In the social world of New Orleans, femininity was controlled and defined with severity. At every stage of life, a young woman faced myriad rules and prescriptions; a little girl should be A, a teenage girl should be B, an engaged woman C, a young married woman D, a mother E, a widow F, and on and on and on. In 19th century America, when the women’s rights movement was still quite new, conservative states like Louisiana granted women very few rights. Women could not vote, hold property, or (in most cases) file for divorce. And, in addition, there was a social world of more intangible restrictions: women should not be too warm or too cold, should not expose themselves to sun or to wind, should fear dirt, physical exertion, violence, vice, confusion and darkness of every kind; women should desire marriage above all else, but they should merely tolerate sex; the list seems never-ending.
In the early chapters of the novel, it becomes apparent to Edna that society considers her a possession of her husband’s and a willing, even happy, slave to her children. As the ocean and her realization of her desires through her budding love for Robert grow within her, she rejects these roles. She begins to notice some of the more intangible rules, as well. She distinguishes between two models of femininity: externalized femininity, where nothing is hidden, which is characterized by perfection, delicacy, purity; and internalized femininity, which is thoughtful, strong, contradictory, and chaotic.
The eccentric Mademoiselle Reisz is an outlier to this model, because in society’s eyes her spinsterhood strips her of her femininity. By the end of the novel Edna comes to doubt the harsh, moralizing oppositions of Victorian femininity. She is neither exposed nor hidden, neither shy nor outgoing, neither dirty nor clean, neither bad nor good; like Mademoiselle Reisz, she sees herself as existing outside the roles society has defined for her. And, as an outsider, she sees no role or world for herself.
Women’s Rights, Femininity, and Motherhood ThemeTracker
Women’s Rights, Femininity, and Motherhood Quotes in The Awakening
Mrs. Pontellier’s eyes were quick and bright; they were a yellowish brown, about the color of her hair. She had a way of turning them swiftly upon an object and holding them there as if lost in some inward maze of contemplation and thought. … She was rather handsome than beautiful. Her face was captivating by reason of a certain frankness of expression and a contradictory subtle play of features.
The acme of bliss, which would have been marriage with the tragedian, was not for her in this world. As the devoted wife of a man who worshipped her, she felt she would take her place with a certain dignity in the world of reality, closing the portals forever behind her upon the realm of romance and dreams.
Once she stopped, and taking off her wedding ring, flung it upon the carpet. When she saw it lying there, she stamped her heel upon it, striving to crush it. But the small boot heel did not make an indenture, not a mark upon the little glittering circlet.
The little glimpse of domestic harmony which had been offered her, gave her no regret, no longing. It was not a condition of life which fitted her, and she could see in it but an appalling and hopeless ennui. She was moved by a kind of commiseration for Madame Ratignolle,—a pity for that colorless existence which never uplifted its possessor beyond the region of blind contentment, in which no moment of anguish ever visited her soul, in which she would never have the taste of life’s delirium.
He could see plainly that she was not herself. That is, he could not see that she was becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world.
He observed his hostess attentively from under his shaggy brows, and noted a subtle change which had transformed her from the listless woman he had known into a being who, for the moment, seemed palpitant with the forces of life. Her speech was warm and energetic. There was no repression in her glance or gesture. She reminded him of some beautiful, sleek animal waking up in the sun.
“One of these days,” she said, “I’m going to pull myself together for a while and think—try to determine what character of a woman I am; for, candidly, I don’t know. By all the codes which I am acquainted with, I am a devilishly wicked specimen of the sex. But some way I can’t convince myself that I am.”
I always feel so sorry for women who don’t like to walk; they miss so much—so many rare little glimpses of life; and we women learn so little of life on the whole.
You have been a very, very foolish boy, 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.
There was no one thing in the world that she desired. There was no human being whom she wanted near her except Robert; and she even realized that the day would come when he, too, and the thought of him would melt out of her existence, leaving her alone. The children appeared before her like antagonists who had overcome her; who had overpowered and sought to drag her into the soul’s slavery for the rest of her days. But she knew a way to elude them.