The social system is marriage. Marriage of comfort was the rule in the past. Often its goal was linked to influence, policy and social pressure. Not all of these relationships are the products of spousal lust. This was also a requirement for women in particular. The expectations of marriage have shifted as culture progresses. Marriage is no longer a requirement at present and the unmarried condition in society already constitutes an agreed norm.
This paper looks at Kate Chopin’s The Awakening in order to marry inside society. The following parts concentrate on love, social and sexual stresses. In particular, the major themes found in the text are (a) societal marriage; (b) marriage with love; and (c) love without marriage.
Major Themes in The Awakening
Traditional societies consider a woman’s value to be directly related to marriage. Girl children grow up being groomed to become somebody’s wife. The wife becomes part of the husband’s wealth, along with his property. Being married, therefore, becomes a symbol of status. In The Awakening, Edna believes that she would have no credibility if not married. Marriage, in those times, puts priority on the purpose of the union to society rather than on the individuals being married. Outsiders regard Edna as lucky to have a husband like Leonce, someone who is considered a good catch. Her house is grand and she has servants to take care of the family’s needs. As the wife of a wealthy businessman, she has obligations in society.
Expectations of the married couple. In societal marriage, the man is expected to provide for the family. He is tasked to bring in food and other material goods. The woman, in turn, takes care of the house. She ensures that the food served is delicious, children are kept safe and healthy, and she supports the business of her husband. Edna fell short of these expectations. She did not facilitate the preparation of good food at all times. She likewise missed her Tuesday obligations. As the wife of a businessman, she was expected to entertain the wives of his associates. The husband expected her to attend to these matters. They argued numerous times and these expectations were raised.
In marriages such as that of Leonce and Edna Pontellier, appearances are very important. The head of the household ensures that their good name is preserved. Any move that can ruin the family’s reputation has to immediately be remedied. When Edna decided to move out of their house, her husband was more concerned of his reputation rather than the feelings of Edna. He wrote her a letter,
… he begged her to consider first, foremost, and above all else, what people would say…[h]e was simply thinking of his financial integrity. It might get noised about that the Pontelliers had met with reverses, and were forced to conduct their ménage on a humbler scale than heretofore. It might do incalculable mischief to his business prospects.
In our contemporary world, societal marriages still exist. The reasons range from religious beliefs, cultural traditions, and even economic gain. In the US, there are documented cases of arranges marriages, even forced marriages. In orthodox communities, the community, through the parents, chooses the partner for one’s child. Young women oftentimes do not question such choices because it has been their community’s tradition. Young girls grow up believing that such an arrangement is the best for them. There are always two sides in partnerships like this. Some couples make the marriage work and they live happy lives. Others question their family’s decisions and are not satisfied with such arrangements.
Reasons for societal marriage. Some people marry for economic gain. A woman decides to marry someone outside of her culture to acquire economic gain, not only for herself but more for the sake of her family. This is the case of the Malagasy women of Madagascar. They marry a European (vazaha) or Frenchman with the intention of migrating to France and living a luxurious life (Cole 2014). In the eyes of their communities in Madagascar, they are vadimbazaha or women with status. They become truly this when they are able to facilitate the flow of resources towards their own country. When women engage in societal marriage for economic gain, they sacrifice finding their romantic love for the good of the family.
Another cause of societal marriage is unwanted pregnancies. In societies where an unmarried woman with children is stigmatized, a couple who is not yet prepared for married life is forced into marriage to protect the name or honor of the family. This is a common occurrence in societies with deep religious traditions. Parents, to save the family’s name, would require marriage when their daughter becomes pregnant. Despite the couple’s lack of readiness, resources, even being very young, they are forced to enter into marriage to satisfy the requirements of society. The decision comes from the authority figures in the family who also fear being judged by other members of their community.
Effects on the individual. When arranged marriages have been part on the culture, it is accepted by the members of such community. There is very little reason to question it. In Pakistani culture, women believe that “love comes after marriage and that religion, faith in God, is the most important bond” (Bader 2013). Women from these cultures would feel very guilty when they break tradition and decide to marriage someone they choose personally, rather than those chosen by their parents. Since childhood, parents have inculcated the value of obedience among the children. Going against their parents’ wishes is considered being ungrateful. Choosing one’s own path can be considered disrespect or dishonor to your parents’ name (Bader 2013).
