‘Inevitably perhaps, we tend to start from an essentialist position and our reading of literary text is guided by this. But what is most important about literary representations of gender is not merely that a particular text can be shown to be sexist or phallocentric, or even feminist. Rather it is that literary texts call into question many of our essentialist ideas about gender.’
Essentialism is a negative outlook when referring to gender and creates stereotypical boundaries on the differences between man and woman. Literature can often create powerful moods and portray motivating messages and certainly, can call into question essentialist ideas we may have about Gender. In Kate Chopin’s work ‘The Awakening’, the story of a character, Edna Pontellier, trapped inside the conventions cast upon 19th-century society. The novel is striking in that to this day, it can bring us to question our essentialist ideas on gender and has much more to give than simply being a work labelled ‘feminist’, and throughout the essay the ways in which this is made possible will be explored.
The dictionary definition of essentialism is ‘The metaphysical theory that the essential properties of an object can be distinguished from those that are accidental to it.’ Essentialism however, is prominent in many different fields such as History and
Philosophy and should be perceived differently when introduced to the idea of Gender. In her article ‘Gender and Law’, Katherine Bartlett presents the definition that Essentialism refers to ‘selecting out only one possible source of a woman’s identity — such as her gender, race, class, or sexual preference — and treating it as severable from the rest of her being.’1 In this case, we can understand that essentialism in gender refers to stereotypes being created to categorise women as being different from men, an issue which Chopin deals with throughout The Awakening.
Chopin presents many different issues, one of which is the idea that it is not just men who are contributing to the negative aspects of women’s lives, but also women themselves. Edna, the protagonist who feels restricted by the gender stereotypes, views the typical woman as ‘women who idolized their children, worshipped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals’2, a view far more complex than simply being ‘feminist’ or anti-sexist, as it looks into more remote regions for answers and looks beyond blaming any particular aspect, but rather presents possibilities.
The novel is largely based around Edna’s escape from the conventions she sees these women as being both unable and unwilling to break out of. She is alone in her struggle and even finds herself outgrowing the only other woman she could confide in, her friend Madame Ratignolle, who she eventually feels ‘commiseration for’ and thinks it ‘a pity for that colourless existence’3. In this sense, we can pick up on the idea that the text makes us question our own essentialist ideas of Gender in that it is an exploration of these gender divisions, considering and presenting a range of problems rather than blaming one aspect, which would not enable the reader to think for themselves.
The male figures in The Awakening are presented very much in a similar light to that of the women. Edna is very isolated in her journey of self-discovery from both females and males, as shown from her abandonment of her daily life, her husband Leonce’s commands, and eventually the leaving of Leonce. Leonce is portrayed as being a character not very likeable and perhaps typical of the type of character used to show sexism. As Wyatt, literature critic, proposes, ‘Edna is “owned” at various points in the novel by her father, husband, Arobin and Robert’4. Bennett and Royle theorize that ‘violence against women need not be physical in a literal sense, but can nevertheless be all-pervading’5 and with Leonce contemplating views such as ‘if it was not a mother’s place to look after children whose on earth was it?’6 and often looking at Edna ‘as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property’7, the character can be seen as a feminist attack on men of this period.
However, the reason an apparent male representation of sexism is not dissimilar to the female characters of the novel is that we come to realise throughout the novel that Loence is no better or worse than the female characters, he is simply trapped in the same conventions they are. Leonce’s reasoning for his actions come out as Edna gets more and more disobedient and he ponders to Edna that ‘I should think you’d understand that people don’t do such things’, which basically suggests that the text is making us question our essentialist ideas of gender in that it is possibly society that creates these gender based stereotypical divisions rather than individuals, as people are taught how to act.
Similarly, even Robert, who as Edna’s love affair provided her with hope that there is life outside the conventions, was cast away from Edna having not being able to deal with the situation of breaking boundaries in the same was Edna can, showing that both male and female characters actions are directed by the social order. As Wyatt concludes, Edna is a ‘female, has children, and she is a wife that dictates behavioural norms based on those conditions’8. As a piece of literary work, The Awakening asks us to consider these apparent ‘norms’ of society and question our essentialist ideas of gender.
One inevitable creation of such conventional norms based upon essentialist ideology, is that of stereotype, which is another issue used in the The Awakening to provide various complexities. Bennett and Royle provide a breakdown of the female stereotype being ‘I am a woman and therefore subordinate, passive, hysterical, an object, etc’9 which shows ignorance towards individual characteristics.
As mentioned earlier, Edna’s despair comes partly from looking at the negative way women are dictated into leading their lives and she separates herself from the ‘mother-women’ who she views as ‘fluttering about with extended, protecting wings’, in other words having no direction and having a sole purpose of protecting their children. What Edna’s opposition to this provides for the reader is a perspective of an outside view to both male and female stereotypes, strong vs. weak, worker vs. housewife, etc, and as Bennett and Royle have detracted from texts of similar natures, ‘we are also provoked to a questioning of the very idea of gender opposition and such’10.
The essentialist stereotype is that ‘there is essentially one form of sexual difference and that is the difference between male and female, boys and girls, men and women’11. What literary characters such as Edna and their authors have the power to do is provide us with reasoning that such assumptions are deeply unfounded simply through showing us the ludicrous nature of it through a woman’s perspective, in the case of The Awakening.
