Sexual Injustice in “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin

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Sex is a natural part of life, but that does not mean it cannot be enjoyable. Sex pervades televisions, headphones, and national conversations. Biologically speaking, the world revolves around the act; animals, organisms, and people reproduce, it is essential for the continuation of life. Given the combination of sex as a biological necessity and as a form of pleasure, one would expect a society in which everyone is free to express their sexuality as publicly as they wish. However, this fantasy actually contradicts what is the social reality.

Kate Chopin utilizes characters, mainly Edna Pontellier, to articulate society’s oppression of female sexuality in her novel The Awakening. Edna is a wife and mother in late nineteenth century New Orleans who is unhappy with her life conforming to the gender stereotype. Due to her despondency and dismal marriage, Edna rejects societal expectations by embarking on her own sexual awakening, leading her to infidelity and a separate relationship with another man. As seen in The Awakening, women experience different sexual pressures than men because of maternal expectations, they are often expected to be subordinate to men, and society criticizes women who explore their sexuality by having multiple sexual partners.

Firstly, Judith Lorber, in addition to the book, explores how women specifically experience sexual injustice because of the presumption that all women are eager to assume the domestic, stereotypical role of a mother. The phrase, “women belong in the kitchen” exemplifies this idea exactly, and is also one of the most typical gender stereotypes faced by females. This phrase robs women of their intelligence, strength, and existence as anything other than an obedient wife and mother. Society’s maternal expectation of women contributes to their sexual oppression by compelling women to coincide with a life rooted in practicality rather than actual passions and desires.

In the novel, Edna’s husband, Léonce, looks to pick a fight following his return home from an evening out. He criticizes his wife’s care of the children, emphasizes all of his hard work, and exclaims, “If it was not a mother’s place to look after children, than whose on earth was it?” (Chopin 8). Léonce highlights this demeaning assumption that regardless of what a woman wants, she is expected to fulfill her domestic duties. Edna clearly does not want to live the life of a mother given that she is referred to as “not a mother-woman” (Chopin 11). It is indisputable that Mrs. Pontellier despises the life that being a mother forces her to live. She is trapped in a passionless marriage because of the children she never truly wanted in the first place.

At the end of the novel, just prior to her sexual awakening and suicide, Edna reflects on her children, “The children appeared before her like antagonists who had overcome her; who had overpowered and sought to drag her into the soul’s slavery for the rest of her days” (Chopin 176). The specific diction of “antagonists”, “overpowered”, and “sought to drag” affirms not only her disapproval of being a mother, but her actual hatred for her children and the authority and superiority they have in Edna’s life. Edna dreams of a life of passion and sexual freedom, yet her job as a mother and wife made her life colorless, and ultimately forced her into infidelity in order to fulfill her desires.

These gender role stereotypes are diminishing and hopefully will be nonexistent in the world’s future. Lorber (1994) observes, “Yesterday, on a bus, I saw a man with a tiny baby in a carrier on his chest” (p. 1). Although seemingly small, this demonstrates the potential for progression especially given the specificity of the observation. Women often hold children to their chest to breastfeed, one of the most typical motherly acts. The fact that this man had the child in a carrier on his chest portrays a complete reversal of gender roles, going so far as to mimic one of the most maternally associated actions of nursing a child. Since motherhood is often an expectation for women, sexual desires and lust are abandoned furthering sexual oppression of females.

Secondly, the association of men and dominance fortifies female sexual injustice because women are left as the inferior partner. It is difficult to discuss society’s construction of men as superiors without mentioning toxic masculinity. This concept is also a gender stereotype that circulates around the idea that men are violent, detached, and sexually aggressive. According to toxic masculinity, Men embody these dangerous, authoritative characteristics which creates this stereotypical presumption that men possess more power.

In The Awakening, Edna’s professed love to Robert, her true soulmate in the novel, explains that only now is she able to verbalize her feelings because she finally is not subordinate to Léonce. Edna reprimands Robert, “You have been a very, very foolish boy, wasting your time dreaming of impossible things when you speak of Mr. Pontellier setting me free! I am no longer one of Mr. Pontellier’s possessions to dispose of or not” (Chopin 166). Edna is referencing how she was living in a position of inferiority to her husband through her choice of the word “possession”. This metaphor defines her role in their marriage as one to serve Léonce, reinforcing the male position of dominance. She also labels herself as the inferior through the use of “to dispose of or not” because she recognizes her husband had the power of choice in their relationship and she was expected to coincide with his decisions.

