In Kate Chopin’s novel, The Awakening, the theme of female marital infidelity is explored during a time period in which it is a controversial topic: 1899, or the Victorian Age, during which there are limited rights for women and rigid gender roles. Prior to exposing readers to this idea, however, Chopin opens the novel with heavy usage of the literary device of characterization. In this passage, Chopin’s characterization is readily apparent through the use of sub-devices that help readers become familiar with the characters mentioned. Throughout the passage, Chopin combines the use of diction and imagery; exaggerations and hyperboles; and comparisons to allow readers to imagine the characters. Chopin’s use of these devices helps reinforce the development of the characters and the schemas that surround them and their roles.
Starting from the very first paragraph of the passage, Chopin begins to consistently develop the characters through the use of a strong narrative voice created through diction and imagery. The passage begins with the phrase, “In short, Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother-women,” which makes use of negative diction to give the understatement that explains what Mrs. Pontellier is like: the furthest possibility from the surrounding society’s image of the ideal female. Chopin follows this understatement with the positive diction surrounding the ideal “mother-woman” who “prevail[s],” is protective of her “precious brood,” “idolize[s]” her children, and “worship[s]” her husband. In context of this positive descriptive diction, the “mother-woman” is made out to be a “ministering angel”-very much like the “Angel in the house” found in the writings of Virginia Woolf-and an exact description of Madame Ratignolle. Reinforcing the connection between the Angel of the house and Madame Ratignolle, Chopin creates an image of perfection in the description of Madame Ratignolle by evoking emotions and making her seemingly irresistible through her vivid features, such as her gold hair, her blue eyes, her cherry-red lips, the grace of her actions, and her beauty. The connection is completed when Madame Ratignolle is characterized through the image of her sewing, for she creates clothing for children-a symbol of innocence-to protect them from the “deadly cold,” just as an angel would.
Every time the ideal role of women is expressed in the passage, there is an exaggeration or hyperbole to accompany the expression in order to give readers a sense of how women should be and how some, such as Madame Ratignolle, are. In the first paragraph of the passage, it is made clear that women have very specific duties of intense idolization and worshipping of their families because it is a “holy privilege” to have such a role. When introducing Madame Ratignolle, Chopin shows just how rigid the gender roles are by giving hyperboles, such as her husband “deserving of death by slow torture” if he does not adore her; there being “no words to describe her;” the exaggerated comparison of her to “the bygone heroine of romance and the fair lady of our dreams;” and the definitive phrase, “Never were hands more exquisite than hers.” These hyperboles simultaneously characterize the strong concept of the “mother-woman” and Madame Ratignolle through the filter of Chopin’s thoughts on how unbelievable the gender roles are in the Victorian Age. These exaggerations are extreme idealizations, to the point that Chopin satirizes the “mother-woman” through Madame Ratignolle’s golden description.
Having Mrs. Pontellier and Madame Ratignolle as two opposing symbols, Chopin creates a comparison between her portrayal of how women should be and society’s ideal image of a women throughout the passage. In the first sentence of the passage, there is a clear juxtaposition of Mrs. Pontellier and the “mother-woman” that she definitely does not represent, and the rest of the passage follows this comparison. In the beginning of the second paragraph, Chopin immediately creates a comparison between genders when she extravagantly describes Madame Ratignolle as “the embodiment of every womanly grace and charm” then follows it with a terse negative description of a non-loving husband as a “brute.” The comparisons of Madame Ratignolle to natural beauty, such as sapphires and cherries, strengthen her characterization as the perfect example for women of the time, but sharply contrast with her interest and fondness towards the unnatural figure, Mrs. Pontellier. So unnatural is Mrs. Pontellier that she cannot understand basic functions of the typical “mother-woman” like making winter garments ahead of time. Her contrast to the standards of the surrounding society comes again full-circle at the end of the passage when her disconnection from the society is expressed in her feelings of not being “thoroughly at home in the society of the Creoles.” By the end of the passage, Mrs. Pontellier is characterized as an anomaly where she lives.
It is no coincidence that the angelic and perfect Madame Ratignolle has a “condition” that is impossible to notice. Chopin gives this “condition” to Madame Ratignolle in order to show that following the standards also has its flaws, which bother those who are not being true to themselves and must maintain even simple aspects of their lives, such as wondering if a stick of nugat is “too rich,” to the regulations set by society. Chopin uses characterization in order to express this point and to prepare readers for the controversial topic expressed in the novel. Chopin uses the devices of diction, imagery, hyperboles, and comparisons in order to construct the characterization necessary to lay out her viewpoint on the Victorian Age standards.
Kate Chopin, “The Awakening.”