We, as readers, are so often inclined to subject characters in literature to the most prudent moral scrutiny. Often times, authors, themselves, invite us to scrutinize and analyze their characters, and even challenge us to morally evaluate them. However, we find formulating moral evaluations after our scrutiny perplexing and disconcerting.
Such is the case with Edna Pontellier, the protagonist of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, who is a character whose morality seems beyond definite evaluation, especially regarding her recklessly passionate behavior. Though, Chopin appears to be daring us to judge her Edna, almost sardonically encouraging a phallocentric condemnation of Edna’s adulterous behaviors because then her audience would be affirming the very societal conventions and beliefs she was criticizing.
In this, Chopin insinuates her desire for us to interpret Edna’s actions as a product of innocent love attempting to break from the shackles of man’s world and rules. Ultimately, Edna cannot be found morally culpable for her adulterous and seemingly irresponsible behaviors by readers because Chopin created her without a fiber of malice or licentiousness and placed her in a world, in which her actions were inescapable and necessary to preserve her integrity and individuality.
The world in which Chopin places Edna is entirely dissatisfying, providing her with little romantic contentment or domestic bliss. Her marriage to Léonce is described as an “accident” and that in her “fancy she was mistaken. “Edna married Léonce in response to his “absolute devotion”, “the violent opposition of her father and her sister Margaret to her marriage with a Catholic”, and the remnants of her unrequited affections for a young, engaged “tragedian” instead of because a mutual passion or a deep emotional connection. Every facet of Edna’s marriage was inauspicious from the start; she was simply escaping the dominion of one man to another’s who she thought was going to live up to her fantastical conceptions of romance.
We cannot find Edna at fault for her decision to marry Léonce or her fantastical conceptions of romance because of her immaturity, typical adolescent rebellion, and natural identity search. Edna is naïve and innocent in her desire to be loved and away from her stuffy home in Kentucky, which leaves little for the audience to criticize; however, Edna’s decision to be with Léonce led to her eventual dissatisfaction with her marriage and life because he treats her with little affection; is incapable of connecting with Edna emotionally; confines her to their domicile to care for their children, watch over servants, and wait on callers; and represses her expression of her individuality neither supporting her desire to draw or explore her other attributes. The circumstances of her marriage, which she had little agency in determining, lead Edna into more drastic behaviors aimed at escaping these oppressive circumstances.
Moreover, Edna is a character “devoid of coquetry” and contrasts starkly with “saucy” women in the novel, which is ironic considering she is the one committing adultery instead of the other women. This irony is purposeful; Chopin desires to use it to call attention to Edna’s lack of licentiousness. She enters into her emotional affair with Robert unwittingly. When she is awakened to her feelings toward Robert it is never explicitly recognized by either Robert or Edna, and seems to exist most prominently in Edna’s subconscious. It seems to be passions that are felt but cannot be explained similar to the way Edna cries when she hears Mademoiselle Reisz play piano, but cannot explain why she cries.
Edna seems to have little conception of the consequences adultery will have on her life, reputation, and the lives of her children. The only acknowledgement of her actions as anything that she conceives as infidelity is after sharing a kiss with Alcee Arobin she thinks to herself “what would he think”, referring not to her husband but to Robert. She perceives no infidelity or adultery in her relationship with Arobin or Robert because she feels she owes Léonce none of her loyalties.
Moral Analysis of Edna
The issues of who she owes her loyalties to is the crux of whether Edna is morally culpable for her adultery, and what preserves her morality is the fact that she owes no one her loyalties because when she gave them to a man they were abused; she was treated as a delicate piece of property meant for show. Edna’s marriage is no longer binding in her mind; she is motivated by a powerful amalgam of emotions. She is itching to express true passions that she has never had the opportunity to before. Moreover, these expressions of passions are more like reflexes instead of conscious decisions to engage in affairs with Arobin and Robert. Because these behaviors are like reflexes, Edna cannot mean them in a malicious way. These actions are the repercussions of circumstances that were essentially beyond her control and foresight to prevent. Although Edna’s behaviors are not entirely benign, Chopin carefully places all these factors in place in order to absolve Edna from moral capability because it is essential to the interpretation of the novel. We, as readers, answer Chopin challenge to evaluate Edna.
- Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. Chicago: H.S. Stone & Co., 1899. Print.
This article was originally published at suite101.com