Re-maturity: The Second Bildungsroman of Edna Pontellier

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The character Edna in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening has been interpreted primarily as a character who succumbs to the pressure of her responsibilities due to her lack of maturity, or as a woman who develops to a point of understanding where she can no longer happily live in her world.  These competing readers leave Edna as a victim of the world around her.  However, I believe The Awakening should be read as a bildungsroman—a novel which recounts the development of an individual from childhood or adolescence to maturity (Ross and Ray 34). By reading the novel as a story of Edna’s coming of age as a Creole woman, her death at the end of the novel is neither a perfect liberation or a result victimization from her outside world.  Feminist development stories prior to the nineteenth century were atypical in a male dominated genre, and those that did exist left women characters as virginal and perfect. Literary critic Sybil Weir outlines the typical feminist bildungsroman of the 19th century by saying, “The women, as described by both female and male novelists, stay safely on the shore, content to accept society’s definition of themselves” (Weir 427). Although Weir did not make this statement about Chopin’s The Awakening, anyone who has read the book knows that a woman who “stay safely on the shore” is a comical anti-description for the protagonist Edna.  Chopin writes ahead of her time in terms of female characteristics including their role in society, unwillingness to “maintain the status quo” (Weir 427), and her development of her protagonist psychologically. Although developmental psychology was not emphasized until Freud’s psychosexual stages were introduced in 1905 (McLeod), Judith Ryan points out in her book The Vanishing Subject, which looks at the effect of early psychology on literature, that “writers responded creatively to some of the questions posed by the philosopher-psychologists. The new conceptions of consciousness and subjectivity had implications that tempted writers to explore them in their own ways…Many of the most striking formal innovations of early twentieth century literature can be seen as a response to this challenge” (Ryan 3). Chopin is one such writer. To look more closely at Edna’s psychological development, I believe that Chopin uses Edna’s transition into the Creole society as a regression into immaturity, after which she becomes a child again and must re-navigate the main developmental stages. By aligning Edna’s psychological development in The Awakening with a coming of age story, Chopin causes Edna’s death to become a tragic version of a teen suicide that prematurely interrupts her development.

The concept of being trapped in a developmental stage which does not match her physical body is interpreted by Cynthia Griffin Wolff as Edna’s inability to fulfill the Freudian oral stage of ego. This stage would normally take place from the ages of zero to one. In Wolff’s argument, Edna is driven by her lack of motherly fulfillment as a child. Her two raw drives, sex and destruction, control her life due to her inability to graduate this early stage of life, which is characterized by fixation on the self and oral stimulants like food and sucking on things like a baby (McLeod).  Although Edna does show an interest in food, this is not due to Edna’s psychosexual starvation. Instead, she is mentally unable to understand and perform certain concepts and ideas because of her entry into new society where she is forced to relearn or redevelop her self as a Creole woman.  Chopin’s emphasis on food and sleep when characterizing Edna is not a sign of her mental incapacity as Wolff claims (461), but rather proof of Edna’s immaturity in her new world .  Edna’s sleep patterns are much like a baby in that she sleeps unreliably—either for not long enough or for extended periods of time. In one instance, Edna is kept “thoroughly awake” because she cannot stop crying, “although she could not have told why she was crying” (Chopin 7, 8). Later, she falls asleep, and upon waking asks, “’How many years have I slept?’” (37). Both the lengthy time she was asleep, and her ridiculous question have a sense of childlike ease. We also know that Edna’s maturity level is different from the other woman her age because of a book the women share in the early parts of the novel. “When it came her turn to read it, she did so with profound astonishment. She felt moved to read the book in secret and solitude, though none of the others had done so” (11).  While the other women are used to the open Creole way of life, Edna still only has a child’s understanding of it, and is, therefore, embarrassed by it.

