In The Awakening, Kate Chopin brings out the essence of through the characters of her novel. In this novel Edna Pontellier faces many problems because she is an outcast from society. As a result of her isolation from society she has to learn to fit in and deal with her problems. This situation causes her to go through a series of awakenings that help her find herself, but this also causes problems with her husband because she loses respect for him and the society she lives in. Throughout the novel she is faced with unfavorable circumstances which confuse and eventually kill her. Kate Chopin uses Creole Society in the 1890s as a basis for her novel and expresses it through Creole women, personal relationships, and etiquette.
The Awakening is a book based on French Creoles and their lifestyle which is expressed throughout the novel. Creoles were French Creole Society descendents of French and Spanish Colonists of the 1700s. They had strong family ties because of Catholicism and were a tight community because they where considered outcasts of Anglo- American society. Clement Eaton says that
the Creoles, to a greater degree then Anglo-Americans, lived a life of sensation and careless enjoyment. They loved to dance, gamble, fish, attend feasts, play on the fiddle and to live without much thought of the morrow. Eaton 252
Creoles were very lively outgoing people because of their comfortable tight society. Activities such as Mardi Gras and Sunday afternoon Mass holiday spirits contribute the liveliness of these people (Walker 252). A large reason for their comfort and live for the moment attitude was that Creoles did not move west like most other colonists to claim land. Instead they stayed in relatively the same area and just grew in population without consumption of other lands . This caused a shortage of land so it had to be repeatedly divided among the families and it also made it difficult for the plantation system to operate successfully (Walker 253).
Background of Creoles: Until 1888 the husband was legal guardian and was given custody of the children when in a divorce. In the 1890 segregation was legalized (Jim Crow laws), but blacks horizons were expanding also. In Louisiana after the Civil War, African American men had voted in large numbers, held public office, served on juries, and worked on the railroad (Culley 119).
In Creole society people are generally very warm and open, having plentiful long relationships. A mother s relationship with her children is usually very close, loving, and caring. The children are usually constantly pampered by their mother. Creole women, . . . were women who idolized their children worshipped their husbands, and esteemed it holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels (Chopin 16). Edna Pontellier, was not this type of mother though, she . . . was not a mother-woman (Chopin 16). Edna is just not able to fit in to the Creole society because she was raised in such a foreign way from what Creoles exhibit, it is just too difficult. Just little signs of affection towards her are difficult for her to grasp, she becomes confused when Madame Ratignolle touches her hand during a conversation (Walker 254). She was not accustomed to an outward and spoken expression of affection, either in herself or others (Walker 254). Unbelievably, Edna and her husband are the most distant of all people because they were basically forced into marriage. He limits her and this infuriates her to the point where she gives up and just does as she pleases. He does this by speaking to her like a kid and treating her like a piece of property that he drags around because it is inproper for a man of his stature not to be married (Chopin 7). Robert is the only person in which she has a full relationship with. Unfortunately their relationship is limited they can only truly be friends. Since Adele Ratignolle doesn t want this relationship to be taken too far or seriously she tells Robert, She is not one of us; she is not like us. She make the unfortunate blunder of taking you seriously (Walker 254). The relationships that Edna has just continue to confuse her and inspire her at the same time. This confuses her, making her think that she is fitting in fine when in fact she is really in a mess, and is too deep to be changed into a French-Creole women of any standards.
French-Creole women are thought of and shown to be very well rounded admirable women. They have many talents, skills, and a special way of life. Creole Women are artistic by nature; they paint and play and sing (Shaffter 137). They not only speak French, but usually several other languages also. In their speech they are usually very clear and articulant using gestures to ensure their point. Women in the Creole culture tend to be beautiful with a dark complexion, long black hair, and deep dark eyes (Shaffter 137). Walker describes Chopin s context of the story through this quote:
The community about which she wrote was one in which respectable women took wine with their dinner and brandy after it, smoked cigarettes, played Chopin sonatas, and listened to the men tell risque stories. It was, in short, far more French than American, and Mrs.Chopin reproduced this little world with no specific intent to shock or make a point. . . . Rather, these were for Mrs.Chopin the conditions of civility. . . . People openly like[d] one another, enjoy[ed] life, and savor[ed] its sensual riches. (Walker 253)
Creole women are very open and forward but also very careful with whom they make friends with (Shaffter 138). They show no shame and are very modest, never expressing their hardships. Stated by Shaffter , As wives, Creole women are without superiors; loving and true, they seldom figure in domestic scandal (138). Also, they generally, are good housekeepers, are economical and industrious (Shaffter 138). Creole women are mostly surrounded by religion, which is spread throughout their large families and help give them a sense of belonging and an identity.