In instances when women meet someone that they can relate to and romantic love is kindled, the marriage they are in feels like a prison. Young brides, such as Edna, would long to be with the person she loves. However, the obligation to stay with the person chosen to be the husband is daily reminder of the realities of life. It is not therefore uncommon that persons within such societal marriages, be it a man or a woman, would feel trapped and miserable. Such hopelessness was expressed in Edna’s outburst.
They jeered and sounded mournful notes without promise, devoid even of hope. She turned back into the room and began to walk to and fro down its whole length without stopping, without resting. She carried in her hands a thin handkerchief, which she tore into ribbons, rolled into a ball, and flung from her. Once she stopped, and taking off her wedding ring, flung it upon the carpet. When she saw it lying there, she stamped her heel upon it, striving to crush it. But her small boot heel did not make an indenture, not a mark upon the little glittering circlet.
A person unsatisfied in his/her marriage would be affected emotionally and spiritually. The loneliness becomes part of the self that such feelings may suddenly appear even with the presence of friends.
But as she sat there amid her guests, she felt the old ennui overtaking her; the hopelessness which so often assailed her, which came upon her like an obsession, like something extraneous, independent of volition. It was something which announced itself; a chill breath that seemed to issue from some vast cavern wherein discords waited.
As a married woman, Edna was expected to pursue interests that would not be against the good of the family. Her friendships, especially of the opposite sex should not endanger the reputation of the husband’s name. Her feelings for other men had to be curtailed to preserve the family’s honor. She had gone through different forms of awakening. She realized she had new interests like racing. She also felt a different excitement when she was with Robert or with Alec. These were emotions that she was not able to explore in her single years. Here discovery about her womanhood took place in the years after she had married someone. Such delayed discovery of the excitement of being with someone she loves resulted in her feeling of loneliness and despair.
Years of marriage can widen one’s view of life. Edna has only been married for six years and she experienced various intense emotions. She felt pain, hopelessness, attraction, love, and loneliness. She also discovered more of herself and her interests. She became braver and more decisive. However, in this journey of self-discovery, society’s rules and expectations became a heavy burden. However, life’s lessons were learned.
Above all, there was understanding. She felt as if a mist had been lifted from her eyes, enabling her to look upon and comprehend the significance of life, that monster made up of beauty and brutality. But among the conflicting sensations which assailed her, there was neither shame nor remorse. There was a dull pang of regret.
Marriage with Love
In many societies, marrying the person you love symbolizes the ultimate commitment to that person. When Edna and Robert saw each other after the latter’s trip to Mexico, they expressed their longing for each other and Robert explained that “… something put into my head that you cared for me; and I lost my senses. I forgot everything but a wild dream of your some way becoming my wife.” A life of togetherness with the person’s love interest is always hoped to be within the context of marriage. Thus, when two people who love each other decide to marry, such union is said to be a marriage with love.
The presence of affection towards the other becomes an assurance that the marriage will continue despite challenges that the couple may experience in their life together. Marriage vows contain phrases such as “to love and to hold… in sickness or in health… till death do us part…” or words that assure each other of their presence. According to Grossi (2014) romantic love is “associated with freedom, individual satisfaction and equality” (p. 99). Lovers would care for each other and makes sure that the other is happy and contented. Expressing affection towards the other would also make the couple feel happy.
Marriage with the person you love has also been promoted as a life of bliss. The wedding day is symbolic of the start of a “happy ever after.” Such concept of weddings and marriage inculcated into one’s upbringing that every girl dreams of being a bride, riding off into the sunset with one’s true love. In The Awakening, lovers’ walking towards the sunset was alluded to when Edna and Robert “… descended the steps, and walked away together toward the beach. The sun was low in the west and the breeze was soft and warm.” Love in marriage contributes to its success as an institution. When two persons decide to wed, they do so because they want to “become settled.” They do not anymore search affection from other men or women because they have found the one.
