Landing : Athabascau University

Self-ownership in Chopin's The Awakening

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By Lisa Goddard June 28, 2012 - 3:01pm

New Historicism: Margit Stange

The New Historicism seeks to situate literary works within their historical context by examining social, political, and economic factors of the day. One notable feature of the New Historicism is to blur the boundaries between text of fiction and non-fiction.  In this essay Margit Stange draws heavily upon the work of famous women’s rights activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton to situate Edna’s quest for self-ownership within late 19th Century debates over women’s property rights.

As late as 1890, married women were prohibited from owning property in many parts of the United States. One of the earliest forms of rights accorded to women was the right of self-determination over her body. In practice this meant the right to refuse the sexual advances of one’s husband in order to avoid pregnancy.  Stange argues that a woman’s market value was very much tied to her ability to procreate, and so control over this aspect of her life (in the absence of  sanctioned contraception) was a means for a woman to own her exchange value. Stange’s analysis owes a debt to Marxist theory in which “exchange value” is one of the characteristics of a commodity, indicating the quantity of other goods that could be demanded in return for a particular good or service if it were traded.

Stange unravels a couple of major themes related to self-ownership, particularly the symbolic role of hands in The Awakening, and the value of motherhood as both a real and potential state. Chopin evokes Adele Ratignolle as the prototypical angel in the house, and as such Adele’s hands are soft, completely white, and often performing tasks in service to her family that are largely ornamental, like fine needlework. In contrast, Edna’s hands are sunburnt, and are often engaged in tasks that are of value to herself, like sketching and painting. Interestingly, Stange does not discuss Mlle Reisz in her analysis, although she is the only woman who actually uses her hands as a means of economic support, does not have servants to perform household labour, and who owns her own property.

In motherhood Adele also subsumes herself to her family. She has a child about every two years, despite her fear of giving birth, and talks openly about her experiences in pregnancy and childbirth. Stange contends that Adele’s lack of withholding (of sex, and consequently of motherhood) serves the self-effacing myth of the creole mother-woman, but that it also bolsters Adele’s reputation and increases her value as her husband’s asset. Edna’s awakening is accompanied by a sexual withdrawal from her husband, which Stange sees as a means of reclaiming her ownership over her own person – the only thing that she is truly allowed to own. Edna’s reticence in sharing her thoughts and feelings can also be seen as a withholding, a hoarding of self.

If choosing to withhold oneself is a means of self-ownership, then choosing to give oneself (in the absence of coercion) should be equally so. Stange does not comment on Edna’s choice to give herself to Arobin, which is a particularly interesting exchange in an economic sense. By withholding from her husband Edna gains herself and rejects motherhood, by choosing to give to her beloved Robert, Edna hopes to get him in return. What is the value of her sexual exchange with Arobin? Possibly it is simply the signification of her freedom to choose to do this with her body.

Finally I was surprised that Stange doesn’t discuss the scene wherein Edna marvels at her own body, “observing closely…the fine, firm quality and texture of her flesh”, while in bed alone chez Madame Antoine. This scene seems integral to Edna’s process of reclaiming her own body, and it also ties in well with the theme of hands for example: “she ran her fingers through her loosened hair for a while”.