Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Rites of Passage in Kate Chopin's the Awakening

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Rites of Passage in Kate Chopin's the Awakening

Article excerpt

Anthropologists have for over a hundred years observed and discussed particular ceremonies, held in both primitive and more civilized, ancient and modern societies, which mark the transition of an individual or groups of individuals from one stage of life to another in terms of personal development towards maturity, occupational commitment or social integration. Such special acts have been characterized as rites of passage, which consist of ceremonies whose essential purpose is to ease the passage of the individual from one defined position to another equally defined position, and thus to regulate and guard social structures without discomfort or injury to either the society or the individual.

Edna Pontellier, the heroine in Kate Chopin's The Awakening, is an individual who undergoes a change of consciousness that is designated by the concept of awakening in the title of the novel. This awakening necessitates a passage from one position in life into another, and Kate Chopin hints at rites of passage at two crucial points in the novel, a fact that encourages the reader to expect that Edna will successfully complete the passage from the stage of a woman married to a man who considers her as "a valuable piece of personal property" (173), to that of an independent and aware person functioning to her full capacity towards growth and fulfillment. Does Edna manage to fulfill the conditions that enable individuals to pass from one phase of life to another without harm? The end of the novel, with Edna's implied suicide, suggests that Edna fails to make the passage. My intention in this paper is not to discuss the morality or immorality of Edna's behavior, which has bothered some critics, but to explore the conditions of Edna's failure to make the passage, suggested by those ritual acts which Chopin utilizes in the novel.

Arnold van Gennep--the first anthropologist to classify rites of passage, in 1908--distinguished them into three subdivisions: rites of separation, in which an individual is spatially distanced from the environment of his previous life; transition rites, in which the individual spends a period of time in this spatially marginal or liminal space where he/she performs certain ceremonial acts signifying the preparation for the integration into the new state of life; and finally rites of incorporation, which signify that the crossing of the territorial frontiers has been successfully achieved and the individual is united with the new world. (1)

The reader easily recognizes that The Awakening is a novel, as Wendy Martin remarks, "about the emerging individuality of a woman who refuses to be defined by the prevailing stereotypes of passive femininity" (17). Edna, an American Protestant, is awakening into defying the rules and laws of the Creole community of New Orleans, into which she has been introduced by marriage. Our first glimpse of Edna, at the beginning of the novel, is through the eyes of her husband. He is concerned about her being "burned beyond recognition" (173) by excessive sun-bathing, and he looks at his wife, the third person narrator comments, "as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage" (173). The first thing he does when she approaches him is to give her back her rings, which he had kept for her while she was swimming; the second is to retire into the male world of Klein's hotel for a game of billiards after having failed to be amused by "some adventure out there in the water" (173), which his wife and young Robert Lebrun tried to relate to him. Both actions are significant because they create the context in which Edna's process of change is set. Clearly enough, the rings Mr. Pontellier gives Edna imply Edna's commitment to her husband and children, while his inability to share his wife's excitement about the adventure by the water and his subsequent departure into a male world signify the lack of human communication and understanding that marks the husband-wife relationship. …

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