By comparing Edna’s actions with psychological developmental stages, we can trace her actions from that of a young child to an adolescent. At the beginning of the novel, Edna is in the “elementary” stage or as literary critic Rosemary Franklin says in her work “The Awakening and the Failure of Psyche,” “She has psychically extended her girlhood into her third decade” (Franklin 515).  Edna’s sense of what she is supposed to do is dictated by the adult figures in her life, such as Leonce Pontellier and Adele Ratignolle, she is obsessed with following the rules, and she develops girl-girl friendships. According to medical textbook Psychiatry and Behavioral Science, “The child is still likely to assume that adult authorities define what is right and wrong” (Sholevar 37). Based on this description, Edna is reliving a childlike period of development in her new Creole society.  Edna’s conformity to the wishes of her authority, Leonce, can be easily recognized later in the novel after she begins to break her unquestioning loyalty to his every wish. In the first few chapters, we learn that Edna is not happy to be a wife and mother, but she is willing.  When Leonce questions her about their child who has a fever, she “sprang out of bed” at her husband’s request even though logically, he could have just as easily completed the task of tending to the child (Chopin 7). Obedient behavior was characteristic of Mrs. Pontellier prior to the recorded events of the novel as well. Additionally, “Children of this age normally use many obsessive or compulsive defense mechanisms. They may devote more time to arguing over the rules of a game than playing it” (Sholevar 38). Prior to her beginning of maturity at Grand Isle, Edna never considers if she wants to participate in the typical Creole way of life that her husband encourages, such as reception days; she only has a desire to blindly follow the rules and expectations presented to her. This shows evidence of her being in the elementary stage or even an infant-like state and shows her the movement from this stage when she no longer shows characteristics of blindly following others’ rules and authority.

Adele Ratignolle plays the role of both Edna’s mother and childhood friend by treating Edna in a motherly manner and taking care to keep her safe whilst also playing the role of her peer. As the ideal mother figure in The Awakening, having been labeled the “Madonna” (Chopin 11), Adele does not trust Edna to take care of herself. This is revealed when she warns Robert of flirting with Edna because of her youthful behavior, stating, “’She is not one of us; she is not like us. She might make the unfortunate blunder of taking you seriously’” (Chopin 20). This does not mean that Edna is young as a person, but her development in the Creole society is still infant. Adele’s protectiveness for Edna continues after they develop a friendship; on the beach, Adele is the “matronly figure” (15), but she also reminds Edna of the girlfriends she had as a child.  In this scene, Madam Ratignolle plays both the part of the mother and the friend for the child-character Edna.  One of the next steps in psychological development is the “tend[endcy] to play with same-sex peers” (Sholevar 38). The development of Edna’s friendship with Adele shows that she is still in this “elementary” stage. Although one may argue that Edna’s friendship with Adele could emerge at any age, we know from the same chapter that Edna’s only other female friends are from her elementary school-age years. Her time with Adele reminds her of those early friendships, proving that Adele is filling the role in Edna’s elementary friends in her second development.

Although Wolff believes Edna has never moved past her oral psychosexual stage, I argue Edna underwent full maturity of development once before in her society in Kentucky where she established herself independent from her family.  During a reflection of her past on the beach, Edna remembers her development in Kentucky, although all her first development’s description is based on how she viewed and acted upon situations concerning men in her life.  She “at a very early age” had been “passionately enamored” with an officer who worked with her father.  When she was “a little miss, just emerging into her teens,” she had her first heartbreak. And “she was a grown young woman” she realized that her hidden love was destined to fail and married Leonce Pontellier. Although this is Edna’s own recollection, it is proof of her initial development into a woman prior to her time in New Orleans and Grande Isle. Evidence of her once being mature and independent is presented when readers learn that she rebelled from her father and early life when she married Leonce and disconnected from the Presbyterian church in which she was raised. However, this adulthood is stripped from her when she enters the Creole society due to her lack of confidence and understanding with it.

Like Wolff, literary critic Madsen makes the claim that Edna “failed to develop” completely due to her lack of maternal figure and believes that she is in an Oedipal Crisis. In her book Feminist Theory and Literary Practice, Madsen uses psychoanalytic feminist theory to argue that Edna is driven by a feminine Oedipus complex—Freudian concept that children are attracted to the parent of the opposite sex and become jealous of their parent of the same sex—which causes her to reject her mother’s feminine side and marry Leonce, who is presented as a father figure (Madsen 108). In contrast, the concept of The Awakening depicting a second development allows Leonce to represent both the rebellion from Edna’s first development in Kentucky and the authority figure during her marriage. Rather than Edna being sexually attracted to her father figure because of Oedipal Crisis, she is driven by her adolescent need to rebel and develop independence. In Kentucky, this rebellion takes the form of marriage to Leonce, but in the Creole world, she must relearn her independence, causing her to rebel against him.

