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Social Norm and Social Constraint on Gender Roles- The Awakening

“The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth.” 

Book Introduction

The Awakening is written by Kate Chopin in 1899 and deals with the issue of solitude and gender inequality in the United States society. The protagonist Edna Pontellier suffers as her views on femininity and motherhood are becoming unorthodox comparing to the social norm at that time, and she finds herself more of an outsider in the society.

Book Recommendation

rate: 4.8/5

The book is very beautifully written and the themes are also worth spreading and understanding as the ecstasy, pain, and struggle of the protagonist are conveyed vividly to the audience.

Social Norm and Social Constraint on Gender Roles

— book review of The Awakening

The society has long-held norms and expectations for males and females and their roles in the family. For females, society often times expects them to give birth and take care of the family, whereas males are expected to work hard and economically sustain the family. While these social expectations are not completely irrational as they derive from the differences in the genders, their destructive consequences in the society are enormous as they are social constraints for both females and males. In the book The Awakening, the protagonist Edna deals with identity struggle as a daughter, a wife, a mother and a lover and challenges the traditional norms and duties of being a woman in the society. As a misfit in the society, Edna is used as a great example of how the female gender norms in the society destruct women’s lives as these norms sacrifice women to taking care of their children, submitting to their husbands and resisting their true emotions in the face of true love.

By the end of the nineteenth century, it was a social norm for women to sacrifice their career and jobs for the family, and specifically devote themselves to family life and to take care of their children. By elaborating Edna’s unwillingness to completely sacrifice herself to her children, Chopin argues that the social expectations for women in terms of their relationship with their children are destructive to the lives of the women as they deserve independence and freedom as well. When talking about how important children are to women’s lives, Edna angrily exclaims that “I would give up the unessential; I would give up my money, I would give up my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself. I can’t make it more clear; it’s only something I am beginning to comprehend, which is revealing itself to me”. She admits that she is able to sacrifice most of the things for her kids, just like other mothers, but she is not willing to sacrifice herself and her soul to her children, as she is an independent individual with feelings as well. Edna is constantly reminded by her “orthodox” friends to “think of the children”, but she understands that these are just the social constraints the society casts on women. She refuses to act accordingly with the norms of society but fights for her rights as a human being. Unfortunately, people in the society considers her as a bad mother and an unorthodox woman, which further shows the influence of the social expectations on people in society and the difficulty to challenge these norms. By showing Edna’s misfit in the society as a mom and her contrasting values with the mainstream, Chopin argues that the societal norms for women are depriving women’s rights and demands changes of these norms.

The Awakening book cover

Besides women’s roles as mothers, Chopin also believes that the social norm for wives and its expectations of marriage are against the ideas of equality and independence. In her eyes, society expects women to take care of their husband and always submit to their husbands as if they are men’s servants. Mr. Pontellier is a great example as he always expects his wife to center around him, which completely dehumanizes his wife as a human being. When he comes home drunk, he expects his wife to join his conversation when she is already asleep, and “he thought it was very discouraging that his wife, who was the sole object of his existence, evinced so little interest in things which concerned him and valued so little his conversation”. Chopin implies that Mr. Pontellier treats his wife more of an object and possession than someone he ought to respect and love. Upon realizing her previous submission to her husband, Edna wonders “if her husband had ever spoken to her like that before, and if she had submitted to his command” and knows that “of course she had; she remembered that she had. But she could not realize why or how she should have yielded, feeling as she then did”. It is under the social expectation that women listens to their husbands and yields to their commands, while women deserve their own rights as well. Sarcastically, under Chopin’s narrative, women who resist and fight back are considered mad and unorthodox under men’s eyes. Using various women as examples of the creation of the social norms, Chopin criticizes society for having these unjust expectations for women and advocates women to fight for their rights.

Even though women hold certain responsibilities in marriage, they should still be free from finding true love and what makes them happy. However, Chopin argues that even these rights are deprived and constraint because of the social values and norms toward marriage and women’s roles. The society expects women to be absolutely loyal to their husbands and behave in “womanly” manners. Edna expresses her feeling to Robert and says that “I suppose this is what you would call unwomanly; but I have got into a habit of expressing myself. It doesn’t matter to me, and you may think me unwomanly if you like”. Women’s proper behavior is restricted by the society’s expectations toward gender; as a result, their actions are limited, and their rights are taken away by society. On top of that, women are also expected to be loyal to their husbands, which makes finding true love outside marriage a sin and impossible. As Robert understands the social constraint and farewells with Edna by saying Good-by, because I love you”, the love tragedy demonstrates the social expectation and its destruction of women’s happiness. Social constraint and orthodox of society make it impossible for the lovers to stay together if the woman is married, and true love is susceptible to destruction in the face of these expectations. From the death of the protagonist and the tragic romance relationship, Chopin shows that society has set expectations for women such that they can’t even love someone without being judged.

Even though a lot of the social norms toward women have changed in the present world comparing to one hundred years ago, women have not yet gained absolute equality. They have not completely freed themselves from the social constraints and expectations regarding their responsibilities in family life, including being mothers and wives. Fortunately, it is no longer the social norm that women ought to enslave themselves to their family, and more people in society now are advocating more women’s rights in other areas as well.

Information: The Awakening– Kate Chopin

Date: 6/5/2019


Published by Sunny

I am a high school rising sophomore and I love to read and write.

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