Freedom and Identity in Nineteenth Century American Women's Fiction

Jack Thurland

This essay discusses how Chopin’s The Awakening and the poetry of Emily Dickinson explore the boundaries and limitations of freedom and self, in a way which writes against typical nineteenth century American, male perspectives (such as Emerson).


Janet Beer and Elizabeth Nolan write that ‘the search for self and the conflict between the individual and society’ are ‘a common concern in American literature – but one which is essentially a male concern’.[1] Focusing on Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899), and the poetry of Emily Dickinson, this essay will explore how these tensions between the individual and society are explored in American women’s writing. For these writers, the notion of liberty and self-discovery becomes closely linked with issues of gender, and with overcoming the constraints of nineteenth century American society, in which women were oppressed and marginalised, condemned to the limited domestic duties of wife and mother. Kate Chopin was writing in the 1890s, a period which Margo Culley describes as ‘a decade of social change and social tension’ yet one in which ‘reaction and resistance to change took the form of a particular Puritan-American brand of Victorian moralism’.[2] A burgeoning suffragette movement had taken hold in New Orleans by the late 1880s,[3] where The Awakening is set, and though Chopin was not part of any suffrage groups herself,[4] women’s independence remains one of the central themes of her work. As Culley writes, ‘when Kate Chopin created a fictional hero who would test the limits of freedom for a woman of her social class, she touched a very raw nerve of the body politic’.[5] Emily Dickinson was born 1830 in a deeply Calvinist Amherst, Massachusetts, and spent most of her life secluded in her family home.[6] She is often, as Wendy Martin writes, ‘perceived as agoraphobic, deeply afraid of her surroundings, and […] an eccentric spinster’, but is also ‘widely acknowledged as […] an innovative pre-modernist poet’ and ‘a rebellious and courageous woman’.[7]  Dickinson, writes Helen McNeil, ‘wrote about some of the great Romantic and Victorian topics; love, loss, death, Nature and God, and she lived the life expected of a woman of good family in a new England town. The vital difference is that Dickinson didn’t write about her topics as fixed or known entities’.[8] Instead, as Dickinson professed in a letter to her publisher, ‘my business is circumference’.[9] Rather than being concerned with reasserting accepted cultural and ideological certainties, her poetry explores the limits and boundaries of self and world, experience and meaning.

Edna Pontellier, the protagonist of Chopin’s The Awakening, is a Kentucky Presbyterian by birth, who through her marriage to Léonce, has been thrust into the Creole society of New Orleans.[10] Creole women, writes Chopin, ‘idolize their children, worshipped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels’. [11]  In contrast, Edna is described as ‘not a mother-woman’, (p. 10) finding no sense of reward in effacing herself as the Creole ladies do, and as Culley writes, consistently disregards ‘her “duties” to her husband, her children, and her “station” in life’.[12]

Edna is shocked by the Creole women’s frank attitudes towards sexuality, and their openly affectionate manner, finding ‘their freedom of expression […] at first incomprehensible’ and yet ‘had no difficulty in reconciling it with a lofty chastity which in the Creole woman seems to be inborn’ (p. 12). Because of her puritan, Presbyterian upbringing, writes Marie Fletcher, Edna is ‘not accustomed to an outward and spoken expression of affection either in herself or in others’ and ‘hardly knows how to accept the spontaneous caresses of her French associates’.[13] The strategic positioning of Edna as an outsider amidst this Creole setting exaggerates Edna’s uptight and repressed character whilst, as John R. May writes, simultaneously providing ‘a climate of psychological relaxation to allow Edna’s true nature to reveal itself’.[14]

Madame Ratignole comes to exemplify the archetypal Creole mother-woman. She is described as having an almost angelic appearance, with ‘spun-gold hair’, ‘eyes that were nothing but sapphires’, and possessing a womanly ‘grace’ which exudes from ‘every step, pose, gesture’ (p. 10). These angelic images teeter on the edge of cliché, and it is unclear weather it is genuine rapture at the perfection of Madame Ratignole, an authorial sense of hyperbolic irony, or Edna’s own bitterness and envy, which subtly colours this description.[15] However, it is clear to Madame Ratignole that Edna does not conform to the Creole way of life, remarking that she ‘is not one of us’ (p.23).

