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Adèle Ratignolle is what Léonce Pontellier calls a "mother-woman" in The Awakening by Kate Chopin. He describes all mother-women this way:
It was easy to know them, fluttering about with extended, protecting wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened their precious brood. They were women who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels.
Adèle and the other Creole women on the Grand Isle for the summers are nurturing women who always put their husbands' and children's needs above their own. When they are not comforting a child, they are making certain that their husbands' favorite meal is being prepared. If they are not looking ahead and making winter clothing for their children, they are doing some form of needlework to adorn their houses or give as gifts. The husbands who are not on the Isle for the week are looking forward to going there for the weekend to be petted and catered to by their charming wives--or to being allowed to do whatever they wish, knowing their mother-women will not mind.
Another quality Adèle and the others share is their complete lack of modesty in conversation, an absolute contrast to their modest behavior.
A characteristic which distinguished them and which impressed Mrs. Pontellier most forcibly was their entire absence of prudery. Their freedom of expression was at first incomprehensible to her, though she had no difficulty in reconciling it with a lofty chastity which in the Creole woman seems to be inborn and unmistakable.
This is why these mother-women do not take Robert Lebrun's outrageous and dramatic flirtations seriously and why Adèle speaks to Robert privately about his behavior with Edna. She tells him Edna is not like them, and she is right. These mother-women are content because they find their worth and satisfaction in spending their lives on others.
Edna is not a mother-woman, though her husband feels traitorous when he says it. The Pontellier children are not loved by their mother as the other children on the Isle are loved by theirs.
If one of the little Pontellier boys took a tumble whilst at play, he was not apt to rush crying to his mother's arms for comfort; he would more likely pick himself up, wipe the water out of his eves and the sand out of his mouth, and go on playing. Tots as they were, they pulled together and stood their ground in childish battles with doubled fists and uplifted voices, which usually prevailed against the other mother-tots.
Even more importantly to Léonce is the fact that his wife is not content that he is a good provider who would rather spend time with his friends than his wife and children. He grew up with Creole women, and he does not understand Edna; however, he is content to remain married. In short, Léonce is the perfect husband for a mother-woman, but he did not marry one. Both he and Edna are discontent in their marriage and neither of them knows how to make things better; so he escapes by staying away from her and she escapes by moving away from him and her children.
Adèle's husband is content with his marriage because his wife does all the giving; Adèle is content because she finds her identity in giving. On the other hand, Edna is discontent and unfulfilled in her marriage and eventually turns to other things (and men) to meet her needs. She seeks in vain and ultimately chooses to stop seeking altogether.
Adele is happily married, a devoted wife and mother. She spends her days caring for her children and performing domestic duties. Edna is unhappily married and loves her children, but not in the way a "mother woman" should. Edna's marriage is different from Adele's because Edna does not really love Leonce, her husband, and Adele adores her husband and caters to all of his needs. Edna does not.
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