During the 1890s woman began to become more recognized and started gathering power and strength in their society. They also were being allowed to expand possibilities which are strongly shown through the French-Creole culture. The New Orleans Daily Picayune was the first newspaper to be edited by a woman and to become a well-known American paper (Culley 121). During the 1890s this paper helped a number of women s causes. Their rights grew because of several women s rights groups such as the Portia Club and the Era Club which helped provide more opportunities for women. Eventually they won the right to vote on issues such local taxation and they voice on political matters was being felt (Culley 121). Unfortunately they had to deal with a fair deal of restrictions. For example, most of all married women were legally considered property of their husbands. All possessions that a women had attained and worked for including money were property of the husband (Culley 120). Women were getting many jobs that were as physicians, captains, storeowners, florists , and many others, although they were not being accounted for. The national census of 1890 showed that 9 of the 369 professions listed for the city were women not represented (Culley 121).
In Creole culture, etiquette and behavior takes a large part of their society. This is why it is very important to be as proper as possible otherwise it could be very offending to another party or especially their friends. At all times it is best to avoid all causes for complaint (Wells 122). It is necessary for a woman who wants recognition in society to display her politeness and engaging manners, or skill in music , along with the dressing up of her house (Wells 122). It should never be allowed by a lady, the disrespect of her husband, advice degrading him because confidants are dangerous persons (Wells 122). When a Creole woman is walking through the streets she should walk quietly while being unnoticeable as possible. If she comes upon someone she recognizes they should be acknowledged with a bow and friends addressed with a verbal greeting (Young 125). When riding in a carriage a women s dress should not be flashy or expensive. It should be made of silks, velvets, and laces. The dress can drag a little but if it does too much dirt or soil could destroy it. A lady in Creole culture should always dress for the occasion, especially when going out to dinners or any special occasion. When going out to dinners the dress should be a full length silk or velvet material for winter and a light, lavish material for summertime. Jewelry should be worn all over being the best that can be attained and the dresses color should be a light neutral tint (Young 127). When receiving calls a females dress should be of silk or other light materials, but plain with dullish colors (Young 126). It should be worn with cuffs, lace collars, and light amount of jewelry, but when worn for special holidays or evenings the dress should be livened up.
In all, The Awakening, vividly describes French-Creole culture and gives a strong feeling of it s Society in the 1890s. Women individuality and independence seem to be a overlying theme in this story. Chopin also describes Creole women, personal relationships , and the etiquette of Creoles throughout her Novel. Creole Society has a very close community that results in a fun and comfortable society. That was definitely shown in The Awakening , but not felt by Edna Pontellier who was just trying to find herself for her whole life. When she get intermixed with Creoles it showed her what she was missing, but was not able to grasp so that she could fit in to society for once.
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. New York: Avon, 1998.
Authoritative Text. Ed. Margo Culley. New York: Norton, 1994. 117-122.
U of Kentucky P, 1968. 83. Qtd. in Walker, 252.
Shaffter, Mary L. Creole Women. The Chatauquan 15 (1982) : 346-347. Rpt. in
The Awakening : An Authoritative Text. Ed. Margo Culley. New York:
Norton, 1994. 137-139.
Awakening. 17(1979) : 95-103. Rpt. in The Awakening : An Authoritative
Text. Ed. Margo Culley. New York: Norton, 1994. 137-139.
Rpt. in The Awakening : An Authoritative Text. Ed. Margo Culley. New York: Norton, 1994.122-125.
Young, John H. An Etiquette Advice Book Sampler. Our Deportment, Or the Manners, Conduct and Dress of the Most Refined Society. (1882): 56. Rpt. in The Awakening : An Authoritative Text. Ed. Margo Culley. New York:
Norton, 1994. 122-125.