Female Victims Of Inescapable Social Forces English Literature Essay

“The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings.” (725). This is the advice that Mademoiselle Reisz gives to Edna Pontellier after Edna has confessed her love for Robert Lebrun in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. Although Edna admits to her other lover, Alcée Arobin, that she only “half comprehend[s] her,” (725) the reader understands the true and significant meaning of Mademoiselle Reisz’s advice; if Edna, symbolized by the bird, is determined to break away from the cage of expectations and standards that society has placed upon her for being a woman and a mother, a predicament faced by many females of the nineteenth century, she must have strength. However, as courageous, as daring, and as defiant as she is, society proves to be too strong. As Edna stands on the shore in the final scene of the novel, she witnesses “a bird with a broken wing…beating the air above, reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water” (749). Similar to the bird, which is wounded and weak and has fallen, Edna commits suicide, plunging into the water as a last and final attempt to escape the societal constraints placed upon her. Maggie Johnson in Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets shares the same tragic ending. As Maggie attempts to obtain everything that Edna desperately desires to shed in order to escape the harsh environment and life of the New York Bowery slums, she is stopped by the limitations placed upon her by society for being a “girl of the streets,” and resorts to drowning herself in a river. By looking at Chopin’s The Awakening and Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, we can see how two contrasting female figures struggle to free themselves from prevailing social forces, ultimately discovering that the only way to truly transcend a life full of barriers is through death.

In her essay, “The Female Artist in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening: Birth and Creativity,” Carole Stone asserts that, “in Chopin’s era, childbirth was considered a woman’s noblest act” (par. 2) and that Chopin’s novel is “radical in its treatment of motherhood because it questions the assumptions that childbirth and child care are a woman’s principal vocation, and that motherhood gives pleasure to all women” (par. 1). In The Awakening, Edna Pontellier rejects her responsibilities as mother; she is not considered a “mother-woman,” as she “fail[s] in her duty toward [her] children” (Chopin 666). Edna holds a controversial perception of motherhood as she considers her children to be “like antagonists who had overcome her; who had overpowered and sought to drag her into the soul’s slavery for the rest of her days” and struggles to free herself from their and her husband’s possession (749). She perceives her motherhood as a construct created by society to support society’s patriarchal structure; societal conventions, in regards to maternity, do not allow for female personal growth and autonomy but demand self-sacrifice to the family. This can be seen when her husband, Léonce Pontellier, scolds Edna for painting rather than taking care of the family. He states, “It seems to me the utmost folly for a woman at the head of a household, and the mother of children, to spend in an altelier days which would be better employed contriving for the comfort of her family” (emphasis added, 704). Referring to Edna’s recall of her birthing labor, Stone states that “by shattering the illusion that giving birth is a glorious experience, Chopin attacks the patriarchal structure which denies women control of their bodies” (par. 2). Stone’s premise can be extended; Chopin further attacks patriarchal society by shattering the illusion that child care itself is a glorious experience, as the “job” is transferred onto the list of responsibilities of the quadroons.

We see Edna’s frustration with motherly expectations set by society as she breaks out in tears after her husband wakes her from sleep to let her know that Raoul, their son, has a high fever and needs to be looked after. The narrator informs the reader that Mr. Pontellier “reproached his wife with her inattention” and “her habitual neglect of the children” (Chopin 665) and reveals society’s ways of thinking and its gender conventions through the following statement: “If it was not a mother’s place to look after children, whose on earth was it? [Mr. Pontellier] had his hands full with his brokerage business. He could not be in two places at once; making a living for his family on the street, and staying at home to see that no harm befell them” (665). However, in such a patriarchal society, even if Mr. Pontellier did not have “his hands full,” the responsibility of looking after the children would still be positioned on the female figure. The narrator further constructs the notion of “perfect women” as “women who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels” and embodies it within Adèle Ratignolle, whose marriage and motherly role is contrasted with Edna’s relationship with her husband and her motherhood. (667). Mrs. Ratignolle is a mother of three children, “begging to think of a fourth one” (667) and her marriage with Mr. Ratignolle is the perfect “fusion of two human beings” (704).

