Kate Chopin’s first published story, “Emancipation. A Life Fable,” sets up the theme to which guides her fiction: freedom from repression. In the story, an animal finds himself bound in a cage where he is given the provisions of a comfortable daily life. One day the door is accidentally left open, but the animal is “dreading the unaccustomed” life outside the cage to explore. Gradually, he becomes more comfortable and leaves. Though he finds it harder to acquire food and water, he finds fulfillment in “seeking, finding, joying, and suffering.” A successful awakening to freedom, according to Chopin, is possible through struggle and sensual identification.
But what happens when the story moves from fable to social realism? It first removes the didactic reading, creating a more ambiguous and complex reality. How would an authentic awakening then be achieved in this new landscape? As Chopin’s stories show, struggle is difficult for most characters. Allen F. Stein notes that “few…have the power to achieve the autonomy necessary for a vital existence.”
In Chopin’s “Athénaïse,” published in two parts by The Atlantic Monthly in 1897, the young title character runs away from her newly married husband because she doesn’t like married life. Her husband then brings Athénaïse back, acquiescently, whom feels a “sense of hopelessness, an instinctive realization of the futility of rebellion against a social and sacred institution.” The narration describes her as having keen sensibilities in response to the “pleasurable things of life” and conversely “distasteful conditions.” Some people think that while her sensibilities are alive, her mind is still foreign to her; that if she came to know her mind it would be a natural rather than intellectual process. Her husband treats Athénaïse well enough, like a caged animal, but his “chief offense seemed to be that he loved her, and Athénaïse was not the woman to be loved against her will.” She clearly has the sensitivity that the institution of marriage is distasteful, nonetheless it was expected of her to follow the social customs of the late-Victorian era.
With help from her brother, Athénaïse escapes to New Orleans. The only people she interacts with are the hotelier, Sylvie, and next-door neighbor, Gouvernail. She feels lonely in the big city “[craving] human sympathy and companionship.” Gouvernail can sympathize and offers to be her friend and patient listener, who discerns “that she was self-willed, impulsive, innocent, ignorant, unsatisfied, dissatisfied”; that she was feeling a cynicism about the customs of life. Athénaïse is home sick but feels a platonic comfort in Gouvernail that she also felt with her brother, Montéclin, whom can sustain her moods. After failing to find employment and remain independent after four weeks, Athénaïse is told she is pregnant by Sylvie and has a “bewildering” awakening. Then she feels a natural sensation that compels her to go back to her husband. After leaving Gouvernail and making Montéclin take her back to her husband, Athénaïse finds comfort in assuming the role of wife and mother.
How is the reader supposed to interpret this awakening? Does Athénaïse find authentic fulfillment or is it a false awakening that finds her trapped in another cage? By comparing this to Chopin’s second novel, The Awakening (1899), Athénaïse finds herself trapped in another cage under a new guise and that the awakening of Edna Pontellier in The Awakening is the antithesis.
Per Seyersted’s biography of Kate Chopin finds that “in spite of the happy end” in “Athénaïse,” it “contains a deep protest against woman’s condition” in the institution of marriage. This deep social protest beneath the plot’s surface level was perhaps necessary to publish “Athénaïse” in the nationally popular Atlantic Monthly, as Seyersted argues, so to make it more acceptable to a late-Victorian audience. Though Athénaïse goes back to her husband in a passionate flurry to happily assume her domestic role, it isn’t clear whether that passion is induced externally or naturally, or how long this passion may last. It first reads as internal and independent because “her whole passionate nature was aroused as if by a miracle” and long term because the story ends with the arresting image of Athénaïse steeped in matrimonial and motherly affection.
Looking closer reveals neither to be true. Athénaïse’s final week in New Orleans was coming to an end, creating an anxiety over finding a job to remain self-sufficient, which she failed to achieve because “she spent much of her time weeding and pottering among the flowers down in the courtyard.” Coupled together with her intense homesickness and need of a close companion to expel that fear, we find Athénaïse immature and unwilling to properly struggle for growth (in Chopin’s reasoning). Soon after, Athénaïse is told she is pregnant, which catalyzes her passionate awakening. The narrator regards this enlightenment as “bewildering” because of “the extent of her ignorance,” not knowing from where this passion arrives. Earlier foreshadowing describes this moment as the natural equivalent to a flower receiving it’s “perfume and color” and that “no subtle analyses [could trace] the motives of actions to their source.” But Athénaïse doesn’t come by this awakening naturally; neither did she naturally leave her husband, both times arranged by her brother, nor go back to her husband the first time naturally, which was arranged by her father and husband. An equivalent can be read each time Athénaïse returns to her husband: to assume her position as wife and mother, defeated and dependent. The second time Athénaïse leaves, she is guided and funded by her brother and later living in the hotel of a woman her brother trusts. Athénaïse’s second return is guided by information from Sylvie and follows the basic pattern as her first return: she leaves the tutelage of her brother and returns from her vacation of “rebellion against a social and sacred institution.”
The Awakening was written less than a year after “Athénaïse” was published. The protagonist, Edna Pontellier, feels trapped in her marriage and feels an “indescribable oppression, which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar part of her consciousness, filled her whole being with a vague anguish.” And throughout the thirty-nine chapters, Edna comes to terms with her new feelings and acts on them accordingly in order to achieve independence. Athénaïse leaves simply because she hates “being Mrs. Cazeau,” can’t stand living with a man and have his clothes lying around or see him cleaning his bare feet. While Edna spends a lot of time alone contemplating her feelings that develops into a coherent justification for leaving her husband, Athénaïse’s departure resembles an immature tantrum by leaving her husband suddenly and without explanation. Edna, as opposed to Athénaïse, is a mature wife and mother of two children, who is knowledgeable enough to “apprehend instinctively the dual life—that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions.” Athénaïse is instead “unacquainted” with “her own mind.” In the end, Athénaïse passionately “[yields] her whole body against” her husband and is “arrested” by the sound of a baby crying, completing the submission to the domestic role of wife and mother. Near her suicide, Edna’s “children appeared before her 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.” Both women feel the caged existence of being a wife, but Edna has the capability through her wisdom and maturity to achieve the independence necessary for a true awakening, even if that is death.
The Awakening begins with a parrot in a cage repeating phrases in multiple languages with a “maddening persistence.” Instead of repeating in the end, Edna in her last moments of life remembers from her youth the sounds of a chained dog barking and “the hum of bees.” rather than repeating the cyclical auditory encounter, Edna escapes from the reality of the caged existence of the parrot into her fading memories of youth when she felt free from marital and maternal inhibitions.
While on the surface Athénaïse appears to have awakened into an open cage, she instead finds herself flying to another one. Edna realized this paradox and found the only authentic awakening was through death.
Kate Chopin: “Emancipation. A Life Fable.”
—. The Awakening.
Per Seyersted: Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography.
Allen F. Stein: Women and Autonomy in Kate Chopin’s Short Fiction.