Madame Reisz represents another archetype that Edna does not conform to. Positioned as the polar opposite to the selfless, motherly Madame Ratignole, the childless, unmarried Madame Reisz is described as ‘self-assertive’ with ‘a disposition to trample upon the rights of others’ and a graceless, ‘awkward’ manner (p. 30).  Edna lies between these two extremes of the womanly, self-sacrificing Madame Ratignole, and the more sexless, self-absorbed autonomy of Madame Reisz, and although she is perhaps most similar to Madame Reisz, as Donald A. Ringe writes, she ‘turns away from all of them eventually, and takes pleasure most often in being alone’,[16] as the novel’s working title ‘A Solitary Soul’ suggests.[17]

Though Madame Reisz is self-absorbed and sexless, she shows an aptitude for artistic expression. When Edna hears her play piano she expects to see ‘material pictures’,[18] ‘of solitude, of hope, of longing, of despair’ but instead ‘the very passions were aroused within her soul, swaying it, lashing it, as the waves daily beat upon her splendid body’ (pp. 29-30). Edna expects the music she hears to evoke a series of images, but instead the recital excites within her pure unadulterated feelings, unmediated by ‘pictures’, which is portrayed as a sexual, almost orgasmic experience, with the focus upon her ‘body’ which ‘trembled’ (p. 30), and further emphasized by the sensuous rhythm and assonance of ‘soul’, ‘swaying’, and ‘lashing’. This moment constitutes the beginning of a series of sexual awakenings that simultaneously provoke Edna to ‘realize her position in the universe as a human being, and […] recognize her relations as an individual world within and about her’, resulting in a gradual rejection of ‘that outward existence which conforms’ and a withdrawal to ‘the inward life which questions’ (p. 16).

The sea becomes a recurrent symbol at these moments of awakening, representing both Edna’s desire for freedom, and the loneliness that freedom entails. Edna becomes seduced by ‘the voice of the sea’, ‘inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation’ (p. 16). As W. H. Auden writes, the sea is a common romantic symbol for ‘the primordial undifferentiated flux’, where the ‘individual is […] free from both the evils and the responsibilities of communal life’,[19] and yet, ‘precisely because they are free places, they are also lonely places of alienation’.[20] Thus when Edna first swims in the sea, she gathers ‘an impression of space and solitude’ and ‘seemed to be reaching out for the unlimited in which to lose herself’, yet when she looks back ‘toward the shore, toward the people she had left’, ‘a quick vision of death smote her soul’ (p. 32). The retreat into an inner world as an escape from the restrictions and responsibilities of society is paradoxically envisioned as a loss of self, or death. Edna’s desire to be free is simultaneously a desire for death, to be joined with ‘the unlimited’, that pre-consciousness, pre-existence, ‘primordial undifferentiated flux’. [21]

Chopin’s portrayal of these awakenings as sexual or orgasmic experiences, is similar to the commonplace poetic trope of describing orgasms as ‘petit mort’ or ‘little deaths’. These ‘little deaths’ prefigure Edna’s final death: her suicide at the end of the novel. Mirroring her previous awakenings, Edna returns to the sea, swimming ‘on and on’, and ‘did not look back’ (p. 127) for reminders of what she would leave behind, eventually succumbing to fatigue and drowning. Rejecting the ‘slavery’, (p. 127) of motherhood, and not possessing, as Madame Reisz does, a ‘courageous soul that dares and defies’ (p. 128), death becomes the only way in which Edna can achieve total freedom. In an absolute rejection of the external world, with all its limitations (such as motherhood), Edna’s suicide[22] represents a complete withdrawal into her inner self. As John R. May writes, Edna‘cannot accept the restrictions that nature and man have conspired to impose upon her, the perpetual frustration of desire that living entails. And so, paradoxically, she surrenders her life in order to save herself’.[23]