Edna’s first shows signs of development during her time at Grand Isle. One example is her becoming interested in new things. Edna, who has never wanted to swim before, becomes adamant on learning to swim on her own. The experience represents a sudden psychological development into a curious child rather than a baby-like figure. “But that night she was like the little tottering, stumbling, clutching child, who of a sudden realizes its powers, and walks for the first time alone, boldly and with confidence” (Chopin 27). Although she is still childlike at this point, she is gaining the ability to do things on her own.  She is also able to recognize her own forward movement because she states, “’Think of the time I have lost splashing about like a baby!’” (27).  Chopin’s reference to Edna as both a “child” and “baby” shows that Edna is growing up a second time.

After her “elementary” stage, Edna shows signs of moving onward to the adolescent stage of development. It is important to recognize that although the word “adolescent” can be traced to the thirteenth century to mean a person nearing adulthood (“Adolescence”), the use of the word as a developmental stage, did not appear until 1904 (“Youth”). Therefore, the concept of this middle age would not have existed to Chopin the way that it currently does.  For the sake of my argument, I will use the term “adolescence” to describe the period in between childhood and adulthood in which certain developmental milestones take place including “the ability to function independently” and to “modulate sexual and aggressive impulses,” which are modernly recognized as vital developments within this stage (Sholevar 41,42). It is the period in which an individual begins “seeking to understand the physical and mental changes she is going through” (41). For Edna, these behaviors begin to show while she is still on Grand Isle and emerge more obviously after she returns to the mainland.  One of the earliest discernable examples is when she says to Adele “’I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children, but I wouldn’t give myself’” (Chopin 46).  This shows that Edna is developing a greater sense of self that has the desire to be independent. One major action she takes to accomplish this freedom is moving from her husband’s house to Pigeon House. Even though Edna could easily live as she has, she confides to Mademoiselle Reisz that she wants to move because she “shall like it, like the feeling of freedom and independence” (Chopin 76). In addition to her wanting to and obtains the means to live and do things on her own, Edna begins spending more time with her friends, like Mademoiselle Reisz, and less time with her family, which is another sign of the adolescent stage (Sholevar 46). One example of this is her dinner party at her husband’s home which is full of nonfamily quests (Chopin 83) Edna excludes her family from one of the most important and enjoyable things in her life at the time.

Another step of her adolescence is her sexual desire’s awakening. Although she has affection for Robert on Grand Isle, and the “thought of him was like an obsession, ever pressing itself upon her” (Chopin 52), Edna cannot pursue him freely the way that she does with Alcee on the mainland. She admits to being in love with Robert; when Mademoiselle asks, “’Are you in love with Robert?’ ‘Yes,’ said Edna. Regardless of this love, no sexual actions take place between Edna and Robert. Her love for Robert himself might have been due to his sense of youth which would have been similar to her own. Robert is a young figure who has some characteristics of a child.  He “talked a great deal about himself,” but only because he was “very young, and did not know any better” (5). His being close to the same mental age or maturity level as Edna could be a contributing factor to their attraction and relationship. Critic Bernard Paris argues in his book Imagined Human Beings: A Psychological Approach to Character and Conflict in Literature that Edna and Robert are both in the “narcissistic stage of development” and are only attracted to each other because each sees the other as a reflection of his or herself.  He also believes that Edna’s sexual awakening is the driving force for the entire story, and claims the title refers to Edna’s sexual awakening (Paris 216).