The idea of women serving men is further articulated by Mulvey in reference to cinema. Mulvey (1991) references a world ruled by sexual inequality that consists of a passive female and active male (p. 62). This sheds light on the prevalence of women’s sexual oppression because they are serving men as a form of viewing pleasure (Mulvey, 1991). She relates to the belittling phrase, “just stand there and look pretty” in that they serve no purpose other than to exist and visually please the male audience. Similar to movies, men’s dominance is exhibited in advertisements. Katz (2011) argues that as a result of a diminished differentiation between men and women, there is a need to reassert the masculine and the feminine (p. 351). This is achieved by representing masculinity as power and control and femininity with, you guessed it, passivity (Katz, 2011). Yet another example of reiterating the concepts of toxic masculinity and guaranteeing that women are sure not to confuse themselves as superior or even equal to men. The injustice seemingly exists everywhere; our lives, books, movies, and commercials.

Finally, a more well-known form of female sexual oppression is something commonly referred to as “slut-shaming”, or the judgement passed solely on women for having multiple intimate partners. Women consistently are condemned and labeled with derogatory words such as “whore” for their sexual activities. This contributes to the discrimination females endure in regards to sexuality through the differing social repercussions both sexes face. This strips women of their sexual freedom because they have to act according to what society deems as appropriate, or risk facing defamation. In The Awakening, Edna recognizes that her intimate activities, if made public, would be reason for her to be subject of immense social resentment. Edna admits to her sexual companion, Alcée, “By all the codes which I am acquainted with, I am a devilishly wicked specimen of the sex” (Chopin 127).

The “codes” she is referring to are the cultural expectations she is presumed to follow, and she acknowledges that sleeping with two men other than her husband are outside societal norms. Edna continually accepts that this judgement is female exclusive because she addresses her sex and how her activities would be relayed in conjunction with her sex. Similarly, Weidhase deliberates the backlash Beyonce faced as a result of self-labeling herself as a feminist and subsequently performing dance moves deemed as promiscuous. Weidhase (2015) remarks on Annie Lennox’s, a prominent feminist, argument that twerking is not a form of female empowerment (p. 129).

This is another form of restricting and punishing female sexuality. A woman should have the ability to dance as she pleases, but because of her self-proclaimed label as a feminist, she is essentially being told that it is inappropriate to express her sexuality through a dance. Even the movement that advocates for female equality condemns those who do not act within society’s gender stereotype of “proper”. As mentioned earlier, if sex is something meant to be enjoyable, why is society able to limit what types of people are able to freely engage in the act without exposure to social torment. The female sex is constantly persecuted by not only men, but by women as well for engaging with multiple sexual partners and frequently participating in sexual acts among many other things men are not only free to do, but often times praised to do.

In conclusion, Chopin’s novel articulates the longevity of sexual injustice women have experienced. Sex is a private and personal activity that involves many choices. No human has the authority to pass judgement on said choices, which are also an immensely individual matter. These decisions are construed by a variety of factors including age, religious beliefs, health, and upbringing, more aspects that fit the highly personal pattern. It is outrageous that any person may regard themselves as mighty enough to deny or condemn women for engaging, enjoying, or not in such intimate relations. Chopin utilizes Edna’s character to illustrate female sexual struggles in the late nineteenth century, and a combination of various articles help reveal the similar, modern day issues still prevalent in society.

Cite this paper

Sexual Injustice in “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin. (2021, Oct 31). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/sexual-injustice-in-the-awakening-by-kate-chopin/



What is the main conflict in The Awakening?
The main conflict in The Awakening is whether Edna will stay with her husband or leave him to be with Robert.
What is the theme of The Awakening by Kate Chopin?
The theme of The Awakening by Kate Chopin is the search for truth and identity.
Why was The Awakening so controversial?
The Awakening was so controversial because it was one of the first novels to realistically portray a woman's experience with sexuality and infidelity.
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