4.8: Student Sample Paper: Duncan Raunio’s “The Tragedy of Performing Gender in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening”
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Duncan’s paper is a gender analysis that uses feminist and masculinity studies as a way to explore the dynamic between Edna and Robert, the “secret” lovers in The Awakening. Duncan explores how Edna and Robert are trapped into performing heterosexual behaviors defined by a heteronormative society, when they might have homoerotic desires that doom their relationship from the start.
Professor Karlyn Crowley
Literature and Writing
May 5, 20–
The Tragedy of Performing Gender in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening
While there are many possible interpretations of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, perhaps the most common is that Edna commits suicide in the end due to her unrequited love for Robert Lebrun. This is of no surprise, as Edna tells Robert that “I love you … only you; no one but you” (Chopin 132) at the peak of what would seem to be their secret affair. Edna seems to be completely enthralled with Robert, and her freedom through a life of sensuality can only be obtained by being with he who awakened her, so it seems natural, at least on the surface, that she is devastated when he decides to leave her in the end. With nothing to do but to go crawling back to her husband and demanding children, Edna is defeated. Unable to go on, she throws herself into the sea to die.
While this is a valid way of seeing The Awakening, it is perhaps overly narrow and superficial. By saying that Edna can only achieve her freedom through a romantic attachment to Robert Lebrun, one is implying that a woman can only achieve her freedom through attachment to a man and not by herself. Trying to get past the traditional view that a woman needs a man is where looking at The Awakening from a gender criticism approach can prove to be particularly helpful. In his essay “Gender Criticism and The Awakening,” Ross C. Murfin states that one of the goals of gender criticism is to “criticize gender as we commonly conceive of it, to expose its insufficiency and inadequacy as a category” (224). He explains that many gender critics see gender as merely a construct of society, and that we are born into pre-existing notions of what “males” and “females” are supposed to be. By applying the ideas of gender criticism to The Awakening, the motives of some of the characters, most importantly Edna and Robert, become much deeper, as do the possible intentions Chopin had for her work. When one starts to examine what the “traditional” gender roles are for male and female, it becomes apparent that Robert and Edna exhibit behavior that is atypical, bordering on the homoerotic. Indeed, Edna can be seen as a “metaphorical lesbian.” Robert, in turn, often displays homosexual tendencies. If one considers the possibility of Edna and Robert having homosexual tendencies, then their coming together seems less of a romantic passion than it is a confused search for understanding–understanding of sexual identity. While on the surface they are drawn together sexually because society tells them that they should be, on a deeper level they connect because they know the truth about each other’s struggle. By having them separate in the end, Chopin is saying that society is not ready for homosexual love to be accepted as normal behavior, much less as a “gender.”
Elizabeth LeBlanc explores the notion of Edna Pontellier as a “metaphorical lesbian” in her essay “The Metaphorical Lesbian: Edna Pontellier in The Awakening.” What she means by this is not that Edna is a “tragically closeted dyke who dies because she cannot accept her orientation or because she has not ‘found the right woman’“, but rather she explores “the presence of lesbian motifs and manifestations” which allows one to “examine the strategies and tactics by which Edna attempts to establish a subjective identity” (237). Edna finds herself isolated from the group of “mother women” on Grand Isle, especially from Madame Ratignolle, who, when seen from the male perspective, is the ideal woman. Karen Simon explains how Edna finds Madame Ratignolle “incomprehensible” in some ways, especially when she does things like flirt with Edna’s father. Yet Edna still remains connected to her female contemporaries; she in fact shares a strong bond with them, but only as individuals. Edna seeks to break away from the traditional notion of femininity, but she also makes sure to not isolate herself from the women around her. It is through her associations with other women that she feels the most alive and inspired, such as the sensuous beach scene with Madame Ratignolle, or the many times that Madame Reisz plays piano for her. These interactions help Edna to define herself, and while she does not have any sexual encounters with any of the women, they lead her to the conclusion that a romantic life with a man will not satisfy the cravings inside of her.
