Article Expert: Unbearable Realism

Unbearable Realism: Freedom, Ethics and Identity in The Awakening By Peter Ramos

Main Argument

According to Ramos, current critics interpret the ending of The Awakening as representing one of the following: (1) Edna’s triumph or defeat against patriarchy, (2) “cosmic justice for her moral deviation,” or (3) a flaw in successful writing on Kate Chopin’s part; in this article, he poses a different interpretation: as a warning for what can happen when one is unwilling to dedicate “to any of the available social roles” (145-7). He elaborates that Edna “fails to uphold and live by . . . ‘ethics’” in a society that “for the most part prevented [women and other marginalized groups] from living ethically” and that her failure, in conjunction with the successes of other women in the novella, provides a critique of realism and naturalism (151).


Key Points

  1. What does Edna want?
    1. Ramos argues that she wants an “impossible state—a freedom from identity” which “deprives her life of meaning (and finally of life itself)” (147).
    2. He also suggests that “this failure is not universal among all the female characters” as Mademoiselle Reisz (artist) and Adele Ratignolle (mother-woman) “inhabit social identities available to them only to actively and creatively transform them” (148). Edna, however, chooses a different path.
    3. Edna’s desire is a fantasy that “she both nurtures and refrains from acting on, in part because of the social constructions and limitations she must face in the world” (149). Although she attempts to live outside of social constructions—to inhabit “a space of unmediated reality beyond identity”—but she “lacks the will (and the belief) to commit herself to acting on these fantasies” and the failure to realize such fantasies implies “that no suitable identity for a woman like Edna is available” (149).
  2. Critique of Realism/Naturalism
    1. Ramos utilizes this interplay between reality and fantasy in constructing identity in order to engage with where The Awakening fits into realism and naturalism. The novella depicts the “socio-economic and cultural realities women like Edna faced” but it also reveals limitations in enabling “practical possibilities that exist outside their realm”.
    2. He adds we acknowledge that these literary genres include “exposition of empirical, social and political realities, as well as the belief that fate—biological, social, or institutional—absolutely determines one’s destiny” and that the novella implies “the philosophical boundaries and consequences associated with these literary genres and can and must be overcome” if women like Edna are to survive (151).
  3. Edna’s Fate
    1. However, he concludes Edna is responsible for her destiny since she makes “self-defeating choices” because she does not believe she can fit within the roles her system affords to her, unlike Reisz and Ratignolle (152).
    2. He brings in Kearns who articulates: “subscription to the values associated with naturalism, including the belief that forces beyond the control of the self absolutely determine the self, seems to be Edna’s alone, and such a view, Chopin’s text implies, is finally erroneous and deadly” (153).
    3. He concludes that “Edna is neither absolutely determined by patriarchy and its limitations, nor free from her social conditions and restraints—in any inhabitable, practical way—when she commits suicide” (154) and that “her withdrawals only succeed in obliterating the social positions she might otherwise use to determine as much of her own life as possible (155).

My Thoughts (in brief)

It’s interesting that Ramos demonstrates how The Awakening uses elements of realism/naturalism and critiques its concepts (especially determinism) at the same time. However, the article’s dedication to demonstrating Edna’s failure in comparison to the other women makes me wonder whether this rationale potentially oversimplifies her condition.

Discussion Questions


  1. What do we make of the ending, especially in light Ramos’ observations? What does the ending inform us about naturalism and the relationship between social identities and determinism?
  2. Is it fair to suggest that Edna’s demise was due to indecision, an inability to commit and see through her fantasies, or to utilize existing social positions to subvert the system (as Reisz and Ratignolle potentially do)?

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