In contrast to Edna who acknowledges her “inward life which questions” and refuses to allow her “outward existence” to conform to society’s expectations of mothers, who not only give up their lives but also their selves to their children, Maggie Johnson in Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets attempts to take on the caretaker role in order to move up in the social ladder, and break free from the future that her abusive and brutal mother and environment offer her (Chopin 671). When readers are first introduced to Maggie, she is seen caring, though not tenderly, for her younger brother, Tommie. The narrator states, “A small ragged girl dragged a red, bawling infant along the crowded ways” (Crane 6). Furthermore, she attempts to take on the mother role after their mother, Mary, had “grasp[ed] [Jimmie] by the neck and shoulder” and “dragged him to an unholy sink, and, soaking a rag in water, began to scrub his lacerated face with it,” in which Jimmie responds with a scream of pain (7-8). Maggie asks him, “are yehs hurted much, Jimmie?” and “will I wash deh blood?” (8). After he replies “no” to each question, she begins to ask Jimmie if she can do something else for him, but he interrupts her with a threat to the individual that beat him up (9). These motherly responsibilities are forced upon Maggie as her mother’s alcoholism has rendered her incapable of fulfilling her duties. However, Maggie’s own inability to fulfill the motherly role and as a result move up in society is foreshadowed as Tommie, who she is depicted as responsible for the care of at the commencement of the novel, dies at a young age and as Maggie simply breaks a plate while trying to wash dishes.

Although Stone’s argument is fundamentally based upon the idea that Edna’s overall fight for a self-governed life against society and its expectations is embodied by birth (both child birth and self-rebirth through art) and by extension the relationship between mother and her children, Edna’s refusal to adopt the “mother-woman” identity is only one way in which she denounces social conventions. In his article, “Kate Chopin’s The Awakening: A Partial Dissent,” George M. Spangler asserts that Edna’s “rebellion against conventional obligations reaches its first climax when she decides to establish a home apart from her husband” (251). The narrator states that:

The Pontelliers possessed a very charming home on Esplanade Street in New Orleans. It was a large, double cottage, with a board front veranda, whose round, fluted columns supported the sloping roof. The house was painted a dazzling white; the outside shutters or jalousies, were green. In the yard, which was kept scrupulously neat, were flowers and plants of every description which flourish in South Louisiana. Within doors the appointments were perfect after the conventional type. The softest carpets and rugs covered the floors; rich and tasteful draperies hug at doors and windows. There were paintings selected with judgment and discrimination upon the walls. The cut glass, the silver, the heavy damask which daily appeared upon the table were the envy of many women whose husbands were less generous than Mr. Pontellier. (Chopin 699)

However, as extravagant and luxurious the residence is, Edna chooses to move to a “pigeon” house, “a little four-room house around the corner” that “looks so cozy, so inviting and restful” (722). She tells Mademoiselle Reisz that she desires to move because she is tired of looking after Mr. Pontellier’s house. She states, “It never seemed like mine anyway- like home. It’s too much trouble. I have to keep too many servants. I am tired bothering with them” (722). Furthermore, Edna desires freedom and independence as she wants to provide for herself; she tells Mademoiselle Reiz, “the house, the money that provides for it, are not mine” (722). By earning money through selling her paintings and participating in the male’s activity of gambling in horse races, she is able to challenge social codes and live on her own in the pigeon house.

Edna’s indifference to appearances further demonstrates her rejections of societal conventions. When she chooses to be absent from Mr. Pontellier’s home on her reception day, Mr. Pontellier scolds her for not observing “les convenances” or “the social conventions” (700). He tells Edna that “it’s just such seeming trifles that we’ve got to take seriously, such things count” (700). Furthermore, her rejection of public appearances can be seen when she tells Léonce, “Don’t let us get anything new; you are too extravagant” as he looks for new fixtures for their library. Edna’s attitudes towards outward appearances and her house are significantly contrasted with that of Maggie’s. In comparison to Edna, who dislikes her ostentatiously ornamented and excessive house, Maggie desires to have one.