Fred D. White writes that it is ‘tempting to regard [Emily] Dickinson as a confessional poet’, whose poems, ‘for all their brilliance, are nonetheless outpourings of her own private feelings’.[24] However, as she explains in a letter to her publisher, ‘when I state myself as the representative of the verse […] it does not mean – me – but a supposed person’.[25] The ‘I’ of Dickinson’s poems becomes a mask or persona, intensifying drama, and allowing a distance of her poetic voice from her own, gendered voice, and speak more expansively of the entire human experience. As McNeil writes, ‘Dickinson seeks to avoid the author-reader intimacy of Romanticism, and asks for an almost modernist distancing of her speaker’.[26] Thus poem 508 begins:

I’ve ceded – I’ve stopped being Theirs –

The name They dropped upon my face

With water, in the country church

Is finished using, now,

And They can put it with my Dolls,

My childhood and the string of spools,

I’ve finished threading – too - [27]

In an image that evokes a baptism,[28] with the ‘water’ being ‘dropped upon’ their face, the speaker relinquishes the identity given to them at birth. The awkward formation of the phrase ‘Is finished using’ complicates exactly who is using who; weather it is the speaker that is ‘using’ this ‘name’, or if it is the ‘name’ that is ‘using’ the speaker. This identity is gendered, and simultaneously made to appear childish and insignificant, as it is cast aside with ‘Dolls’ and other childhood paraphernalia such as ‘spools’. The theme of sewing (also a stereotypically female occupation) is echoed in the final line of the first stanza, with ‘finished threading’, perhaps signifying she has finished threading the needle of her life (the preparation) and is ready to begin the more complex task of living. The speaker has outgrown her gender, name, and orthodox Christianity, feeling them to be ‘too small’ (line 14), instead choosing ‘consciously’ (line 9), in a second baptism, ‘just a crown -’ (line 19).

A gender-neutral object, the crown also implies the sovereignty associated with individual consciousness. The speaker has, in this sense, chosen to be reborn[29] as an autonomous individual, free from the constraints of their inherited identity, and separating themselves from ‘They’, the other, its vastness given emphasis by capitalization (as though it were a Proper noun).[30] However, the ironic modesty of ‘just’ hints that there are limits to the powers of the sovereign individual. As White writes, Dickinson presents the individual ‘as solely responsible for the events that shape their lives’, yet shows that these lives are ‘intrinsically limited, flawed, and separate from nature’.[31]

The culminating dash ‘-‘ is a recurrent feature of Dickinson’s poetry, suggesting the poem is incomplete. With a final unifying conclusion absent, the ambiguous dash casts doubt over the integrity of the whole poem, even language itself, and as Archibald MacLeish writes, pushes the organization of words as meanings ‘far toward the unsayable’,[32] as the poems and words themselves threaten to trail off into nothingness (or infinity). As White writes, for Dickinson, ‘word and world – mind and nature – are separated by an unbridgeable gulf’.[33]

In this sense Dickinson’s poetry is writing against an Emersonian Transcendentalism,[34] which promises, as White writes, ‘that the soul of nature and the human soul are emanations from a universal soul’.[35] In poem 106 Dickinson tries out this philosophy only to dismantle it within the same poem. At first ‘”Nature”’ is simply ‘what we see –‘,[36] then ‘Nature is heaven –“ (line 4), later deciding ‘Nay – Nature is Harmony –‘ (line 8), and eventually concluding that ‘Nature is what we know - / Yet have no art to say - / So impotent our wisdom is’ (lines 9-11). This places nature, Heaven, and harmony, fundamentally beyond the limits of language and human understanding. The speaker can never go beyond the boundaries implied by ‘circumference’, restricted by their own perception, and by language itself, conveying as White writes, ‘the paradoxical human predicament of being both free and confined’ at the same time.[37] 

