By MaryKate Schwerdt
An interesting topic we touched upon last class was the oppression of women by highly praising, or practically worshipping, a select few women that exhibit impossibly high and specific universal standards. Woolf and Horney said “man” kept women subordinate through sentiment and glorification, respectively. It seems to be a defense mechanism set up by “man” so they have a retort for if and when they are ever forced to acknowledge their subordination of woman. In older times a woman seemed worthy of higher status if achieved the dichotomy of being ultimately virginal while being a nurturing maternal figure. Today, it’s a little more like this: “You’ve slept with less than five men? You must be a prude. You’ve slept with more than five men? You’re obviously a raging slut.”
This notion sprung up a few times for me already while reading The Awakening, and I’m only about a third of the way through it. The standard of femininity in Chopin’s world seems to be Adele Ratignolle; this quote from chapter IV was the first to grab my attention: “Her name was Adele Ratignolle. There are no words to describe her save the old ones that have served so often to picture the bygone heroine of romance and the fair lady of our dreams. There was nothing subtle or hidden about her charms; her beauty was all there, flaming and apparent: the spun-gold hair that comb nor confining pin could restrain; the blue eyes that were like nothing but sapphires; two lips that pouted, that were so red one could only think of cherries or some other delicious crimson fruit in looking at them. She was growing a little stout, but it did not seem to detract an iota from the grace of every step, pose, gesture. One would not have wanted her white neck a mite less full or her beautiful arms more slender. Never were hands more exquisite than hers, and it was a joy to look at them when she threaded her needle or adjusted her gold thimble to her taper middle finger as she sewed away on the little night-drawers or fashioned a bodice or a bib.” This model of comparison is so narrow-minded and specific, detailing hair color, eye color, lip shape and color, and even hand shape!
The narrator lets us know that Mr. Pontellier compares his wife, Edna to her, and is ultimately disappointed that his wife, unsurprisingly, does not measure up. On a deeper psychological level, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to argue that he subconsciously chooses this unattainable model for his wife on purpose so he can justify some deeper irrational resentment. Although this comparison and, in his opinion, Edna’s shortcomings are never explicitly stated, it’s safe to assume that Mrs. Pontellier can sense her husband’s feelings of resentment towards her. This especially comes through when she paints Mrs. Ratignolle. A section in chapter V reads, “The picture completed bore no resemblance to Madame Ratignolle. She was greatly disappointed to find that it did not look like her. But it was a fair enough piece of work, and in many respects satisfying. Mrs. Pontellier evidently did not think so. After surveying the sketch critically she drew a broad smudge of paint across its surface, and crumpled the paper between her hands.” Chopin uses this painting to symbolize Mrs. Pontellier’s feelings of inadequacy when she attempts to recreate Mrs. Ratignolle. She cannot emulate in real life nor on paper, and thus feels like garbage, even though the sense of independence her children have on the playground described early on in the book indicate she is a fine mother.
The insistence on a single standard and the disregard of everyone else doesn’t exclusively apply to women alone, but it seems to be a common theme in the feminist texts we’ve read thus far, and I’m certain we’ll see more examples of this kind of oppression in texts to come.