Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening are two novels that both deal with the story of a journey. McCarthy’s journey is that of a man and his son searching for hope in a post-apocalyptic world where as Chopin’s journey is that of a young, married woman awakening from the disillusionment of society’s expectations in an 1880’s New Orleans setting. Both novelists utilize the relationship of major to minor characters to great effect. Comparatively, McCarthy and Chopin employ these relationships to develop the protagonists and to relate various tones and themes.
In The Awakening, Chopin develops Mrs. Edna Pontellier, the protagonist, as a character who would “give her life for her children, but never give herself to anyone”. Chopin develops this through the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Pontellier. For example, when Mr. Pontellier says to his wife, “you are burnt beyond recognition” after she returns from the beach, he looks at her as one looks at “a valuable piece of property which has suffered some damage”. This view of perceiving Edna as a possession of economic and social value by her husband provides the reader with justification as to why Edna doesn’t believe in giving herself. This husband and wife relationship and Edna’s view of being one of “Mr. Pontellier’s possessions” pushes Edna towards more open self-expression and serves as a major reason for Edna’s pursuit of autonomy.
Mrs. Pontellier’s character is also developed through her relationship with Mademoiselle Reisz who is an artistic virtuoso on the piano whose music inspires Edna and “stirs her spirit”. As Edna is inspired to take up an old interest of art, Mademoiselle Reiz makes Edna her protégé and tells Edna that in order for an artist to succeed, an artist “must possess a courageous soul, the soul that dares and defies”. This ideology sinks into Edna’s mind and gives her the tenacity to pursue independence and escape the social expectations set by this turn-of-the-century New Orleans, Creole society.
Aside from characterization of the major character, Chopin uses the relationship of Edna and Madame Adele Ratignolle to develop theme and tone. The relationship develops the theme of the social pressures to conform to society’s conventions for women that are married and have children. For example, Madame Ratignolle embodies the Madonna of wives and mothers as she upholds her household duties and affectionately loves her husband and children. Chopin elaborates that Adele gives birth to a child every two years. As a result of this persona, Adele imposes pressure on Edna to conform when she says “it’s a shame Mr. Pontellier isn’t home more often”. Furthermore, when Adele undergoes child birth, she senses Edna’s rebellious heart and tells her to “think of the children”. Evidently, this relationship puts pressure on Edna to conform to the conventional role of a woman and allows Chopin to develop a scornful, rebellious tone as Edna never again becomes “a dupe to illusions”.
McCarthy similarly uses the relationship of major to minor characters to develop the protagonists and theme. For example, the man and the boy’s (major characters) relationship to Ely (minor) functions to characterize the boy as an anomaly in this post-apocalyptic universe because Ely can’t believe a little boy would have survived so long. This is obvious when Ely thinks “he has died” and asks the boy if he is an angel. McCarthy also characterizes the man as practical, the boy as innately good, and Ely as cynical. This relationship enables this characterization because the boy takes pity on Ely and gives him their precious “can of peaches” even though the man discourages it and Ely says he “would not have been so generous”. This major to minor character relationship underscores the boy’s correlation to God for “if the boy is not the word of God, then God never spoke”. McCarthy uses this relationship to portray the goodness of the boy and the theme that even in utter destruction and depravity, goodness will always remain.
In conclusion, The Road and The Awakening similarly use major to minor relationships to develop the protagonists and convey themes.