If Edna can be seen as a metaphorical lesbian, then perhaps it follows that other characters can be seen in a homosexual light. In particular, Chopin’s depiction of Robert Lebrun raises many questions as to what his real motivations are. Perhaps he too can be seen as a homosexual character. Suzanne Disheroon-Green in “Mr. Pontellier’s Cigar, Robert’s Cigarettes: Opening the Closet of Homosexuality and Phallic Power in The Awakening” explores this often overlooked possibility in detail. She does so by comparing Robert, the “homosexual male, who is figuratively emasculated by his heterosexual acquaintances” with Mr. Pontellier, the “overbearing, yet emotionally absent, traditional husband” (184). In her analysis, Disheroon-Green explains that Chopin makes the distinction between the heterosexual male and the homosexual through the “manipulation of phallic images” (184). As the traditional heterosexual male, Mr. Pontellier must show that he has control over his wife. He often “exerts his masculine supremacy over his wife … while smoking a cigar,” which “serves as a phallic symbol, illuminating his patriarchal attitudes toward his wife” (184). This is in stark contrast to the more gentle personality of Robert Lebrun. The cigar can now be seen as an “emasculation image” when it is in association with Robert, the “single male figure in the novel who does not expect to be treated as a superior creature simply because of his masculinity” (184). Indeed, Robert is much more tender compared to Mr. Pontellier, and he is “effeminate and more comfortable in the beautiful world of women than in the smoke-filled clubs of men” (184).
This association with women is key to what makes him seen as a homosexual character. In The Awakening, we are told that “each summer at Grand Isle [Robert] had constituted himself the devoted attendant of some fair dame or damsel” (31). But what is important to note is that the type of women that he associates with were “married women, older widows, or girls too young to be considering marriage, but never women of the age to be seeking a husband” (Disheroon-Green 187), or, in other words, safe women. As a homosexual, he cannot identify with his fellow heterosexual male counterparts, so he creates friendships with the more sensually inclined women that he encounters on the island. Yet he is careful to choose whom he associates with, as he would not want his attachments to be mistaken as having a sexual agenda.
Mr. Pontellier seems to be on to Robert’s deviance from the heterosexual norm, and he often treats Robert as an inferior man. In the scene where Edna and Robert are returning from the beach, Mr. Pontellier treats Edna as a “valuable piece of personal property” (Chopin 24), and, doing so in front of Robert, he seems to be saying that Robert is “not enough of a man to look after her properly” (Disheroon-Green 186). Also, there is only one instance in which Mr. Pontellier addresses Robert as anything but “Robert,” again “indicating Mr. Pontellier’s superiority” (187). Lastly, Disheroon-Green points out that in “contrast to Mr. Pontellier, Robert smokes cigarettes, ostensibly because he cannot afford cigars; the effeminate male smokes the smaller, more frail counterpart of the cigar” (188).
If one then considers both Edna and Robert to be characters with homosexual tendencies, or perhaps characters who rebel against other aspects of heteronormative femininity and masculinity, the reason for their closeness is not a sexual one at all. It may be that they are actually seeing this struggle against gender norms in each other, wishing to become closer because they both understand what the other is experiencing. However, society demands that they be involved with each other sexually, and they seemingly submit to this at first. While they symbolically seem to be converging on some new form of sexuality, the fact they are still “male” and “female” separates them indefinitely, and they do not wish to be together in the way that society says they should be. This is why Chopin has them separate in the end; her society was not ready for this sort of deviation from the gender norms. By having Edna and Robert stay together, they would eventually have had to admit their true sexual preferences to each other. While she seems to be hinting at this in The Awakening, she could not have explicitly stated it without her book causing a scandal.
A concept that Murfin brings up in his summary of gender criticism is the notion that “it is also possible … for women to read as men, men as women” (Murfin 227), and also that there can be gender to one’s writing as well. If one can indeed read or write from a gender perspective, could one then perhaps love someone else from the perspective of a specific gender? Could a man love a woman the way a woman would love a woman, and vice versa? Chopin may have been hinting at this by having Edna and Robert seemingly converging on one gender to become, at least, symbolic lovers. This becomes more clear in the light of the recent developments of gender criticism, and also now that we as a society are able to be more accepting of homosexuality in the dawn of more liberal times. While a deviant sexual lifestyle was not acceptable in Chopin’s time, it is much more “normal” today. Yet there is still much to find out about why and how. we love each other.
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. 2nd ed. Ed. Nancy A. Walker. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000. Print.
Disheroon-Green, Suzanne. “Mr. Pontellier’s Cigar, Robert’s Cigarettes: Opening the Closet of Homosexuality and Phallic Power in the Awakening.” Songs of the Reconstructing South: Building Literary Louisiana, 1865–1945. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002. 183–95. Print.
LeBlanc, Elizabeth. “The Metaphorical Lesbian: Edna Pontellier in The Awakening.” Chopin 237–56.
Murfin, Ross C. “What Is Gender Criticism?” Chopin 223–33.
Simon, Karen. “Kate Chopin on the Nature of Things.” Mississippi Quarterly 51.2 (Spring 1998): 243–53. Print.