Maggie lives in the impoverished Bowery neighborhood within the close-living tenements and “gloomy district” (Crane 56) in New York. Her tenement is filled with “broken door-panels” (12), “gruesome doorways” (6, 7, 11, 25, 29), and “cold, gloomy halls” (7), which is directly contrasted with Edna’s spacious and “envious” house (Chopin 699). The narrator describes the house through Maggie’s thoughts:

Maggie contemplated the dark, dust-stained walled, and the scant and crude furniture of her home. A clock, in a splintered and battered oblong box of varnished wood, she suddenly regarded as an abomination. She noted that it ticket raspingly. The almost vanished flowers in the carpet-pattern, she conceived to be newly hideous. Some faint attempts she had made with blue ribbon, to freshen the appearance of a dingy curtain, she now saw to be piteous. (Crane 20)

Aligned with society’s and Mr. Pontellier’s values in the physical and materialistic, Maggie is overly concerned with appearances; this is evident by the fact that she attempted to “freshen the appearance” of the curtain with a “blue ribbon” (20). Furthermore, as she anticipated Pete’s return to her house, “she spent some of her week’s pay in the purchase of flowered cretonne for a lambrequin” (21). Her concern for appearance is portrayed through her actions: “She studied [the lambrequin] with painful anxiety from different points in the room. She wanted it to look well on Sunday night when, perhaps, Jimmie’s friend would come” (21). In comparison to Edna, who sells her paintings and attends races in order to live independently and diverge from the social constraints of marriage, Maggie becomes employed “in an establishment where they made collars and cuffs,” (17) in order to reject the alternative occupation of young women in the New York slums: prostitution. Her brother tells her, “Mag, I’ll tell yeh dis! See? Yeh’ve edder got teh go teh hell or go teh work!” (17). Maggie takes a job, because she is “diff’ent” from the women of the Bowery; she desires to move up in society (34).

In his article, “Romantic Imagery in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening” Donald A. Ringe states that “the men to whom [Edna] is attracted to before her marriage are either such as might inflame a youthful imagination (the cavalry officer and the tragedian), or the kind she is told she must not covet (the young man who is engaged to the lady on a neighboring plantation). Forbidden fruit seems to appeal to her most” (586). In accordance with Ringe’s statements, Edna’s marriage with Léonce Pontellier originated out of her “youthful imagination” and the concept of “forbidden fruit” (Ringe 586). The narrator of The Awakening even states that “[Edna’s] marriage with Léonce Pontellier was purely an accident” and resulted from her secret passion for him, his absolute devotion towards her, and the “violent opposition of her father and her sister Margaret to her marriage with a Catholic” (Chopin 674-675). Edna’s choice to marry Mr. Pontellier partly because her family opposed it, exemplifies another way in which Edna resists authority and standards of society. Ringe further applies his theories to the other men of Edna’s life, ascertaining that “one suspects that the appeal of Alcée Arobin and of Robert Lebrun derives from the fact that she knows she should not become involved with them. The result is that she either ends up as a possession- and both Léonce and Alcée treat her as one- or she is herself overwhelmed with the desire to possess another. Both relationships are, of course, thoroughly destructive” (586).

The cause of the destruction of the Pontellier marriage is signaled within Mr. Pontellier’s name: Léonce. The name brings about images of “lions” and by extension words associated with the animal, such as “king,” “power,” and “authority,” which immediately foreshadows his character and role in the marriage. Mr. Pontellier is an extremely wealthy and respected businessman, who often leaves his family and home for business. Even when he is not away, however, he still remains distant from his wife and two children, as portrayed at the beginning of the novel when the Pontellier family is on vacation in the Grand Isle. Mr. Pontellier sits by himself on a wicker chair at “his own cottage”, while we witness Robert Lebrun and Edna approaching together (661-662). Edna’s dissatisfaction with her marriage and life also arises out of the fact that her husband’s and her relationship lacks communication and passion. For instance, after arriving to the cottage, Edna, “silently reached out to [her husband], and he, understanding, took the rings from his vest pocket and dropped them into her open palm” (662). Furthermore, as she and Robert relay a story of an incident that occurred while in the water, Mr. Pontellier “yawned and stretched himself,” rose and left to gamble at Klein’s (663).

Léonce’s lack of communication and passion with his wife is contrasted with Robert Lebrun and Edna’s relationship as “they chatted incessantly: about the things around them; their amusing adventure out in the water….; about the wind, the trees, the people who had gone to the Chênière; about the children playing croquet under the oaks, and the Farival twins” (663). Robert Lebrun is further contrasted with Mr. Pontellier as “he amused himself with the little Pontellier children, who were very fond him,” whereas Mr. Pontellier merely promised but forgot “to bring [his children] back bonbons and peanuts” (663-664). However, even though Robert and Edna profess their love for each other privately and Edna claims that she is her own possession and can give herself as she pleases, Robert leaves Edna, realizing that she really is “not free” and that she belongs to Léonce Pontellier (744-745). He leaves her because he loves her, refusing to taint her name and break social standards (745). Although Edna experiences an awakening as she gradually discovers her inward self and learns how to swim out into the ocean, she experiences another awakening when she finds and reads the letter left by Robert; she awakens to the fact that the social conventions governing women are inescapable.

