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Tracking racial division in American literature is perhaps the most telling feature of an author’s life experiences and perceptions. This can be seen in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. During the late 1890s and early 1900s, the American South was unique regarding its progression through the Reconstruction period and murky racial distinctions. Without formalized slavery, it was assumed that the oppressed African American and migrant populations would become free men. However, this idea was far from the truth. In the United States, particularly in the American South, slavery was replaced with cruel discrimination and a condemning social structure.
This reflected heavily in literature, a fact which is disturbing to the modern reader. Non-white residents of New Orleans and the Grand Isle were only displayed in The Awakening to be servants or in poverty. The most undiscussed yet meaningful motif in The Awakening is the representation of race. This can be seen through the upper class characters such as Madame Ratignolle and the societal condemnation against anyone who is different.
Racism appears in the novel without much fuss or commotion. The natural ability for the Creoles to discriminate defined the strict society. Landowning Creoles during this time were primarily of French and held historical preference for Caucasians. This is made especially clear when Madame Ratignolle advises caution to Robert on his trip to Mexico. Her “advice” is laced with generalizations and racism. Madame Ratignolle states that Mexicans “were a treacherous people, unscrupulous and revengeful” (Chopin 71) due to one Mexican criminal’s actions.
This comment went without notice and Edna Pontellier neither commented nor acknowledged it. Throughout the novel, Madame Ratignolle is depicted as the perfect picture of motherhood. A Creole Madonna. When a woman as full of grace and affection passes racist remarks as concern, that is unsettling. This occasion revealed that Edna Pontellier’s home in New Orleans was a place of strict standards and judgmental people. In a way, this “caution” to Robert is also a “caution” to Edna. It is a warning to Edna not to tread on the Creoles. They won’t hesitate to tread on her.
To say that Edna treads on the traditional female role in Creole society would be an incredible understatement. Edna married into the Creole aristocracy. Edna is originally from Kentucky, a world far away from the Louisiana aristocracy. Throughout the novel, Edna continually draws a crisp line between herself and the world that surrounds her, much to the dismay of the Creoles and appraisal of Mademoiselle Reisz. When “Edna looked straight before her with a self-absorbed expression upon her face. She felt no interest in anything about her. The street, the children, the fruit vender, the flowers growing there under her eyes, were all part and parcel of an alien world which had suddenly become antagonistic” (Chopin 89-90) she might as well be on another planet. She is an outcast in the society. Though her race is not oppressed by the Creoles, her spirit is.
Throughout the novel from where the African American girl is working the dangerous part of sewing machine for Mrs. Lebrun (Chopin 38), the two women who are scolded as they make the ice cream and receive none of the credit at Victor’s party (Chopin 42), and the frequent depictions Mariequita as little more than a Mexican vixen, race is highlighted. The presence of race illuminates just how cruel the Creole society can be and just how resistant they are to differences. Differences in race are the most apparent but differences in spirit are the most important. The repression of Edna’s emotions is enforced by the Creole society as they pressure her to be just like them.
Though racism is not as prominent as some other motifs in the novel (birds, water, etc.) it is an essential part of the setting and the story of Edna Pontellier. Captivity is a defining feature of the novel and the greatest threat to Edna. She is fighting against her role, the men who belittle her, and the gilded cage that her peers are intent to enclose her into. Though her specific struggles cannot be equated to the difficulties faced by an entire race, but both face the same overarching problem within this novel. They are told to be quiet and submissive – a violation of human rights.
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