As with The Awakening, in poem 48 this boundary between self and world, freedom and confinement, becomes most apparent through imagery of the sea:

There is a solitude of space

A solitude of sea

A solitude of death, but these

Society shall be

Compared with that profounder site

That polar privacy

A soul admitted to itself –

Finite infinity.[38]

Here the speaker recognizes their position as an individual, separating their self from the ‘sea’ of otherness, yet recognizes the ‘solitude’ that freedom entails, and withdrawing, as Edna does, into themselves as a way of attaining freedom. However, the speaker seems to recognize his or her own human limitations, with the paradox of ‘Finite infinity’ implying the situation is simultaneously limited and unlimited. As White explains, for Dickinson ‘the finite self, for all practical purposes, is infinite, for the self can never experience its own cessation (death)’.

In conclusion, both Chopin’s The Awakening and the poetry of Emily Dickinson explore the boundaries and limitations of freedom and self, in a way which writes against typical nineteenth century American, male perspectives (such as Emerson). Dickinson’s poetry places total freedom with ‘the unlimited’, in an unreachable beyond space. Revealing the limitations of language and human experience, Dickinson embraces these constraints as an intrinsic part of consciousness, forming a ‘circumference’ within which one can, in an earthly sense, be free. The Awakening’s Edna Pontellier also tests the limits and boundaries of freedom for a woman of her gender and social class, through the portrayal of her troubled journey to achieve selfhood. However, held back by motherhood, pained at the realisation that existence is intrinsically limited, and struck by the sheer loneliness of individuality, Edna, a hopeless romantic, crosses the boundary to the unlimited, the realm of death.

[1] Janet Beer and Elizabeth Nolan, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening: A Sourcebook (London: Routledge, 2004), p. 89.

[2] Margo Culley, ‘Editor’s Note: Contexts of The Awakening’, in Culley, ed., The Awakening: an authoritative text, biography, contexts, criticism (London: Norton, 1994) p. 119.

[3] Ibid., p. 121.

[4] Chopin was ‘even known to make fun of women’s clubs’. Ibid., p. 119.

[5] Ibid., p. 121.

[6] Wendy Martin, ‘Introduction’, to Martin, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Emily Dickinson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 1.

[7] Ibid., p. 1.

[8] Helen McNeil, ‘Introduction’, to McNeil, ed., Emily Dickinson: Selected Poems (London: Orion Publishing Group), p. xviii.

[9]Fred D. White, ‘Emily Dickinson’s existential dramas’, in Wendy Martin, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Emily Dickinson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002) p. 91.

[10] Choosing to reject her Presbyterian roots by marrying a Creole can itself be seen as an act of rebellion.

[11] Kate Chopin, The Awakening, in Pamela Knights, ed., Kate Chopin: The Awakening and Other Stories (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008) p. 10. All further references are to this edition and are given parenthetically in the text.

[12] Culley, ‘Editor’s Note: Contexts of The Awakening’, p. 121.

[13] Marie Fletcher, ‘The Southern Woman in Fiction’, in Margo Culley, ed., The Awakening: an authoritative text, biography, contexts, criticism (London: Norton, 1994), p. 194.

[14] John R. May, ‘Local Color in The Awakening’, in Margo Culley, ed., The Awakening: an authoritative text, biography, contexts, criticism (London: Norton, 1994), p. 215.

[15] This is typical of Chopin’s impressionistic style, which is more concerned with the psychology and subjective experience of characters, than an objective representation of reality.

[16] Donald A. Ringe, ‘Romantic Imagery in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening’ in Margo Culley, ed., The Awakening: an authoritative text, biography, contexts, criticism (London: Norton, 1994), p. 225.

[17] Pamela Knights, ‘Notes’, in Knights, ed., Kate Chopin: The Awakening and Other Stories (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 360.