Many often marry to start a family. Being a married man/woman is considered an accomplishment. When parents love each other, the children they will bring into the world would feel that love. Such positive emotion in the household will have a positive effect on the children. They too, in the future, may be more inclined to marry for love. Society looks at parenthood as a privilege for children continue the legacy of their parents and their ancestors. The fields chosen by children are always influenced by the paths taken by their ancestors. Some would continue the businesses while others decide to pursue another because of their experience on that field.
A person marrying someone he/she loves may even go against society’s rules to be with the person he/she loves. It may be a case of mixed marriage such as between different religions or among persons from different nationalities or ethnic group. The primary criteria being the two persons feeling of love for the other, that marriage shall take place defying every obstacle if necessary just to be with the person you love. The love between persons makes marriage a worthy risk. Making the long-term commitment to another individual would not have been an easy task if love was not present. This love makes all the difficulties of married life worth it.
Love without Marriage
According to Benjamin Franklin “where there’s marriage without love, there will be love without marriage” (Clinton & Trent, 2009, p. 37). In today’s world, it is not uncommon to find couples expressing love for each other outside the institution of marriage. Activities, previously sanctioned to be exclusive for married couples only are now observed to become more common. Relationships between persons from different religions, ethnicity, and even among the same sex are becoming more acceptable.
The absence of a legal contract provided by marriage is a constant test to two persons in love and committing to each other. This becomes more complicated when the couple brings in children whether adopted or biological. However, the presence of other legal instruments can be used to assist in these mundane concerns.
Issues of sexuality. Couples in a relationship express their affection with each other outside of marriage. In the past, such actions were sanctioned by society. In the 21st century, many couples decide to stay together to express their love. They commit to a long-term relationship without the need for a contract. In many instances, such couples work hard to maintain their relationship because they are aware that there is no piece of paper that holds them together. In this context, they may live together and express their sexuality with each other. The same values of fidelity and honesty would apply. Couples who choose to stay together would consider themselves partners.
Ownership of properties. In the past, wealth and properties were major considerations in marriage. In the modern times, partners own properties together by going into legal contracts. In instances when they decide to have children, such legal documents become necessities.
Same-sex relationship. Marriage has certainly evolved over time. Conditions in the 21st century have made it possible for same-sex relationship to be accepted in society. One of the reasons for getting married in the past was procreation, thus only biological men and women were allowed to be married. The partnership between same-sex couples is a great manifestation of love without marriage. However, some same sex couples still look at marriage as the ultimate aim for their unity. Issues, such as adopting children together, are among the driving factor for same sex couples to lobby for marriage.
Marriage as an institution has evolved over the years. In the past, the union between partners results from choices made by authority figures. Families strengthen their wealth or promote their good name by allowing marriage among their children. The purpose of marriage back then was focused more on maintaining or achieving a certain status for the family. Societal marriages still exist in the contemporary world, but these types of union are not anymore dominant in modern societies.
Love between partners became the criteria for marriage in contemporary society. Men and women enter into the union to commit them to a life of togetherness with the person they consider their “one true love.” Despite high divorce rates, men and women still continue searching for that person they can fall in love with and have a relationship with that person.
At present, marriage as a social construct is being challenged. Partners in a relationship decide to commit themselves to each other without the legal contract of marriage. A couple would even decide to have children, biological or adopted, and grow their family without being married. For many of these couples, their commitment to stay with each other is enough proof of their love. The legal instrument is not necessary for them to stay together. What is important is they love each other and they stay together because of this love.
Chopin’s The Awakening presented the context of societal marriage. It showed the effects of such institution on the lives of several people. In expounding about such kind of marriage, Chopin also provided images of the ideal love in marriage. Couples adjust to each other during their married life. They encounter challenges as they journey together. These include attraction to new interests in the form of hobbies or companions. The essentials of married life remain the same through centuries. These are acceptance and tolerance of each other, care for children, and attending to one’s obligations. Whether a person is in a societal marriage, love in marriage or love without marriage, he or she grows to accept her situation. Couples learn to adjust to each other. Sometimes they engage in the others’ interests. Sometimes they pursue their own. All throughout their journey, in whatever ways they handle their lives, they continue to shape each other’s’ destinies.
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