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CATHERINE MAINLAND North Carolina State University Chopin’s Bildungsroman: Male Role Models in The Awakening ASSERTIONS THAT THE AWAKENING IS AN EXAMINATION OF REGRESSION ARE commonplace in scholarship about the novel. Cynthia Griffin Wolff describes Edna Pontellier’s suicide as “a stripping away of adulthood” (257), while others explain the role of Adèle Ratignolle or of the sea in terms of Edna’s quest to return to the womb. Edna is certainly a “modern alienatedindividual”(Papke4),butinfocusingmyopicallyonher,critics have neglected Chopin’s skillful use of other characters to explore Edna’s situation. Five male characters—Edna’s two sons, Victor, Arobin, and Dr. Mandelet—represent the four stages of childhood, adolescence, young manhood, and maturity. The influence these characters have on Edna follows a chronological progression through the natural stages of development of man, as might be encountered in a traditional, masculine narrative. Read against this background, Edna’s awakening becomes a progressive, rather than a regressive, tale. Despite society’s tacit demand that she play along with the others, Edna spends the last months of her life maturing beyond her socially-sanctioned state of arrested development. Rather than presenting the theme of awakening as a female alternative to the Bildungsroman, as Susan J. Rosowski suggests (313), Chopin deliberately launched her heroine into a masculine role of activity, self-reliance, and maturity, to show that women are capable of such growth. Raoul and Étienne Pontellier play a dual role in the beginning of Edna’s development. First, they serve as models of childhood, to which many of the adults are very deliberately compared. The first image of Léonce, in which he attempts to concentrate on his day-old newspaper, is echoed in his sons’ reading of the comics he sends them. His parcels also align the women of the resort with his sons, and Chopin links the ladies who select bonbons “with dainty and discriminating fingers and a little greedily” (528) and the Pontellier boys, who clamor for the sweets, “each holding out two chubby hands scoop-like, in the vain hope that they might be filled” (533). When Edna and Robert return from their day together, Chopin follows Adèle’s concern for Étienne, who 76 Catherine Mainland must be coddled, with the woman’s assertion that she must return home, “for Monsieur Ratignolle was alone, and he detested above all things to be left alone” (566). The height of this childishness is perhaps reached at Robert’s farewell dinner: when Robert announces he is leaving, the guests tell each other stories of Mexico, and the scene swiftly degenerates into shouting and name-calling, especially between Robert and his brother Victor. This “Bedlam” (568) is quickly followed by the “heated argument” Edna encounters when she returns to her sons from the dinner (570). Grand Isle is populated by adults who deliberately intendtoenjoythesummer,spendingtheirweeksinfrivolousinactivity, and it is quite natural that the heroine’s own children should be the standard against which these adults are compared. More importantly, however, the boys serve as role models for their mother, and therefore deserve to be read carefully. The few glimpses the reader gets combine to create an impression of energetic, willful young boys. Their father thinks of them as “sturdy little fellows” (522), but a less sympathetic observer might call them brats. They order their long-suffering nurse to keep a “respectful distance” from them (533), they are demanding whenever their father leaves, knowing he will reward them with sweets, and they make “their authority felt” when sharing their spoils with the other children (546). These are boys who kick in their sleep; they are the antithesis of the “mother-tots” they often beat with “doubled fists and uplifted voices” (528), and the most significant aspect of their characters is their self-sufficiency. The description of each of them as “likely [to] pick himself up, wipe the water out of his eyes and the sand out of his mouth, and go on playing” (528) comes only a few paragraphs after the sulking and bemused Edna is described as “just having a good cry all to herself.” (527), and wiping her tears on her sleeve. Edna would do well to be more...


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pp. 75-85
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