Similar to Edna, who enters ultimately destructive relationships in which she rejects the social standard of fidelity within marriage, Maggie enters a harmful relationship with Pete in hopes of escaping slum life through marriage. In her eyes, Pete is the “the beau ideal of a man,” an “aristocratic person” of wealth and culture (19). She believes that he has “great sums of money to spend” and that “his wardrobe [is] prodigiously expensive” (21). Whereas Edna denies the male authority that her father, the Colonel, speaks of when he asserts that, “authority, coercion are what is needed” and that the “only way to manage a wife” is by “put[ting] your foot down good and hard (Chopin 716), Maggie eagerly and willingly accepts male authority as the narrator states that Maggie believed that Pete had “a correct sense of his personal superiority” (Crane 18). She saw him as “a knight”, expecting him to rescue her from the slums (20). In Ringe’s terms, Pete “inflame[d] a youthful imagination” (Ringe 586) by charming and impressing her, bringing her to places of “golden glitter” and “entertainment of many hues and many melodies” (Crane 21), instilling within Maggie, the belief that “the poor and virtuous eventually surmounted the wealthy and the wicked” (28). After Mary prohibits Maggie from living within her house and tells her to “go teh hell” (32) when she finds out about the relationship between Maggie and Pete, Maggie becomes completely dependent on her “leonine Pete” (47), her “lion of lordly characteristics” (4). In contrast to Edna, she accepts and even desires the submissive role that patriarchal society has defined for women. The narrator states, “her life was Pete’s and she considered him worthy of the charge. She would be disturbed by no particular apprehensions, so long as Pete adored her as he now said he did” (41).

Pete’s rejection of Maggie for Nellie, a woman of “brilliance and audacity,” is what eventually leads Maggie to her demise. His actions illustrate his belief that Maggie, Nellie, and all women are objects of sexual desire. This is even evident in Pete’s first “note” of Maggie, as he only comments upon her physical appearance. He states, “Say, Mag, I’m stuck on yer shape. It’s outa sight” (19). In his article, “Stephen Crane’s ‘Maggie’ and the Modern Soul,” Keith Gandal states that “there was for the middle class a hierarchy of virtues, and a woman’s chastity, even a poor woman’s, was highly fetishized” (762). Maggie does not realize that Pete is of the type of environment that she is trying to escape; he embodies the violence and callousness found in the slums. As Pete leaves her, she believes that all of her chances at life leave also. Maggie’s romantic vision of being wedded to a man of a higher-class is crushed and “her soul [can] never smile again” (51).

Gandal also states that “the ultimate sin in slum literature was a woman’s loss of purity” (762). It was Maggie’s loss of purity and the publicized sexual relationship with Pete by Jimmie and his mother that resulted in her being ostracized from slum society. After Pete leaves her, she attempts to return to the home that casted her out, but is only welcomed by her cruel mother, disgusted by her daughter’s impurity, who declares “Dere she stands…Dere she stands! Lookut her! Ain’ she a dindy? An’ she was so good as to come home teh her mudder, she was! Ain’ she a beaut’? Ain’ she a dindy? Fer Gawd’s sake” (51)! After her mother’s announcement to the tenement neighbors, Maggie experiences an awakening similar to Edna. The narrator states, “The jeering cries ended in another burst of shrill laughter. The girl seemed to awaken” (51). Like Edna, she comes to realize that society does not allow movement. Rejected both by the slum society and Pete, she is faced with the reality that she will never marry, her only means to escape, and resorts to prostitution and then suicide.

Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets illustrate the inescapable, destructive forces of society. Maggie, a poor girl of the streets, attempts to break free from the slum-life and move up the social ladder, but fails to do so because of the tight constraints of society that do not allow for deviances. Maggie has fallen, losing her virginity, and the only way for her to get redemption is through “marriage or suicide” (Randal 763). Forsakened by Pete and the possibility of marriage, she turns to suicide, drowning herself in a river. In comparison, Edna Pontellier, a woman married to an extremely wealthy man, suffers from the same social constraints which weigh her down and try to stifle her. For Edna, the pressures of society and its inescapability ultimately results in her death as she drowns herself in the sea.