An Analysis of Food in The Awakening

March 25, 2019 by Essay Writer

Edna Pontellier’s domestic situation is nothing out of the ordinary for a wealthy New Orleans family. Her roles as a housewife and a mother exemplify society’s expectations of upper-class women during the Victorian era. Edna’s burning desire to break away from her unhappy marriage and stereotypical, oppressed female role guide her towards becoming an independent, self-possessed woman. Driven by passion, lust, and her new sense of identity, Edna becomes involved in a scandalous affair that forms the basis of her decision to break the conventions of her time period. The utilization of symbols leads the reader to investigate the deeper meaning of Edna’s journey. One of the most prevalent symbols used by Chopin is food, which symbolizes Edna’s realization of the expectations society holds for her and her transformation from an obedient mother and housewife into a self-sufficient woman. In The Awakening, Chopin uses food as a foundation for acts that Edna feels obligated to appreciate. Mr. Pontellier sends his wife a basket of goods including syrups, bottles of wine, bon-bons, pates, and fresh fruit while he is away on a business trip in New Orleans and she is in Grand Isle. When Edna shares the treats she has received (and has become accustomed to receiving while her husband is away) with her lady friends, they comment on how wonderful Mr. Pontellier is, exclaiming that he is “the best husband in the world” (7). Edna feels compelled to agree with her friends that the gift basket of food places Mr. Pontellier above the average man because of his “thoughtfulness.” In this instance, food is used as a tool to illustrate the resentment felt by Edna towards the present she receives. The bon-bons and syrups, in Edna’s eyes, are reminders that she is expected to fulfill the stereotypical, submissive female role by graciously accepting her husband’s “unique” gift and catering to his every need in return. Food is also used to illustrate Mr. Pontellier’s masculine, officious personality. The traits that Edna’s husband possesses in the beginning of the story force her to be subservient and dependent upon him until she finally gains the strength necessary to stand up to his domineering mannerisms. An example of her “rebellious” behavior occurs when Edna authoritatively states that she wishes to stay outside instead of going to bed with Mr. Pontellier. In response to her refusal, he pours himself a glass of a wine to relax, as well as to disregard his wife’s rejection (31). When he offers her a glass as if to say sorry, she refuses it out of defiance. The fact that Mr. Pontellier continues to drink wine and smoke cigars symbolizes his need to feel masculine, dominant, and in control. Edna’s refusal to accept her husband’s apology represents her resentfulness towards his emotional negligence and her movement towards a more independent and less obedient lifestyle. Much like Mr. Pontellier’s symbolically “masculine” wine, food is used to symbolize his control issues and disgust for his wife’s defiance. Edna’s progression towards an “insubordinate” way of life is highlighted by her decision to go out for the afternoon rather than entertain her husband’s callers. When the couple sits down to dinner, Mr. Pontellier is disgusted with his meal, and complains non-stop about Edna’s irresponsible and seditious decision (50-52). His discontent with both the meal and his wife’s actions fuels Edna to express her own satisfaction with her dinner as a quiet revolt against her husband. Previously, had Mr. Pontellier left his wife and gone to the club for a more acceptable meal, Edna would have been too distraught to finish her own dinner. This time, however, Edna chooses to stay and finish her meal without him, as if trying to prove to herself that she is capable of being on her own. In effect, this meal signifies Edna’s burgeoning willingness to ignore her husband’s needs in favor of her own desires. As the story progresses, Edna begins to feel more comfortable with the idea of eating unaccompanied, thereby suggesting her developing sense of liberation. In earlier chapters, she is upset at the idea of eating alone and angered by the disrespect that her husband’s actions imply. When Mr. Pontellier leaves, Edna tells the cooks that she will only need half the usual amount of food, because she is the only one home. Soon, however, she comes to enjoy dining alone, underscoring the significance of food in The Awakening. Mealtimes are a symbolic refuge from Edna’s domestic responsibilities (72). Chopin glorifies Mrs. Pontellier’s private meals by describing the “luscious tenderloin broiled a point” (73) and the luxurious taste of the wine. The newfound acceptance and pleasure that Edna takes in dining alone speak to an obvious development in her character. As Edna’s story continues to unfold, she becomes more and more relaxed both with herself and with her meals. One morning, when she receives a letter from Raoul, she decides to eat her breakfast only half-dressed (104) – something she would never have done were she still living in her old home with her husband, children, and servants. Mrs. Pontellier’s new, laid-back attitude gives her the self-assurance and confidence she needs to become the person she wants to be. Edna’s dinner with the Highcamps and Arobin following the races seems to return her to her old, submissive status. The dinner conversation is boring, but Edna feels obligated to act interested. She realizes when she reaches home that she is hungry again because the portions she received from the Highcamps were insufficient, even though the meal was of very high quality (75), and decides to eat gruyere cheese and crackers accompanied by a bottle of beer to satisfy her appetite (75). Although this act is not directly defiant to any particular individual, she explicitly defies cultural norms by drinking an alcoholic beverage. At that time, drinking beer was considered wholly unacceptable behavior for a lady. Edna’s realization that drinking beer is usually associated with masculinity makes her feel empowered and helps her to grant herself the same freedoms that her husband enjoys. There is one other instance when Edna drinks alcohol at Mademoiselle Reisz’s house. She is offered some brandy, and elects to drink the liquor from a glass as a man would (79). This example recalls when Edna drank beer earlier in the story, and reinforces the symbolic effect of alcohol. The association of beer and brandy with masculinity and Edna’s willingness to imbibe the beverages again suggests her desire to become a free woman. Edna’s self-discovery continues when she encounters a garden in the suburbs of New Orleans. Here, she finds peace, tranquility, and privacy from her daily concerns. Mrs. Pontellier claims that “no one could make such excellent coffee or fry a chicken so golden brown” (105) as the owner of the small store in the garden. Edna eats dinner here twice a week in order to be by herself (105). Mrs. Pontellier’s desire to dine alone reinforces her wish to break societal norms and become self-reliant. When Robert unexpectedly arrives in Edna’s special place she offers to share her meal with him, claiming that “there’s always enough for two – even three” (106). Her immediate willingness to share her food with Robert almost seems like a digression from her goals: she is uneasy in his presence, and experiences an overwhelming desire to please him. This scene is reminiscent of Edna’s earlier need to please her husband in conformance with societal expectations. Edna continues to worry about Robert’s feelings during their discussion about his recent detachment: she apologizes for brining up such “personal” topics and blames herself for his refusal to eat (105). She believes that Robert’s unwillingness to eat shows that she has upset him with her comments, and immediately changes the subject to save him from any further distress. Here, food serves as a symbol of Edna’s inability to gauge Robert’s true feelings. Chopin’s careful explanations of mealtimes and descriptions of food represent Edna’s transformation from a submissive and obedient housewife and mother into a strong, free-thinking woman. Edna’s march towards independence from oppressive societal norms is underscored by her attitude towards food. A superficial reading of The Awakening might overlook the importance of food, but a deeper analysis reveals that Edna’s personal revolution is enhanced by her attitude towards this integral component of domesticity.

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