- The Escape of the “Sea”:Ideology and The Awakening
Nineteenth-century feminist discourse was an oppositional ideology, a resistance to obstacles to female fulfillment. The hegemonic institutions of nineteenth-century society required women to be objects in marriage and in motherhood, existing as vessels of maternity and sexuality, with little opportunity for individuality. As critic Margit Stange asserts, "self-ownership" was central to the project of nineteenth-century feminism (506). Self-ownership connoted a woman's right to have possession of her own fully realized human identity. Inherent in this concept was not only sexual freedom and other aspects of personhood, but also "a sense of place in the community and the universe at large," through love, connection, maternity, and other aspects of fulfillment (Toth 242).
Kate Chopin's The Awakening is, as Chopin biographer Emily Toth posits, "a case study" of nineteenth-century feminism (242). Indeed, Edna Pontellier's first consciousness of her awakening is described in terms that echo the nineteenth-century feminist concept of female identity: "Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her" (Chopin 57). Her awakening makes [End Page 53] visible her position in patriarchal society and gives her the desire to seek alternative roles.
The female roles portrayed in The Awakening are rooted in an ideological system. Louis Althusser's "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses" provides an ideological framework for the female roles and experiences portrayed in the novel. This framework also implicates the ideological system of nineteenth-century society as the ultimate culprit in Edna's fate. According to Althusser, the mechanism of hegemony is "interpellation," the recognition and adoption of an ideology and its practices (299). Edna's awakening allows her to resist the various "interpellations" of the dominant patriarchal ideology and experiment with both alternative and oppositional roles. Her new consciousness makes her ill-suited for the limited female roles, those of the hegemonic ideal and those opposed to this ideal, offered her by nineteenth-century society. Edna experiments with two roles in particular, embodied by central female characters in the novel, Adele Ratignolle and Mademoiselle Reisz. In addition, Edna also experiments with an oppositional role that, significantly, is not embodied by any female character in the novel, a role in which she is both freely sexual and autonomous. Because of her strong interpellation as a mother, a role dictated for married women by hegemonic ideology in her society, she finds that she cannot exist in an alternative or oppositional female role. However, because of her awakening to herself as an individual, she cannot exist in the female roles sanctioned by patriarchal ideology. Her only escape from this ideology is death, and hence, Edna commits suicide at the site of her awakening, "the sea" (Chopin 57).
Edna takes drastic action to elude the ideological system into which she is born. She is repressed by cultural forces that she does not understand and cannot articulate. Althusser's theory provides a clear language, as well as a systematic mechanism, to account for the ubiquitous presence of nineteenth-century cultural force and its perpetuation of hegemonic ideology. Althusser's cultural theory explains the structure and function of ideology, his central thesis stemming from Antonio Gramsci's concept of hegemony. In cultural theory, the term describes the dynamic by "which a dominant class wins the willing consent of the subordinate class to the system that ensures their subordination" (Fiske 310). Consent is not static, but must be "won and rewon" (Fiske 310). Althusserian theory accounts for the manner in which ruling, or hegemonic, discourses and institutions perpetuate the necessary consent for their dominance. [End Page 54]
Ideology, the powerful force behind the dominance of hegemonic institutions, is defined by Althusser as an "imaginary relation to the real relations of existence" (299). He posits that the representations that constitute ideology are based in the material world. Such representations exist in those individuals who advocate particular ideologies, as well as their collective ideas and belief systems, and ideologies exist in apparatuses and their practices. These apparatuses and their accompanying practices, termed "Ideological...