Professor Carole-Anne Tyler
ENGL 124B: Female Novelistic Traditions
A good illustration of the relation between the effects of power and resistance, and the free creation of subjectivity is presented by Sandra Bartky. In her essay “Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power” Bartky uses Foucault’s concept of power to show how the disciplines subjugate women by reinforcing them into developing competency in playing a feminine role. This directive procedure can be seen clearly in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. First Published in 1899, the book was written before the rise of feminism and therefore was condemned as morbid, vulgar, disagreeable and banned for many years. But The Awakening is a prime embodiment of how patriarchy governs the woman of the nineteenth century and how the feminist intent resists the restrictive and oppressive control from the patriarchal society. Edna Pontellier, the protagonist of The Awakening, is portrayed as one of the most self-awakened women in literature. In this essay, I will use Bartky’s Foucaultian approach to female discipline to discuss and analyze the main female characters in The Awakening who represent several types of women’s lives in the nineteenth century. I will focus particularly on women’s objectification as an ornament and how men define women in the nineteenth century.
In her essay, Bartky describes three kinds of practices that contribute to the construction of femininity: exercise and diet regimes aimed at attaining an ideal body size and general configuration; an attention to comportment and a range of gestures, postures, and movements; and techniques that display the feminine body as an ornamental surface. And to find the disciplinarian in all this, Bartky extends Foucault’s conception that the discipline upon the body is institutionally bound, arguing that we need to look at the dual nature of the feminine bodily discipline, including its socially “imposed” (institutional bound) and “voluntary” (institutional unbound) characteristics. (Bartky 75) In The Awakening, Edna’s husband, Léonce, an embodiment of middle-class man, imposes his wife by objectifying her. When he saw Edna had taken the bath under the sun, he scolded, “What folly! to bathe at such an hour in such heat! You are burnt beyond recognition,” (Chopin) To him, his wife must maintain the original appearance that the texture and color of the skin to please his gaze, just like anyone who would care about the same about his own garden or house decorations. They determine to control their property from suffering any damages and thus changed from its original condition, which pleases them the most in the first place. But confronted with her husband’s whines and scolds, instead of arguing back, Edna chooses to hold her tongue obediently. Then, “She held up her hands, strong, shapely hands, and surveyed them critically, drawing up her fawn sleeves above the wrists.” (Chopin) Edna started to examine if she really got sunburnt after her husband’s allegation. She acts in collusion with patriarchal power because she accedes to this mode of discourse that gives women meaning as subjects of the male gaze and she seeks to satisfy the discourse by voluntarily regulating both her dress and her conduct through self-discipline.
As Bartky proposed: “A woman’s skin must be soft, supple, hairless, and smooth; ideally, it should betray no sign of wear, experience, age, or deep thought” (Bartky 69) The body by which a woman feels herself judged and which by rigorous discipline she must try to preserve the body of early adolescence. The requirement that a woman maintains a smooth and hairless skin carries further the theme of inexperience, for an infantilized face must accompany her infantilized body, a face that never ages or furrow its brow in thought. Adele Ratignolle, who is seen as a womanly romantic model in the novella, has the consciousness to preserve her own body properly. When she and Edna walked on the beach, Adele, “had twined a gauze veil about her head.” (Chopin) protecting her skin from sunburnt, while Edna simply wore a hat. Strong sunlight and free radicals in the air serve to accelerate ageing. To maintain the adolescent skin, as a result, women like Adele in the 19 century wore a set of bathing suit including the bathing shoes when swimming. (Late 19th and early 20th-century fashion.)
In ancient China, women had their feet broken in order to make it look more appealing for a millennium, known as “foot binding”. The ancient Chinese never considered it as bodily mutilation. Instead, they had classified the practice as female adornment. Foot binding was deemed as a prerequisite for good marriage and women who had their feet bound were seen to be upholders of the Confucian way of life and were more likely chosen by men of status. “Badly shaped, oversized feet (more than three to four inches long) meant that the bride had no endurance, no patience, and worst of all was lazy; therefore she couldn’t be a good daughter-in-law or a good wife” (Aching for beauty 19) Foot-binding fused physical appeal and social status into the practical virtue of self-discipline, the irreducible standard for imperial civility and a promising marriage. Realizing the practice, Chinese women in their early age, start to voluntarily tighten the elastic bands that wrap the feet to prevent them from growing longer and wider.
As Bartky proposed “In the regime of institutionalized heterosexuality woman must take herself ‘object and prey’ for the man”(Bartky 72) In the 19th century, women can either be defined by men or live a life separating from mainstream society. Adele is the epitome of the male-defined wife and mother. She is a mother-woman. “They were women (The mother-women) who idolized their children, worshipped their husbands and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels” (Chopin 10). Adele is an excellent pianist, but she plays it for the sake of her family. “She was keeping up her music on account of the children, she said; because she and her husband both considered it a means of brightening the home and making it attractive” (Chopin 27). Adele worships and reveres her husband. When they sit at the dinner table, “She was keenly interested in everything he said, laying down her fork the better to listen, chiming in, taking the words out of his mouth” (Chopin 18) Adele is very proud of her titles as wife and mother. She does not question her position, nor complain of her duties. Adele represents all four attributes of True Womanhood as defined by the Cult of Domesticity. “Piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. Put them together and they spelled mother, daughter, sister, wife—woman” (Welter 11).
Edna, however, finds the life of mother-woman dispells one’s self-individuality and ego boundaries as a person. This definition of self in connection with others is what prevents Edna from allowing herself to follow Adele’s example. She pities Adele, “It was not a condition of life which fitted her, and she could see in it but an appalling and hopeless ennui. She was moved by a kind of commiseration for Madame Ratignolle” (Chopin 63). And she subconsciously resists to observe this kind of lifestyle even before her awakening, “I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children, but I wouldn’t give myself” (Chopin 53) When Edna eventually figured out the cage that her children had built to confine her, she chose death. She couldn’t let her children possess, body and soul.
Mademoiselle Reisz is the exile. She is considered the ‘outcast’ of society because of her rejection of the expected behavior of women, that is, unmarried and childless. In Arobin’s description, “she is extremely disagreeable and unpleasant.” (Chopin 27). Instead of observing the womanly character defined by men as mother and wife, she devoted herself to her passion, music.
Cited Work1. Bartky, Sandra. “Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power” New York, 1990.
2. Chopin, Kate. The Awakening and Other Stories. New York: Oxford University Press, Oxford World’s Classics, 2008.
3. Welter, Barbara, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820 -1860.”
4. Late 19th and early 20th-century fashion
5. Ping, Wang. Aching for Beauty: Footbinding in China. Anchor Books, A Division of Random House, Inc. New York.