Privileged Motherhood in Anna Karenina and The Awakening

April 16, 2019 by Essay Writer

In Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, the concept of privileged motherhood is introduced fairly early in the narrative: ““She stood watching the fair woman walk down the long line of galleries with the grace and majesty which queens are sometimes supposed to possess. Her little ones ran to meet her. Two of them clung about her white skirts, the third she took from its nurse and with a thousand endearments bore it along in her own fond, encircling arms. Though, as everybody well knew, the doctor had forbidden her to lift so much as a pin” (27). Emphasis mine. In the nineteenth century, the essentialist perspective in gender relations was prevalent. The best evidence for the dominance of the essentialist perspective can be seen in the fact that the first wave of feminism led by luminaries like Elizabeth Cady Stanton used the view that women were naturally more spiritual, generous and maternal as their main argument. This perspective idealized motherhood as the quintessential role for women. The “privileged mother”, the maternal figure in the most romanticized form, occupied a special place in nineteenth century literature.

The concept of the privileged motherhood required two factors – children and wealth. In the absence of both factors, women became the subjects of pity. The barren women has roots in Biblical accounts but took a particularly heartrending tone in nineteenth century literature as the tragic spinster. The situation for poor mothers had not changed much since Jonathan Swift wrote “A Modest Proposal” to draw attention to the societal neglect for the impoverished family. Mothers in lower income households were overworked, underappreciated slaves to biology, struggling to keep their children alive in an era when starvation, poor hygiene and typhus created high infant mortality rates. Many mothers died in labor as the medical establishment refused to fully accept the hygiene program of Ignaz Semmelweis, who first established hygiene regimens for his doctors yet died in 1865 with only a few adherents and many critics. Seemingly immune from the ravages of barrenness and poverty, the women who managed to obtain “privileged motherhood” seemed to have everything including material determinism, leisure, healthy children and moral spiritual dignity.

By contrast to the ideal of privileged motherhood, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1877) and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) depict the beneficiary of “privileged motherhood” as a social parasite that creates a precedent for modernism. These depictions challenge the maternal idealism through dynamic tensions and ultimate self-destruction. Anna Karenina and Edna Pontellier embody the roles of “privileged motherhood” by their ability to be mothers without needing to fulfill the primary caregiver roles. Maternity still has the symbolic significance of conveying religious and spiritual authority; however the nannies and maids fulfill most of the maternal roles. The “privileged mother” has an undisputed centrality in the family while forgoing most of the labor that role entails. “Privileged motherhood” represents a unique opportunity to forge an identity independent of familial bonds without the emotional cost of spinsterhood and thus supports Tolstoy’s assertion that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” (1)

Due to the release from the mundane duties of maternal care, the privileged mother experiences freedom deemed excessive by nineteenth century standards. This creates a guilt that forces the mother to extend special efforts in the discharge of her family duties (True 25). From a modern perspective, the concept of “privileged motherhood” as a source of guilt may seem strange from a modern perspective in which feminist sensibilities have combined with modern technology in order to foster an expectation for “privileged motherhood.” However, in the absence of such dynamics, one has to note that in the nineteenth century that “privileged motherhood” was a relatively rare and new institution.

Anna Karenina and Edna Pontellier both have potential to be viewed as feminist prototypes; however, their narratives more clearly depict a diminution of “privileged mothers” in the eyes of nineteenth century society. The personal autonomy enjoyed by Karenina and Pontellier becomes the basis of social condemnation and scandal. The privileged mothers ultimately destabilize their positions due to a desire for greater autonomy which is manifested by attempts to fulfill their sexual desires and ultimately their suicides.

The salient elements of the narratives established in Anna Karenina and The Awakening are identified and placed in the context of the thesis established above. The key passages necessary to advance the methodology proposed in Part 2 are highlighted. The elements will be set against a backdrop comprised of a brief overview of each work. This chapter is intended to provide the foundation for the exploration of the nineteenth century literary representation of female sexual desires that is undertaken in succeeding chapters. It is here that the ironies discussed in Chapter 4 and 5 are established. As an example, the description of Leonce Pontellier’s social status, where ” …all declared Mr. Pontellier was the best husband in the world” (Chopin, 17) allows the profound social impact of the “fall” of Edna Pontellier to be clearly understood.

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