Date of Award
Master of Arts in English
This study addresses the consequences that befell Edna Pontellier for seeking an identity apart and outside of the roles of wife and mother. In particular, it focuses on the correlation made by the male characters in the novel between rejecting motherhood and marriage and perceived mental illness. Edna’s onset of contradictory behavior causes Leonce and Dr. Mandelet to hypothesize the cause of her new behavior. In an attempt to understand and cure Edna, they take a diagnostic approach towards her awakening. Their misunderstanding of her awakening reveals the misinformed societal dogma that linked women’s desire for autonomy to mental instability.
There is a lack of scholarship in regards to Dr. Mandelet, chapter XXII, and the broader implications of medicine and mental illness in The Awakening. Although feminist discourse has celebrated Edna’s sexual liberation, there is a lack of scholarship in understanding Chopin’s more subversive feminist theme of the male tendency to misunderstand and misdiagnosis the female mind that steps outside socially prescribed roles.
Using social, historical, and gender based perspectives were helpful methods in understanding this issue. Studying the historical, cultural, and social atmosphere as well as the accepted gender roles during the time Chopin was writing is essential in realizing her subversive feminist plight. Chopin is questioning the socially prescribed gender roles and notions of 19th century female normative behavior.
Chopin is calling into question the limitations and misunderstandings of her time, and, as her fin-de- siecle suggests, she is also calling for an active reconsideration of gender roles moving into the new century. Some critics interpret Edna’s suicide as evidence that she was unable to overcome theses societal limitations; however, textual support from the final chapter of the novel lends itself to a more hopeful interpretation. Suicide is Edna’s first and final act as an autonomous, liberated woman. Chopin beckons for women in following centuries to continue in Edna’s plight, and, perhaps, what Edna was only able to achieve in death, generations of women to come would be able to achieve in their lifetime.
Collman, Elise M., "The Discourse of Female Mental Illness in Kate Chopin's The Awakening" (2016). ETD Archive. 892.