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to Practical & Theoretical Criticism October 11, 2010 In the Midst of Liberation, Things are Left Behind Chopin¶s The Awakening has the hallmarks of a novel interested in the liberation of women. It relates the story of a woman who finds herself unable to conform to the expectations of motherhood and wifedom. She finally escapes to a world of her own choosing and, when even this is denied her, she makes one last choice that is entirely her own ± suicide. A bare-bone analysis takes the reader this far, but there is a subtle, parallel, and yet connected theme that is missed if only the feminine mystique prevails. Having come of age during the Civil War and being surround by Southern-culture, some of those themes find their way into the narrative. It should not be a surprise then that the novel takes place in New Orleans and its environs ± the cultural capitol of the South ± and that the heroine¶s father is a Confederate officer. Embedded into Chopin¶s text are servant-characters (no better than slaves), who are either African-American or Mulatto, and their treatment by Edna Pontellier, the heroine, can be seen as a commentary on the struggle for feminine equality. She too is trapped in the master-slave paradigm that keeps her femininity bound to her husband. Equality that leaves anyone behind is not real; it merely readjusts the paradigm to allow the continuation of oppression. In this paper we will examine three characters: ³the little black girl,´ ³the Quadroon,´ and Joe. On their own, they appear to be minor characters in the story. The young girl appears only thrice ± once working the treadle of Madame Lebrun¶s sewing machine and the other two times
Bailey 2 as a messenger from Edna to Robert Lebrun and from Madame Lebrun to Edna. Joe¶s three appearances are: first, during the argument between Edna and Léonce Pontellier at the dining table; second, working at Edna¶s private residence; and third, in remembrance by the children. The children¶s nanny possess the biggest role of the servants, being mentioned throughout the novel, generally in response to something she did not do correctly with the children. Each of these characters however interacts with Edna at profound moments in the text. Edna first encounters ³the little negro girl´ sweeping the galleries of the main house at Grand Isle. It need be noted that she was specifically recalled as the girl who had been working the sewing machine earlier (32). It calls one¶s attention to the fact that she is a domestic, nothing more, that her lot in life is merely to do that which she has been told and to do it inconspicuously. She has been told to push the treadle with her hands (21), sweep the floors (32), and carry messages (32 & 42). All of which she does obediently and swiftly and during which conversations happen around in which she does not participate ± one wonders if her life would be any different if the story were set in the Antebellum South. However Edna in this scene is making her first major push toward her own liberation. The narrator explains that ³[s]he had never sent for [Robert] before « never asked for him « never seemed to want him before´ and yet she was living purely in the moment of her own needs and desires (32). The young girl is the catalyst; she bears the message, beckoning Robert to come with Edna on a pilgrimage to the Isle of Cythera. ³The little negro girl´ remains unnamed, Edna was unable to see beyond the predominant master mentality; not seeing her as a woman who may desire her own freedom as well. Instead she left her behind to continue to do only what she is told. The moment has passed and the next and last time the girl is mentioned is to pull Edna back from her freedom. Madame Lebrun used
Bailey 3 the girl to summon Edna to sit with her until Robert leaves to go to Mexico (42). It is a return to respectable womanhood, Robert and Edna chaperoned by the mature, proper madam. There is a duty that comes with freedom and Edna recoiled to the only method she knew: the ordering of people below her station, the same treatment that Léonce gives to Edna. Someone else took that which she desired so greatly, her moment of freedom, away. Robert is therefore whisked away like a mirage in the desert, to one who comes unprepared. The other unnamed character, ³the Quadroon´, is mentioned early in the text in association with Edna¶s children (4). Throughout the remainder of the novel, mention of the children seems to go hand-in-hand with mentioning their nanny (4, 13, 42, 48, 51, and 69). Through the internal dialogue at the beginning of chapter 4, it becomes apparent that the nursemaid is the mother to Edna¶s children that she herself is not. The narrator explains that ³[t]he mother-women seemed to prevail that summer « [i]t was easy to know them, fluttering about with extend, protecting wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened their precious brood. They were women who idolized their children « and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals (9)´ ± in scene-after-scene that is what the au pair is doing. She is caring for the Pontellier children as if they were her own. In a strange twist of irony, it is ³the Quadroon¶s´ presence that allows Edna the freedom to pursue her own freedom. The nanny¶s motherly-qualities creates within Edna a certain jealousy of her for she is present to the children; they are maturing well, and yet the nursemaid is also able to find time for herself ± ³The quadroon had vanished (39).