another one of Leonce’s prized purchases. Certainly, Leonce has valued his “purchase” of Edna, but she has come to see herself as precisely that: a possession for which her husband and bought and paid. The sexual liberation for which The Awakening was criticized upon publication at the end of the 19th Century is but a pretext for Edna’s “awakening” as an independent, free human being deserving of the same opportunities for happiness as the men who dominated the society depicted in Chopin’s story. The Awakening was controversial in its time not only for the theme of sexual liberation, but for the suggestion that women should be treated equally to men, a rather subservice notion in the place and time of its writing. The 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States granting women the right to vote would not occur for another 20 years following the initial, and aborted, publication of The Awakening. Women would continue to struggle to equality for the better part of another century. It is within that historical context that the story, and Edna’s statement, should be interpreted.