How does The Awakening speak to the roles of women at the end of the 19th century?
Kate Chopin's The Awakening focuses on the development of the protagonist, Edna Pontellier. Her growth is also juxtaposed to two other major female characters in the novel: Mademoiselle Reisz and Adele Ratignolle. As the reader observes both Edna's character and the other two women in the novel, she learns that Edna does not fit comfortably into any of the roles available to women in the late nineteenth century.
Edna is an upper-class woman, a married mother of two. At the novel's start, we see her and her family vacationing in Grande Isle. She is married to Leonce Pontellier, with whom she has two sons. She apparently lacks a natural maternal instinct and is often criticized by her husband for her tepid mothering. Meanwhile, Leonce spends his time away from the family, either at work or at the club with his friends. We can see that Edna is expected to dedicate her time to her children and husband, but her husband is not willing or expected to do the same. As a woman who is not naturally fit to be a stay-at-home mother, these norms are especially constricting for Edna. She does not begin to realize, and then only vaguely, that she is dissatisfied with the traditional gender roles until that summer in Grande Isle.
As she develops as a character, Edna also looks to the models of female life in Adele Ratignolle and Mademoiselle Reisz, and these two women represent the two acceptable ends of the spectrum. Adele is the perfect "mother woman": she is seen knitting winter clothes for her children in the summer and is even pregnant for the length of the novel. She is completely devoted to her husband and children. When Edna dreams of becoming an artist, her husband tells her that she should not let it be such a personal pursuit but should be more like Adele, who only plays piano to entertain her family. Adele is the standard for wives and mothers in late-nineteenth-century, upper-class society. Compared to Adele, Edna can never achieve the standards or ideals of the "mother women."
On the other end of the spectrum is Mademoiselle Reisz, who is a talented pianist but is unmarried. Her life is dedicated to her art. Her character suggests that if a woman wants to be an artist, she can only do so at the expense of all other feminine pursuits, namely marriage and motherhood. Edna is already married and has children, so even though she does try to paint, she is seen as negligent for not spending enough time with her family. She follows her own desires, which takes her away from the home in New Orleans on days when she is supposed to remain there to welcome visitors. Edna cannot be an artist like Reisz since she is already married with children.
Edna ultimately cannot live according to her own needs and desires in the late-nineteenth-century American South. She drowns herself in the Gulf of Mexico at the end of the novel, which could be seen as either a defiant choice or a sign of weakness. Regardless, the novel makes a powerful statement about the limited options available to women in the late 1800s.
One way that this novel speaks to the roles of women at the end of the nineteenth century is by representing Edna's ambiguous feelings in regard to those roles. Early on, the narrator describes the "mother-women," those women who seem almost divine in their embodiment of perfect maternity; they seem to require nothing else. Edna loves her sons, certainly, but she also doesn't feel the need to be at their beck and call as the mother-women seem to do.
She has a familiar relationship with her husband, but she does not seem to truly love him. The narrator tells us that she really only married him to spite her father; therefore, even her marriage resulted from her discomfort with her role as dutiful daughter. Rather than work hard to please her husband, as Adele Ratignolle does, for example, Edna begins to realize that she has a will of her own that she can exercise, even when it runs in opposition to Leonce's will. She is not a dutiful wife. Edna shirks feminine responsibility after responsibility, ignoring her receiving day, refusing to make calls, and generally embarrassing her husband, and through this, she shows how restrictive, how constrictive, a woman's role in this era really is.
The Awakening speaks directly to the roles of women at the end of the 19th century because it presents prototypes of females whose behaviors are changing as the times change, and whose roles within their families are shifting as the century shifts into more modern times.
The role of Edna, for example, is indicative of a woman who is simply fed up with the demands placed on women earlier in the 19th century: The nurturer, the solid rock, the loving wife, the loving mother, the enthusiastic entertainer. She had an idea that she would have to do all those things, but her awakening taught her that, to her, that whole thing was just not up her league.
In terms of writing conventions, it is noticeable that a female author would expose the reality of the emotion of women at the end of the 19th century.
Certainly it shows a shift in the paradigm of romantic literature, and it is noticeable in the fact that women, as with every romantic/realistic writing, are not portrayed as damsels in distress, nor as attractive princesses, nor the men are shown as chivalrous knights that will save the day.
The roles of women were seen as 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."
Kate Chopin used various characters (especially women) with unique personalities in realistic styles, incorporating effects of emotions.