Chopin invites the reader to share the perspective of Edna in looking at a world in which social conventions dictate the way people act, and then breaking out of this world. Edna’s actions, from her abandonment of her tasks, home, husband, children and ultimately, life, provide a powerful display which demonstrates almost sub-consciously how individual differences are certainly not taken into account when such essentialist stereotypes are drawn up, particularly as Edna shows strength beyond both female characters, such as Madame Ratignolle, and male characters, such as Robert, as neither of whom could go as far as Edna in breaking free of social restrictions.
From the fifties onwards, when Chopin’s novel finally re-emerged having being condemned by reviewers of the late 19th century, the novel went on to become very influential in 60’s women’s rights movements, inspired numerous writers and movies and as the nation had largely moved on in terms of attitudes towards women, was more widely accepted by men in terms of reviewing their essentialist ideas on gender, proving that Chopin was writing way ahead of her time, though the novel’s morale’s were still largely relevant as social barriers still existed, and the introduction of the novel onto a wide range of school syllabuses demonstrates the point that a literary text can indeed by influential in enabling people to open their mind and review their ideas on gender matters and concerns.
The problem arising within the context however is not in the sense that the literary text makes us question our essentialist viewpoints, but rather that the association of ‘identity politics… politics based on identifying oneself with a particular, usually marginalized and oppressed, group’12, according to Butler, 1990, is that it ‘presumes, fixes, and constraints the very “subjects” that it hopes to represent’13. In other words, by signing up to be part of a political group that is considered ‘identity politics’, the members are classifying themselves.
The Awakening meanwhile, can be viewed as undermining such classifications, which are actually viewed throughout as the enemy rather than the fight for freedom. Similarly, as Bennett and Royle discuss, the writer of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ presents herself as a writer, and similarly, Chopin clearly uses Edna as a persona to drive her own views on society forwards. Bennett and Royle suggest that for this very reason ‘wherever there is writing, sexual or gender identity becomes equivocal, questionable, open to transformation’, which basically advocates that literature can be read from many perspectives, and indeed the messages portrayed in a novel such as The Awakening depend largely on the reader, perhaps even more so than the writer.
Arguably the most thought provoking and extraordinary moment of The Awakening is the death of Edna at the climax of the play, which ultimately shows that this is her only escape from the social restrictions placed on the female of her time. Edna had tried everything on a rather progressive scale, from disobeying Leonce, leaving her home without permission, leaving Leonce permanently and having an affair yet she never quite felt free until the very end when she pushed the boundaries to the absolute maximum and finally released her soul out at sea, a prospect which she had been tempted by throughout the novel while learning to swim and feeling excited by the sense of danger.
Talking of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1891), Bennett and Royle give the analysis that ‘It may be read as a dynamic demand for liberation’ but still, ‘if, as the narrative of Gilman’s text implies, the only way out of patriarchy is to fall… is there in fact any way out at all?’14 Though this particular decline is through madness, the two works are similar in that the great extremes of human experiences are questioned to be the only real ways of escaping societies in which stereotypical divisions exist.
However, again, the importance of this is that they are ‘questioned’ rather than told. The ending of The Awakening is left open to interpretation, and many have debated over whether Edna was admitting defeat or making a stand in her suicide, but regardless of which view the reader takes, they have still been influenced to review their ideas on their essentialist ideology plainly because the text is meant for us to question, rather than to tell us what to think. As Bennett and Royle suggest, such apparently bleak finales are not meant as ‘negative message[s]’, but rather as a way to introduce ‘questions which the text itself can be said to pose’15.
In conclusion, it is very much evident that Literature can provoke reactions and indeed call into question many of our essentialist ideas about gender. ‘The Awakening’ demonstrates how this is an accessible feature of literature through Chopin’s clever use of ambiguity, leaving the major morale’s of the novel open for interpretation, yet creating an atmosphere in which a female persona is used to provoke a personal reaction from the reader, which inevitably call into question essentialist ideas on gender.
This quality is created through the lack of blame Edna places on any one particular aspect; we see problems with the control society has over the way people interact and the roles they take up in everyday life, male narrow-mindedness and expectations of women to obey them and female characters that are not strong enough to take a stand but rather are told what to do. Edna’s death is open to interpretation, with the prospect of defeat vs. freedom, and the ideas of stereotypes are subtly created to make people realize that such assumptions still exist today. There is far more at stake than simply establishing that a certain text may be feminist or sexist for instance, as the idea of the literature is not just simply pointing these features out, but establishing rather how they have affected us.
1 Bartlett, K., Harris, A. ‘Gender and Law’
2 Chopin, K. ‘The Awakening’ page 51
3 Chopin, K. ‘The Awakening’ page 107
4 Wyatt, N. ‘Romanticism, Realism, Naturalism, and Local Color, The Literary Context of the Awakening’
5 Bennett, A., Royle, N., ‘Literature, Criticism and Theory’ page 153
6 Chopin, K. ‘The Awakening’ page 48
7 Chopin, K. ‘The Awakening’ page 44
8 Wyatt, N. ‘Romanticism, Realism, Naturalism, and Local Color…’
9 Bennett, A., Royle, N., ‘Literature, Criticism and Theory’ page 154
10 Bennett, A., Royle, N., ‘Literature, Criticism and Theory’ page 154
11 Bennett, A., Royle, N., ‘Literature, Criticism and Theory’ page 154
12 Bennett, A., Royle, N., ‘Literature, Criticism and Theory’ page 158
13 Bennett, A., Royle, N., ‘Literature, Criticism and Theory’ page 158
14 Bennett, A., Royle, N., ‘Literature, Criticism and Theory’ page 156
15 Bennett, A., Royle, N., ‘Literature, Criticism and Theory’ page 156