Wednesday, February 23, 2005

D.H. Lawrence/Kate Chopin Essay (Part 2)

Recently, I completed yet another essay for my Modern Novel class. The books under discussion for the most recent essay were D.H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers and Kate Chopin's The Awakening. Both novels were revolutionary in the ways they depicted the effects of various social dynamics on the lives of their characters. Sons and Lovers focuses primarily on the dynamics within the Morel family and how that influences the characters in the relationships they pursue and the people who they become. The Awakening focuses on the dynamics of gender relations in a similar manner. The essay I had to write had to address three questions in three different sections. I will post the sections as I get to each of them. To read the first, click here. Here is the second:

The essay that follows responds to the topic of analyzing Sons and Lovers using the framework of gender dynamics that is used throughout The Awakening. Go for brevity over detail with the objective being to merely show competence in using the model of one novel to extract meaning from another.

In The Awakening, Edna sought a way to free herself from her role as mother and wife for which she had been groomed since young. She grew up going through all the phases she was supposed to go through as a woman: her first crush with the cavalry officer, her first love with the tragedian, courtship, marriage to Mr. Pontillier, and birth to her two children. It was upon completing this cycle that she began to understand that she did not want to be one of "...the women who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels" (Chopin 16). Ultimately, she is able to escape back into independence only through her own death. However, in Sons and Lovers, the first chapter, "The Early Married Life of the Morels," Gertrude Morel also leaving the role of "mother-woman," but Gertrude finds her path to contentment in her gender role arguably even more impossible than Edna does.

Like Enda, Gertrude presumably passes through all the same phases. While we aren’t necessarily introduced to her first crush, in the first chapter we do learn of her first love, John Field, as well as her courtship and marriage to Walter Morel and the birth of her first two children. Also like Edna, she does not share all the typical interests someone of her gender traditionally shares, though she and Edna don't necessarily share the same interests. Lawrence describes Getrude as "...lov[ing] ideas, and was considered very intellectual. What she liked most of all was an argument on religion or philosophy or politics with some educated man" (Lawrence 9). In other words, she has many of the interests that are normally ascribed to men of the time. In fact, she is strong willed and, as is pointed out, between her and her husband, when it comes down to force of will, she is the stronger, and while Walter is physically stronger, he "...was afraid of her" (Lawrence 23). She has the strength and fire and he is the one who was "sensuous." It is as if Lawrence is swapping traditional gender characteristics between the husband and wife, yet the gender roles must stay the same.

Over the course of the first chapter Walter descends from the good husband, recently married, and trying to make a good impression, before the charade is up when Gertrude discovers the truth about her new house and its furnishings. Once the truth is uncovered, however,

...her manner had changed towards him. Something in her proud, honourable soul had crystallized out hard as rock...This thing was gall and bitterness to Mrs. Morel, and she had a fair share of it...He began to be rather late coming home (Lawrence 13).
At this point, Walter gives up trying to fulfill his full role as male of the household and Gertrude is forced to assume almost all the responsibilities of his traditional gender role except his work at the mine. While, unlike Edna, she is no longer confined to her own role, she doesn't really want to be anything other than the wife of Walter who was "perfectly happy" (Lawrence 11) at the start of her marriage. Instead, she has a role and responsibility she does not want forced upon her with no reduction of her own role as a woman and wife. By the time Gertrude understands what is happening, she is in the same position as Edna finds herself in at the end of The Awakening: "This Christmas she would bear [Walter] a child" (Lawrence 13). She is trapped by her maternal tendencies into this horrible situation of no longer having the option or the ability to be her own person without giving up her children: "Ah, wouldn't I, wouldn't I have gone long ago but for those children," she says during a fight with Walter. "Do you think it's for you I stop—do you think I'd stop one minute for you?" (Lawrence 22-23). Unlike Edna, Gertrude would never go so far as to say, "She would never sacrifice herself for her children" (Chopin 79).

As a result of this unwanted role and responsibility as male of the household in addition to her duties as mother and wife, it is no wonder Gertrude is so ready for first William and then (especially) Paul to take over the role of "man of the house" (Lawrence 88) as Paul proclaims himself while Walter is in the hospital. Gertrude neither asked for nor wanted to be more than a wife or mother, and she is more than willing to pass up responsibility for the household when the chance is there. This is evident by her bitterness when William disappoints her expectations of fully stripping Walter of his role as provider after William leaves for London: "That William promised me, when he went to London, as he'd give me a pound a month. He has given me ten shillings—twice; and now I know he hasn't a farthing if I asked him" (Lawrence 99). It is no wonder that, after losing not only William's attention as "man of the house" that she would cling even more tightly to Paul in that role and impede Miriam to have full access to him as Gyp had with William.

Ultimately, Gertrude never is able to escape from the weakness of her husband. She is perpetually forced into a dual role that does not suit her. While she may not resent that role as Edna resents her own role in The Awakening, Gertrude's battle to maintain her free choice is every bit as impossible as a result of her husband's weakness. While she and Edna may not choose the same ideal, they both simply want the ability to make that choice. Unfortunately for Gertrude, part of her choice of being wife and mother—to whomever she can get to assume the role—not only takes away the option of death that Edna eventually chooses, but necessarily assumes her at least superficial subordination. Hence, she keeps little of the traditional male authority over the family and their workings. She cannot force Paul to assume the role of "man of the house," she can only do so by using Paul's love of her as a source of manipulation to keep him as her de facto male partner—a role Paul struggles against—again taking her out of the ideal maternal role as Chopin's concept of the "ministering angel." In other words, even wanting what she is supposed by society to want, Gertrude, as much as Edna, finds her gender role ultimately outside of her power to determine.


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