´ Two events mark this emotive response by Edna in The Awakening. The first is shortly after Robert had informed Edna that he was leaving for Mexico presently. ³She went directly to her room. « She began to set the toilet-stand to rights, grumbling at the negligence of the quadroon, who was in the
Bailey 4 adjoining room putting the children to bed (42).´ The object of Edna¶s perceived freedom, Robert, was slipping from her grasp. The nanny, having decided to focus her priorities toward the children at that moment, had neglected the periphery of a well-organized toilet ± ³the Quadroon´ had made a choice. Edna, consumed with her personal freedom and its loss, was unable to recognize in her servant a kindred spirit longing for freedom. Instead she grumbles at her lack of duty and ³Edna sent the Quadroon away to her supper and told her not to return (42).´ The ³patriarchal system´ has been so ingrained into all the characters that Edna cannot be free to appreciate the freedom and responsibility that ³the Quadroon´ has found. A duplicate event occurs in the following chapter, only the particulars change. Edna had lost Robert, evidenced by only the passing reference to her by Robert in Madame Lebrun¶s letter, and the nursemaid allowed the children to play in the sun. Edna scolds the governess ³for not being more attentive (45).´ The final character is the African-American steward named Joe. It gives pause for speculation as to why this individual is one of the few servants who are named in the story. We are only going to focus on Joe¶s primary scene, though he is mentioned in two additional scenes, which is at the dinner table, shortly after the Pontellier¶s return from Grand Isle. He is first referenced as ³the boy in waiting´ and later revealed as Joe (48-49). Joe is the exact opposite in symbolism of ³the little black girl´ mentioned earlier. Instead of being the catalyst to an opportunity for freedom, he is the symbol of the ancien régime. He is the one that answers the door for the Tuesday callers and he collect their cards. When Léonce desired to know whom did Edna not properly receive, Edna asked Joe to bring the cards. To show her disdain for the activity of waiting on callers, she ordered, not requested, Joe to give it to her husband. She feels
Bailey 5 that she has found her freedom from the expectations that Léonce has placed upon her. Yet her freedom came at a price, she is free because Joe must remain in bondage. The male servant is never given the opportunity to be a free person in the text; he is obedient, industrious (81), never in error, and dear to the children (90). In a way he is the perfection of the womanhood from which Edna rebels. He is named because he is perfectly controlled by the master. It is similar to the way Adam names those creatures of which he controls in the book of Genesis (Genesis 2:19-20), naming his wife Eve only after the expulsion from the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:20). Edna is unable to take notice of Joe as an individual, only as a person to serve someone else¶s will. The cycle of repression remains and her freedom is now at risk. The following morning Léonce makes his first observations about Edna¶s health (51) that will lead him to consider doing something about her ± ³she doesn't act well « [s]he's odd, she's not like herself (62).´ Edna¶s inability to see her own struggles for freedom as linked with the freedom of her ³slaves´ is what makes a life of liberation impossible for her. Her greatest moments of freedom, doing what she desires or wills in the end always comes to nothing. Even when she achieves her greatest desire, Robert, all has been tainted by his belief that he can possess her in the same way Léonce owned her (102). In a subtle way, The Awakening is not a novel solely about the sought for liberation of women but the means too. To be free is never possible when others remain in bondage or hidden; it only shifts the object to be imprisoned.
Bailey 6 Works Cited
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994. Print
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