The Theme Of American Dream In Kate Chopin's The Awakening
Edna’s ‘American dream’ is to have both autonomy and her family’s love. The text exhibits a society where women only exist in relation to men, with emphasis on Edna’s struggle to fit the “mother-woman” role. The text commences in Leonce’s perspective, first introducing Edna in relation to her husband, even though she’s the protagonist. She fights to become “no longer one of Mr. Pontellier's possessions to dispose of or not”, although ironically law at the time declared otherwise. As in both The Great Gatsby and The Wolf of Wall Street, this text highlights the ungratifying nature of material wealth. Although the Pontelliers are wealthy, Edna struggles to find fulfillment in her life, because what she yearns for can't be bought. Chopin portrays two female archetypes - Mademoiselle Reisz, secluded but fiercely independent, and Adele Ratignolle, an involved and loving mother. Edna fights to find a middle ground between these. She can't accept the loneliness of Reisz’s lifestyle, or suffocating monotony of Adele’s. This eventually leads her to commit suicide, making the choice to die for herself rather than to live for others. As noted by Carley Rees Bogard, in men’s novels she would usually choose Reisz’s resolute lifestyle, in women’s novels, she would return to motherhood and marriage. By subverting these archetypes, Chopin exposes a society with strict roles for women, and an expectation to conform. Often noted about Edna is her masculine qualities, including her “strong, shapely hands”. For a modern audience, it’s natural to question why femininity and freedom can’t coexist. There’s a division between being female and being successful.
Chopin published The Awakening in the late 19th century, but in recent times, equal opportunity has become more accessible to women in America. However, moderns texts still reflect her sentiments. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, for example, highlights the enduring expectations for women, that they should be “hot and understanding […] never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want.” The struggles of women that Chopin brings to light haven’t disappeared, simply morphed. In this way, The Awakening and VICE News Tonight illustrate the struggle of marginalized groups in America. Although legally their rights are equal, much work is still to do in changing societal views. Can anyone have equal opportunity if they don’t even have autonomy? These texts expose a paradoxical belief system. The public acknowledges that background is critical in ‘getting ahead’ in American society, yet clings to the American Dream, an ideology that completely juxtaposes this knowledge. Ultimately, the tendency to equate material wealth with happiness is naϊve. Categorising success by the accumulation of money neglects the importance of people in the human experience. Money can't buy happiness, nor can it be possible for all people to have equal opportunity to succeed in a society with such an imbalance of power.
So, if the American dream fails to exist as we all believe it to, then why does such ideology persist? To dismiss it is deemed ‘un-American’, and Noam Chomsky identifies this as the signature of a totalitarian state, a way to control the masses and protect the concentration of power and money in the elite. Perhaps, the answer is simply hope. To have money is to have power, and the American dream offers the prospect of success to everyone, makes the impossible a little more achievable.
- Chopin, K. (2017). The awakening. Simon and Schuster.
- Culley, M. (1994). The awakening: A canonical representation of American women? College Literature, 21(3), 91-108.
- Garrigan, K. (2002). Chopin's The Awakening. Explicator, 61(4), 212-215.
- Johnson, B. (2013). Kate Chopin's the awakening: A journey from inattention to consciousness. Southern Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of the South, 20(2), 59-75.
- Papke, M. K. (1990). "The joy that kills": Edna Pontellier's suicide in The Awakening. Women's Studies, 18(3-4), 339-358.
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