Although Edna was heavily driven by sex, as many adolescents are, I believe sexual desire is only one piece of her complex development she undergoes, which also includes becoming enlightened to a sense of self and the world.  In terms of sexuality, Edna goes through a change in her sexuality—from being content in her lack of sexual fulfillment with Leonce, to being desiring the teen figure Robert, to having mostly meaningless sex with Alcee just for the sake of enjoyment or attention. Although the language is tame, due to the period in which it was written—Edna does have a sexual relationship with Alcee Arobin; he “held the cup of life to her lips” (80). Edna’s willingness to give herself physically to Alcee even though she did not love him shows that later in the novel she is willing to experiment with her sexuality as a teenager might do. She cannot do this with Robert because at the peak of their relationship, Edna has not yet developed the sexual part of adolescence or is still in her elementary state. The progression of her attraction is like the descriptions of her first development in Kentucky, therefore, showing her advancement for the second time.

Although he emphasized her sexual awakening, Paris sees Edna as a young person, referring to her as an “Icarus figure” who is “too reckless” (Paris 218). “Teens,” such as Icarus and Edna, “often feel invulnerable and deny the possibility of death,” and are more likely to participate in “dangerous, risk-taking behaviors” (Sholevar 47-48). Icarus is known for his youthful actions and sense of immortality which leads to his ultimate doom; likewise, Edna’s death is caused by her adolescent sense of immortality. Although Paris identifies the connection between Icarus and Edna, he argues that Edna’s kills herself because she cannot cope with raising her children and fulfilling her sexuality simultaneously, and she is unwilling to give up either. This opinion opposes the Icarus style death which suggests naivety over planned suicide. While Edna does show signs that she is going to do something drastic or rebellious prior to her final swim, she also seems to believe that she will be returning.

In order to properly interpret her words in this final scene, we must recognize the change in Edna’s speech norms throughout the novel. In the early parts of the novel Edna’s speech, or lack thereof, shows her lack of individuality and assertiveness which is characteristic of the early stages of development. When challenged by her husband, such as when he insists on their child having a fever, Edna does not speak up for herself, but instead allows Leonce to “reproach” and overpower her (Chopin 7). One main sign of mental and physical growing up is the development of speech. Looking again at the medical textbook I examined previously, “sophistication in the use of pragmatics increases through adolescence with the ability to handle problems in conversations and to develop refined narratives” (Sholevar 44). These “conversations” and “narratives” become evident beginning in chapter six when she begins conversing with herself in her mind and continue through the book as she becomes more comfortable expressing herself to Mademoiselle Reisz and then to the male characters, such as Leonce, who have previously dominated her opinion. Near the end of the novel, when questioned by her husband regarding her failure to complete her typical reception day, Edna shows no sign of submission to Leonce’s requests and simply responds, “Nothing. I simply felt like going out, and I went out’” (49). Her typical speech has changed to be bolder and more independent.

When referring to her going swimming in the final chapter, Edna says, “’I’d better go right away, so as to be back in time’” (Chopin 108).  She suggests that she will be returning for dinner with the exclamation “’I hope you have fish for dinner,’” but immediately retaliates with “’but don’t do anything extra if you haven’t’” (108). Her words concerning both leaving for a swim and returning are both casual and seemingly normal, but her carelessness seems unusual to the reader, who has become accustomed to Edna’ new declarative self, who does and states precisely what she wants. Some might see the careless tone in her speech as proof of her suicide being orchestrated and intentional. However, by seeing Edna as the youthful adolescent in the Creoles’ society, it is more likely that her death was caused by her participation in high-risk behavior. Edna believes she can swim out further than she can and is unable to return. “She did not look back now, but went on and on” until “the shore was far behind her, and her strength was gone” (Chopin 109). Her swimming out was a mistake from which she could not recover. A developed adult would not have swum out as far as Edna without recognizing she would not have the strength to return safely. 

Reading the novel in this manner extends Chopin’s comment on society and woman into a warning of youth and ignorance. Where historically Edna represents the hardships of living in an oppressive society, viewing Edna as a young person who fails to successfully transition into Creole adulthood allows readers to recognize the hardships of moving into a new culture.  Chopin not only breaks the typical bildungsroman by making her character a woman and an adult who is re-maturing, but she also stops her character’s development prior to its completion. I believe she is using this break of the typical format to demonstrate the reality of tragic events such as adolescent death.




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