Fighting for freedom is not an easy task, especially when not knowing whether one truly deserves this freedom and is ready to pay the price that the society demands for it (Jewett 525). While at present, the feminist concept of granting equal rights and freedoms to men and women seems quite legitimate, at the end of the XIX century, in the American South, the very idea of a woman fighting for her rights to be equal to a man seems impressively daring (Howells 374).
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Despite the fact that Edna, the leading character of Kate Chopin’s Awakening, is the focus of the story and the character whom the readers are most likely to relate to, the rest of the female characters are also very compelling and are, in fact, the manifestation of feminism as it is – the demand for acknowledging the rights of women, the history of fights for freedom, the losses taken and the victories scored.
As the closest people for the novel protagonist, Janet and Margaret deserve to be mentioned first. Although they do not appear in the novel very often, they still have clear personalities and are very fun to watch, especially when they interact with their rebellious and confused sister.
It is quite peculiar that the relationships between the three sisters are so much complicated – with Margaret playing the role of a mother, wise yet very conservative, and Janet, refusing to have anything to do with Edna. Weirdly enough, out of these two, Margaret, with her traditional view of a woman’s role in a family and a woman’s place in the society, is much closer to the principles of feminism than her younger and more passionate sister Janet – and, maybe, Edna as well.
In contrast to her younger sisters, who are searching for their place and trying to gain confidence, she pretty much already has, and takes her actions with all due responsibility: “Her older sister, Margaret, was matronly and dignified, probably from having assumed matronly and housewifely responsibilities too early in life, their mother having died when they were quite young, Margaret was not effusive; she was practical” (Chopin 570).
Unlike Margaret, though, Janet is also worth taking a closer look at; detached from Edna, she has a lot in common with the latter, also being in search for her own self: “She and her younger sister, Janet, had quarreled a good deal through force of unfortunate habit” (Chopin 570).
Mademoiselle Reisz is on the other side of the spectrum; taking a look at her through the feminist goggles, one is most likely to find out that she is the essence of feminism. However, in terms of character development, she must be the most boring character of all, with all due respect to her enlightened attitude towards women in society. Though her personal journey is clearly not coming to a closure yet, it is obvious that she serves the function of a feminist model that Edna can relate to in her attempts to figure out what she truly wants.
Mademoiselle Reisz is the feminist mascot in the novel and a cautious example of the fact that society does not like people who are trying to be different, down to the point of ostracizing them; as a result, a feminist woman has to be able to prove her right to be equal to a man with every little step that she makes: “I’ve always said no one could play Chopin like Mademoiselle Reisz!” “That last prelude! Bon Dieu! It shakes a man!” (Chopin 574).
If someone could actually rip Mademoiselle Reisz off of all her dignity and pride, replacing these qualities with vanity and shamelessness, she would have turned into Mrs. Highcamp. Another example of what feminist ideas can do to a person who pushes them to the breaking point, challenging social norms, she could have been in the protagonist camp if it was not for her low moral standards.
Mrs. Highcamp displays feminist features by challenging social morals by engaging into affairs with younger men, yet she is hypocritical enough to force her younger daughter into building relationships based on the financial status of men.
More to the point, Mrs. Highland actually uses her daughter to engage into relationships with young men: “She had a daughter who served her as a pretext for cultivating the society of young men of fashion” (Chopin 595), which is, in fact, pretty low. One of the most disturbing issues about her is that she never learns from her mistakes and, basically, is the example of feminism subdued by the social norms and turned into travesty of liberation ideas.
Perhaps, by far the most exotic characters in the novel, the Farival twins represent the Victorian era as it is, with the emphasis on motherhood and on devotion to the family, which is, in fact, not a very bad idea. It would be a mistake to claim that feminism has nothing to do with motherhood or family creation – on the contrary, a feminist can be a devoted mother and a loving wife.
However, the way in which the Farival siblings set their priorities sadly repeats the chauvinist motifs that are typical of the Victorian era (Wrobel 7). Instead of considering the creation of a family and being a mother and a wife as the options of a liberated woman, they obviously have the idea of a woman as a subordinate creature being foisted on them.
