The Awakening Analysis
The Awakening Analysis
Edna Pontellier as another Virgin Queen
In Kate Chopin's The Awakening, protagonist Edna Pontellier is the endearing portrait of a woman refusing to conform. She invokes the archetypical Unclaimed Woman, sensual and uncompromising-- she is Mary Magdalene, she is Marilyn Monroe, she is Queen Elizabeth I. She frees herself, like the bird in the gilded cage (Chopin, 1), from the confines of soceital conventions. Once awakened, she submits only to her own passions and desires, she finds herself stripped of all stifling illusions and mindsets forced upon her from birth-- by religion, by family, by community. Like Queen Elizabeth I, Edna Pontellier is a woman who will submit to no man, who will not lay down and, although she is highly sensual, will not be degraded and demonized.
Edna Pontellier's journey in the novella begins with heavy symbolism and foreshadowing. The bird in the cage representing Edna, locked in the torment of inner division. In her Piece by Piece, the often brutally honest feminist singer-songwriter Tori Amos often uses the Mary Magdalene archetype to delienate the state most women-- particularly Christian-- are in, objectified and torn apart by the hands of the patriarchy. She explains how Christian women are taught to repress natural sexual passions and cut out their own voices to follow the example of the pious Virgin Mary, while the Magdalene is horribly distorted, turned into a whore, as many "strong women" are. How can we be divided? Tori asks, using her own signature colorful metaphors. How can we suffer "the ultimate pain-- division within the self, the soul from the body, the mind from the heart...the two Marys divided?" (Amos, 71) She uses the term "marrying the two Marys" to illustrate how women can bcome whole, how they can be both honorable and sensual without giving up their souls:
Traditional Christianity...gave us two characters: the Virgin Mary and the Magdalene. Of course, within the psyche they must be joined, not polarized for a Christian woman to feel whole. The Virgin Mary has been stripped of her sexuality but has retained her spirituality; the Magdalene has been stripped of her spirituality but has retained her sexuality. Each must have her wholeness...(64)
Edna is constantly surrounded by these polarized, divided beings who remind her of either one Mary or the other-- The Farival Twins, two young girls, "always clad in blue and white, the Virgin's colors, having been dedicated to the Blessed Virgin at their baptism"(Chopin, 23); the mournful lady in black, counting her beads, an impending shadow reminding or foretelling Edna of her sad future as a woman, alone, her husband dead, now free of being his possession though left without the youthful passions that burned before; the Spanish girl, Marqueita represents a form of sensuality, but it is a farce: she is fiery, tempestuous, a coquette thing passing from man to man, still objectified by them. Edna knows she does not aspire to end up like any of these women, she aspires that wholeness, that fulfillment of self-discovery.
Queen Elizabeth I, too, was a woman struggling for autonomy and sexual freedom in a man's world. She resolved from the beginning of her life, after discovering the truth about her mother, Anne Boelyn, having been murdered by her father. It is said that she promised herself and her childhood friends that she would never marry and, though they did not believe her at that time, she held that resolve her whole life. Although she later went on to become the Virgin Queen, this was in no way a circumcision of her full womahood-- this was not an acquiescence; she was not giving up her freedom or accepting the convention that being sexual was being less than a woman, nor was she saying her decision to set herself aside was making her more of a woman. Instead, her decision never to take a man, never to marry-- except to England itself-- and never to produce a child was the decision to make it universally understood that she was no one's object. She was still whole, she was still a sexual woman, a devestatingly powerful woman, however, she had an enormous strength of will to resist the temptation to even appear to, in sex or love, become a man's possession. She wanted no misunderstandings.
The parallels of Edna Pontellier and Queen Elizabeth go beyond the attitude or the rebellion. It is evident in the social circle they are both placed in. Edna Pontellier married, quite by accident, into high Creole soceity-- the world of unwavering, rigid morals and unquestionable female chastity. Pontellier has no illusions about someday becoming like the Creole women, she knows her passions are not theirs and she can never be content as a "mother-woman" (8) like Adele Ratignolle or the others. Creole soceity is a highly religious, highly Catholic world in which Edna readily admits, at least to herself, that she does not belong. She hides her feelings well; she "apprehended instinctively the dual life-- that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions" (13). This Catholic soceity mirrors the Catholic state Elizabeth grew up in, the Catholics-- including her half-sister Mary-- who sought her life to keep her, a Protestant, from taking the throne. It is arguable that Catholicism is the most rigid of Christian systems, which makes sense that the limitations implemented on its women would cause those like Edna and Queen Elizabeth to rebel as forcibly as they have.