[18] Initially, Reisz plays a piece aptly entitled ‘“Solitude”’(p. 29). Whilst listening, Edna imagines a man standing alone and naked on the seashore with ‘a distant bird winging its flight away from him’ (p. 29), an image repeated at the end of the novel when Edna commits suicide.

[19] W. H. Auden, The Enchaféd Flood (London: Faber and Faber, 1985), p. 24.

[20] Auden, The Enchaféd Flood, p. 25.

[21] This bears similarities to a Lacanian notion of desire. As Sean Homer writes, ‘for Lacan every drive (desire) is sexual and at the same time a death drive’. Sean Homer, Jaques Lacan (Oxon: Routledge, 2006), p. 72.

[22] Even Edna’s suicide subverts late nineteenth century gender stereotypes. In a contemporary newspaper article, ‘Women and Suicide’ (1899), Dorothy Dix writes that ‘women seldom take their own lives’, ‘yet if suicide is ever justifiable, it is for woman far more than men […] woman’s whole life is one long lesson in patience and submission’. Dorothy Dix, ‘Women and Suicide’, in Margo Culley, ed., The Awakening: an authoritative text, biography, contexts, criticism (London: Norton, 1994), pp. 150-1.

[23] John R. May, ‘Local Color in The Awakening’, p. 216.

[24] Fred D. White, ‘Emily Dickinson’s existential dramas’, p. 91.

[25] McNeil, ‘Introduction’, p. xxiv.

[26] Ibid., p. xxiv.

[27] Emily Dickinson, 508, in Helen McNeil, ed., Emily Dickinson: Selected Poems (London: Orion Publishing Group), lines 1-7 (p. 42). All further references are from this edition and are given parenthetically in the text.

[28] In The Awakening, Edna’s ventures into the sea also have a baptismal feel.

[29] There is a play on words in the third stanza of ‘Crowned – Crowing – on my Father’s breast’ (15), the interplay between crowned and crowing suggesting ‘crowning’, a term often used to describe the emergence of a baby’s head at birth, which is in turn echoed in ‘Crowing’, as if the child has simultaneously emerged crying, and has been placed at the ‘breast’ of the parent.

[30] This sense of importance may be hyperbolic, given that ‘Dolls’ (line 5) also receives capitalization, perhaps signaling the exact opposite; that the outside world is insignificant.

[31] Fred D. White, ‘Emily Dickinson’s existential dramas’, p. 91.

[32] Archibald MacLeish, ‘The Private World: Poems of Emily Dickinson’, in Richard B. Sewall, ed., Emily Dickinson: A Collection of Critical Essays (New Jersey, Prentice Hall, 1963), p. 151.

[33] Fred D. White, ‘Emily Dickinson’s existential dramas’, p. 103.

[34] Ralph Waldo Emerson was a friend of Dickinson’s father, and was a regular guest at their house, and so Dickinson was in direct contact with these ideas. Martin, ‘Introduction’, p. 1.
 In The Awakening, Edna Pontellier reads Emerson, but is unenthused, and makes her feel ‘sleepy’ (p. 81). It is perhaps partly because this Emersonian freedom is gender-specific. Pamela Knights writes that critics often recall ‘his strong endorsement of separate spheres for men and women and relish [Chopin’s] passing satire at his expense’. Pamela Knights, ‘Notes’, p. 360.

[35] Fred D. White, ‘Emily Dickinson’s existential dramas’, p. 103.

[36] Emily Dickinson, 106, in Peter Washington, ed., Emily Dickinson: Poems (London: Everyman’s Library, 1993) line 1 (p. 139). All further references are from this edition and are given parenthetically in the text.

[37] Fred D. White, ‘Emily Dickinson’s existential dramas’, p. 98.

[38] Emily Dickinson, 48, in Peter Washington, ed., Emily Dickinson: Poems (London: Everyman’s Library, 1993), lines 7-8 (p. 76).



Jack Thurland


brightONLINE student literary journal

18 Nov 2014