Marxism in The Awakening
When some audiences read The Awakening by Kate Chopin, they perceive a feminist piece ahead of its time, or search for hidden metaphors and allusions. Some readers would be content to simply ponder the significance of the title. However, although each of those matters is present and pertinent in the novel, they are merely subtexts under the true focus of the book: Marxism. The Awakening centers on the main character’s digressions from societal norms, provides a narrow focus on social classes in the late 19th century United States, and provides thorough commentary on bourgeoisie values and their place in society.
The book opens with its main character, Edna Pontellier, basking in the wealth and status provided to her by her husband, Léonce, who is a successful businessman in New Orleans. Similarly, she bathes in the warmth of the sun at the island resort where she and her children spend their summer. While an extreme societal requirement and reverence of marriage is uncommon in today’s society, matrimony was a vital and central part of life in the 19th century. Thus, it it is unexpected for Edna to consider her husband, “a person whom she had married without love as an excuse” (Chopin 77). Her profligate and rebellious manner leads her to two perfidious escapades. It is clear that she has chosen to marry Léonce solely for the pecuniary freedom it grants her, and that she feels no remorse about having done so.
On a caprice, Edna resolves to move into a new abode while her husband is out of town. She justifies the decision to her friend, “The house, the money that provides for it, are not mine. Isn’t that enough reason?” (Chopin 79). She is conscious of her financial position, and willing to abuse it. This character is not one to approach the edge of societal norms with the slow and cautious step of a climber approaching a crevasse—she seems to truly delight in aberrant behavior. Only upon her first kiss with a man other than her husband are Edna’s emotions so vividly described, “It was the first kiss of her life to which her nature had really responded. It was a flaming torch that kindled desire” (Chopin 83). The main character’s deviant behavior is one of the most noticeable indications of the Marxist nature of Chopin’s novel.
Another reason The Awakening is classified as a piece of Marxism literature is its focus on the bourgeoisie, or working class. The Pontelliers and their acquaintances are not poor, as evidenced by their living situations, apparent disposable income, and servants; but nor are they wealthy enough to retire from their occupations. A New Orleans magnate, Léonce Pontellier’s business funds the entire setting of each scene in the book. Similarly, his and Edna’s friends rely on occupational income. The most modestly situated of the acquaintances, Mademoiselle Reisz, can afford a reasonably-sized apartment, while their doctor has a chauffeur for his personal car.
Little attention is paid to the servants, the narrative casually mentioning them as “the cook” or simply “Joe.” There are no primary or secondary characters in the lower class; servants are the only occurrences of such people. Although her husband’s success and wealth place him and his family in the upper echelons of society, Edna seems to be part of the bourgeoisie at heart. Raised in a middle class household in Kentucky, she ponders that “her marriage to Léonce Pontellier was purely an accident” (Chopin 28). There is less focus in the book on characters of great wealth; it concentrates almost entirely on this “middle class.” For example, Edna is far more intrigued by Robert Lebrun, a young businessman she meets during the summer, than by her wealthy husband. In a different type of book, this would be a skewed and incomplete description of society. However, the neglect and emphasis of certain classes is deliberately written and integral to the Marxist theme.
The concept of bourgeoisie is more than a prominent element in The Awakening; it propels the story. None of the scenes in the book would occur without the setting of a woman in bourgeois society. Léonce Pontellier is quite wealthy, but he serves as a poor representation of the characters in the book. There is a great contrast between him, an upperclassman, and the people whose company Edna prefers. Mr. Pontellier lectures his wife, “The way to become rich is to make money, my dear Edna, not to save it” (Chopin 53). Robert Lebrun demonstrates the opposite perspective when he chooses to save, rather than immediately smoke, an expensive cigar that, ironically, Mr. Pontellier gifted him.
A more specific focus is the emptiness of the life of a person trapped in bourgeois society. Edna is overwhelmed throughout the novel by a feeling of vacuity. As she relaxes at the table at her 29th birthday dinner, her emotions are described, “But as she sat there amid her guests, she felt the old ennui overtaking her; the hopelessness which so often assailed her, which came upon her like an obsession, like something extraneous, independent of volition” (Chopin 89). The inanity that so forcefully overcomes Edna stems from the lack of purpose she feels in her life. The only things asked of her are societal expectations, and her aspiration of becoming an artist is insufficient motivation to drive her forward. She is filled with nothingness.
As well as scrutinizing bourgeois life, The Awakening analyzes a choice character who lives on the edge of this society. Mr. Pontellier is part of an old-fashioned marital relationship, in which the husband works and provides for the family while the wife takes responsibility for raising the children and managing the household. When viewed at a more macroscopic level, this relationship is an analogy for a critical topic of Marxism: the place of capitalism in society. When the marriage fails between Edna, who signifies the middle class, and Léonce, who represents a stereotypical capitalist mogul, it demonstrates a theory supported by philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: that the struggle between classes in a capitalist environment will eventually cause society to deteriorate.
The collapse of the marriage begins when Edna refuses to perform her expected duty as housekeeper, and reaches a climax at her shocking and bizarre suicide. In this regard, the novel itself breaks as many social conventions as does its main character. The different segments of the book elucidate societal norms and social classes in the 19th century. Finally, the book’s focus on the bourgeoisie society and values is extensive and complex, and also considers the relationship of different social classes in a capitalist society. The concatenation of these elements culminates in a striking piece of Marxist literature.
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