English 118 – Short Essay
March 20, 2006
Comparing and Contrasting Edna and Avis
Introduction: Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’ ‘The Story of Avis’ and Kate Chopin’s ‘The Awakening’ are two stories that center on women trapped in unhappy marriages. The two women, Avis in ‘The Story of Avis’ and Edna in ‘The Awakening’, are alike in many ways. And in many ways they also are different. In this essay I will explore both the similarities and the differences of these two women.
In ‘The Awakening’, Edna is already married and we learn later the circumstances surrounding her betrothment to Leonce. Avis is not yet married to Philip Ostrander so we get to see her premarital feelings and thoughts and also her motivation to marry Philip. The two women’s motivations for marrying whom they do and when they did are different and yet not so different. Edna married Philip because he loved her and because her family hated him. Edna was young at the time and in terms of maturity level even younger. She was still a little girl prone to infatuations. She’d meet or see an interesting or sexy man ( a calvary officer, a man engaged to the neighbor) and fall in love instantly. This sort of behavior could be expected from a teenager but not someone in their early twenties. Avis, differing from Edna, actually loves Philip but still does not want to marry him. She is happy with the way things are and does not to change anything. She gives in to Philip’s proposal only because she could see herself marrying him one day anyway so she might as well get it over with. Neither woman have good reasons for marrying so the resentment and sadness they both develop comes then as no surprise.
After their weddings the relationships both women have with their husbands is remarkably different. Avis loves Philip whereas Edna barely tolerates Leonce. Edna and Leonce have separate lives, Leonce with the men at the club and Edna with her friends Adele and Robert. Neither Edna nor Leonce are desperate for each other’s company. They mostly bicker when together. But Avis and Philip talk about love and the future and the great life God gave to them. One day Philip related a story he had told to his students, and how this story affected him emotionally. Avis’ face “flushed with divine light” at hearing this story (Phelps 81). Avis loved Philip before she married him and her love grew deeper for him the longer they stayed married. Even after Philip resigns his job in humiliation Avis comforts him. This could perhaps explain why even with the problems they had Avis never had an affair or thought of one. Edna, however, never loved Leonce and after marriage no love for him developed. This lack of love and passion is what made her open to falling in love with Robert.
Both Avis and Edna are artists and their practice of art proves a focal point for both stories. Edna isn’t as developed an artist as Avis. She has had little or no formal training and at first draws more as a hobby than as a vocation or calling. Avis studied art in Paris where her instructor expressed concern for her leaving Europe. He was afraid she wouldn’t pursue it on returning home. Avis makes attempts to paint but finds herself mentally distracted and without the time. Edna does not possess the talent or training that Avis does but after marriage has more time to practice and becomes quite good. Edna begins to sell paintings and drawings and advance orders are placed for her work. Part of Edna’s “awakening” was due to her pursuit of art. Until this point Edna felt confined in many ways. She was forced to live with a husband she didn’t love. There received no sexual enjoyment out of her marriage, and her two kids were more of a hindrance to her than a joy. After she fell in love with Robert she began to pursue painting professionally. As she did that she started to feel a happiness she hadn’t felt for a long time. Of course most of this new happiness was due to her love for Robert but it wouldn’t be fair to say that painting didn’t bring joy on its own.
Avis had most of her success at art before she was married. Her well regarded painting of the sphinx was painted before she was married. After marriage Avis was too busy to paint seriously. In fact she was giving drawing lessons instead of concentrating on her own work. What Avis was missing in her life after Philip’s humiliation and exile she couldn’t replace by painting. She made promises to herself to try to paint more but the stress of being a wife and mother didn’t afford her the time for it.
Avis’s and Edna’s attitudes towards their children are another differing aspect of these two women’s personalities. Avis feels more love for her kids than does Edna for hers. One summer Edna’s children were sent away to spend time at their grandmother’s. During their absence Edna felt little more than a fondness for them. In fact she felt relieved to be free of the burden of caring for them. In another episode during her awakening, Edna sens the kids again to their grandmother’s. The children are there for an extended time but Edna makes only a brief visit to them. During this visit she for the first time feels a “motherly” love for her boys. But instead of stating with them or bringing them home with her, Edna continues her plans to leave Leonce. To the end her children were another chain attaching her to a life she didn’t want. Edna did not love her children enough to even live for them. Her desire to be free and control her own was stronger than the obligation she felt to raising the two boys she brought into the world.
Avis did not feel hemmed in by her kids in the way Edna did. Sure wedded life and motherhood prevented her from developing as an artist but Avis did not stop caring for her kids the way Edna did. She took care of them and loved them as a mother does. And yes she preferred the daughter to her son. Her son reminded her of husband whereas her daughter of her mother-in-law, who she loved deeply even after only knowing her for a very brief time. No thoughts of abandoning her children entered into the mind of Avis and she was loyal to them after Philip left he to deal with them along his financial ruin. When Avis got diphtheria and she believed she would die, her thoughts were of her children and not her husband. She imagined them growing up motherless with nobody to confide in, being raised by an uncaring step-mother.
The two women also dealt with their problems much differently. Avis was a strong honorable woman. She stood by her husband’s side and never stopped loving him. The weight of her predicament was heavy but Avis never lost faith. Edna is more self-centered than Avis. From the beginning of ‘The Awakening’ to the end her thoughts are almost always of herself and what she wants. Avis thought it would be cruel for children to grow up motherless; Edna kills herself to get away from her children along with the rest of her life.
Kate Chopin and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps both attempted to create stories to accentuate the plight of an unhappy woman. Both Chopin and Phelps felt the need to fictionalize what many women felt. In this way they hoped to build sympathy and a bond among women who felt they were alone in dealing with the problems in their lives. Chopin’s ‘Edna’ and Phelp’s ‘Avis’ are two unsatisfied women but find different ways of adjusting and coping with these issues.