However, as the novel unwinds, much to the reader’s disappointment, they become sock puppets in the hands of the people speaking in favor of the chauvinist principles as the basis of the society, thus, becoming boring, predictable, and, quite honestly, virtuous to the point of being annoying: “’The following week,” answered Edna, adding, “It has been a pleasant summer, hasn’t it, Mademoiselle?’ ‘Well,’ agreed Mademoiselle Reisz, with a shrug, ‘rather pleasant, if it hadn’t been for the mosquitoes and the Farival twins.’ (Chopin 585).
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Another person whose character arch seems to have been completed before she even entered the plot, Madam Antonie provides an opportunity to look at the concepts of feminism through the goggles of a woman who seems to have solved the conflict within her and finally discovered her own self, reconciling with the demands of the society and her own social, personal and intellectual needs.
When comparing the given character to the rest of the people that emerge in the noel, one must admit that she seems to be by far the most complete and content of all of them. It is also quite remarkable that, being complete and not needing to establish herself in the society, as well as to change people’s perception of her persona, Madam Antonie does not change throughout the novel a single time.
While the given detail could be regarded as a character flaw, it is still reasonable to assume that Madam Antonie was not created for the purpose of showing character development; instead, she was supposed to be a complete character from the very start, a wise guide for Edna on her complicated journey (Abele 5). Truly, Madam Antonie appears only in two scenes in the novel; however, the given scenes are very symbolic in terms of the whole feminist concept being the focus of the Awakening.
Instead of guiding Edna the whole way to the point where she is finally handed her life choice, Madam Antonie emerges to bring comfort into Edna’s life and provide her with support at the points when Edna needs it most. In relation to the principles of feminism, Madam Antonie seems to have the closest to the idea of a self-sufficient, responsible and independent woman who has found the way to evolve within the context of the Victorian world without getting into conflicts with the adepts of chauvinism.
Arguably, she could be considered as a bad role model for the main character of the novel, Edna, seeing how the latter is willing that her rights should be recognized by society. With that being said, it can be assumed that Madam Antonie’s personal development does not come to an end as she disappears from the noel.
Rethinking the possible changes that she might undergo when colliding with the realities of the society of 1899, one might assume that she would not be able to fight back and would, probably, subdue to the socially accepted standard. It is quite peculiar that Madam Antonie is one of the characters whose further evolution is not quite clear in the novel; on the surface, she and the rest of the minor characters serve as the foil for Edna’s character development.
On a second thought, though, one might notice that these minor characters actually serve a bigger purpose; they are the representatives of the late XIX-century ideas of female identity (Weinmann 3). Showing that, when pushed to extreme, each of these ideas goes nowhere, the supporting characters like the aforementioned Farival siblings, Mrs. Highcamp, Mademoiselle Reisz, and many others form a pattern of the feminist ideas evolution at the end of the century.
It cannot be argued that not all female characters in Chopin’s work are as daring and feminist as Edna; in fact, some of them are the exact opposite, as the analysis above shows. However, it cannot be denied that even the most humble and the least courageous ones embody the basic ideas of feminism.
Some of the characters doing everything possible to gain the least bit of freedom and being the heralds of the new era, others being completely subdued to their husbands, fathers, or other men, and, therefore, representing the effects of chauvinism at its worst, they all make a clear picture of the society of the end of the XIX century, with its prejudices and the desperate need for changes.
Granted that Edna is the leading and by far the strongest character, who manages to overcome the social obstacles in her ay practically on her own, the rest of the female characters cannot be denied their impact on the feminist moods in the novel. Each contributing a bit of their own experience, these women become the voice of the feminist America, and they are yet to be heard once again.
Abele, Michaela. Women in Kate Chopin’s “Awakening.” New York, NY: GRIN Verlag. 2003. Print.
Chopin, Kate. “The Awakening.” In The Norton Anthology of American Literature: 1865–1914 (Vol. C). New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company. 2007. 561–612. Print.
Howells, William James. “Editha.” In The Norton Anthology of American Literature: 1865–1914 (Vol. C). New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company. 2007. 374. Print.
Jewett, Sarah Orne. “A White Heron.” In The Norton Anthology of American Literature: 1865–1914 (Vol. C). New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company. 2007. 525. Print.
Weinmann, Miriam. Interpretations of Nature and Gender in Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening.” New York, NY: GRIN Verlag. 2010. Print.
Wrobel, Susanne. “The Awakening” – Edna’s Awakening on Her Marriage. New York, NY: GRIN Verlag. 2012. Print.