Another interesting parallel between the two women is in the men they love-- Edna's Robert Lebrun and Elizabeth's beloved Lord Robert Dudley of Leicester. Besides the names, the two men are extremely devoted, though still conscious of the women's unattainablility. Robert, torn apart by his longing for Edna and his duty to the Creole code of honor never to covet a married man's wife, leaves Louisiana, leaves Edna, for Mexico in hopes that the distance will cure him and, in her absense, the love will somehow subside. Lord Robert, Elizabeth's close friend and fiery lover, held a decorative position in her court as Master of the Horse, only as a ploy to keep him by her side without suspicion, though many knew of the affair. Although he shared her bed many a night, and Elizabeth loved him immensely, she knew she could never marry him. She would not share her power, would not become his wife. It is reputed that she famously told him in court, "I will have one mistress here, and NO master!" which is echoed somewhat by Edna Pontellier to her Robert when they reunite in Madame Reisz's house:
You have been...wasting your time dreaming of impossible things when you speak of Mr. Pontellier setting me free! I am no longer one of Mr. Pontellier's possessions to dispose of or not. I give myself where I choose. If he were to say, "Here, Robert, take her and be happy; she is yours," I should laugh at you both. (108)
It is here that, although the love of her life is there in her arms, professing his love for her, she asserts her power and the fact that she will not pass from being her husband's possession to being his. Her affair with Alcee Arobin is another indication of this-- she is comfortable with him, knowing that he has no expectations or obligations to her and neither she of him. She knows that what they have is a simple understanding that, whatever transpires, it is not of love; there are no strings attatched. For a moment, after her first indiscretion, after their first kiss, Edna regrets that it is not love becuase, perhaps, it would be more justifiable. If she had the affair, had essentially left her husband for the love of another man, not just lust, it would be more honorable, nobler in a sense. She regrets that it "was not the kiss of love that brought this cup of life to her lips" (84) because some part of her would be more forgiving-- the conscience, the nobility in her, as defined by previous Creole Christian standards; the Virgin Mary part-- and perhaps soceity would too be more forgiving if this act had been out of love. But it wasn't. And in the end she knows it is better this way, for to love a man would be a sacrifice, would be handing herself over, would be laying down under his feet. So she is satisfied that she doesn't have to be anything to Alcee, that she is nothing of his and keeps her own identity. Just as Elizabeth, could never bring herself to marry her Robert of Leicester because she would not have him make a whore of her, or a wife because either title would reduce her to a Thing, a single Ideal, a being seperated like the two Marys.
During her Christ-like Last Supper, Edna Pontellier pulls out all the stops, turning her humble "pigeon house" into a grand dining hall, decked with all her husband's money could offer. She herself appears, like a goddess, like a queen, in all her glory, ascending to an almost divine state, her most regal before her death:
The golden shimmer of Edna's satin gown spread in rich folds on either side of her...There was something in her attitude, in her whole appearance when she leaned her head against the high-backed chair and spread her arms, which suggested the regal woman, one who rules, who looks on, who stands alone. (89)
To compare this heightened moment with either Elizabeth's coronation or her transformation, after the executions of those that threatened her throne and after her symbolic purification to Virgin status, would be equally appropriate.
Queen Elizabeth's coronation was indubitably a joyous event-- after all, she had narrowly escaped her own beheading at the hands of her sister for supposed treason against the Catholic church and allegated attempts to seixe the throne. She herself knew it was not mere luck or a sudden compassionate chage of heart in her sister, as she famously cried, "this is the Lord's doing; and it is marvelous in Our eyes." Edna's lover, Alcee Arobin calls the dinner a "coup d'etat" (85), which is fitting since, in a way, Edna's has overthrown a system-- the system of female subjegation; she has freed herself of the chains, the guilt and shame that too often accompanies women of confidence and sensuality.
Elizabeth thwarted her many enemies once again a few years later in successfully executing conspirators against her crown with her loyal advisor Walsingham. "I have rid England of her enemies," she tells him. "What do I do now?" It is here that she makes her transformation, giving her people something close to divinity, standing alone at her throne, set apart, as Edna stood at the head of her immaculate dinner table.
Edna's joining with the sea at the end is not a shameful condescension, it is not the act of her lying down to accept what the world tells her she is. It is neither a selfish act, leaving her children to suffer in her absence under her now tainted name. She gives her body to the sea, her only true home, just as Elizabeth gives her body to England and her people. Just as Elizabeth set her body aside, essentially letting it die to prove her ultimate feminine sovereignty, Edna Pontellier sacrifices her body to prove that she will be glorious and magnificent in herself, not allowing the world and it's constrained, limited views make her to be a base, corrupt thing. She is proving her merit-- by giving up her body she is letting the world know that she, too, is sovereign and only belongs to herself, and the waters, the Great Mother, honoring the Source. She is reborn in those waters, returning to the Womb, becoming a Virgin again.