For centuries, both women and African Americans have struggled to gain independence and fair treatment, whether it’s from slavery or women’s freedom from their husbands, who are in control of their actions. The novels Beloved by Toni Morrison and The Awakening by Kate Chopin both explore the journey of characters struggling to gain freedom from the past and reach self-actualization through the loss of their original identity and attempt to start new and find happiness.
The female protagonist of Beloved is Sethe, who has given up everything that she values.
Due to the emotional devastation of slavery, Sethe not only sacrificed herself to Sweet Home but attempted to murder all of her children in a shed to protect them from the future horrors of slavery. Her actions resulted in Paul D leaving her due to the shock of seeing her on the local news for murder because he couldn’t believe how barbaric she has become.
Sethe overheard Schoolteacher’s lesson to his pupils on how her characteristics are animalistic, which caused her to realize her true self-worth in the society she was living in.
Sethe’s loss of self-worth inundated her to protect her children from going through a similarly horrifying experience, even if it meant going to extreme circumstances and killing them. She was at loss for hope, stating “Sethe’s brain was not interested in the future. Loaded with the past and hungry for more, it left her no room to imagine, let alone plan for, the next day.
” (Morrison, 83)
Sethe’s extreme actions directly relate to the turning point of The Awakening. In this novel, the protagonist Edna Pontellier abandons her role as the paradigm of a traditional domestic housewife to take care of her children and husband to find true love with Robert Lebrun, her attendant for the summer. According to her close friend Adele Ratignolle, Edna is living a great and traditional life with her husband, two children, and painting as a hobby, but she craves more than that. Even though Edna’s husband Leonce Pontellier renovates their entire home just to have Edna stay and keep their social status high, she decides to move into pigeon houses, has an affair with Alcee Arobin, a man with a terrible reputation, and continues to invest in her feelings for Robert. Due to the pressure of society to be a perfect traditional housewife, Edna went back to her vacation home and drowned herself in the ocean, hoping to awaken into a world that accepts her as an independent woman. The novel mentions that “there was no one thing in the world that she desired. There was no human being whom she wanted near her except Robert; and she even realized that the day would come when he, too, and the thought of him would melt out of her existence, leaving her alone.” (Chopin, 159)
The woman protagonists of both novels reacted similarly to the life situations that society has made inevitable for them. They both reacted extremely, with Sethe killing her children to prevent them from suffering the same way that she did, and Edna ended her own life to escape the trapped feeling that society has given her. Both characters have gone through an extreme identity crisis to escape their unfavorable lives as restricted women, and in Sethe’s case, being treated like an animal. Throughout Beloved, Sethe attempts to find her place in this world as a mother by tending to her “reborn” daughter Beloved after her slavery days until her life is completely sucked out of her. In comparison, Edna attempts to find love again with Robert with her rebellious side. Although Sethe and Edna have different shifts in their identity, they both attempt to seek a life filled with true happiness, but realize that society is too cruel to give them the true happiness that they deserve, exemplified by Sethe’s barbarous attack on Mr. Bodwin with an ice pick in fear that he will harm her treasured Beloved.
On the other hand, the main male character of Beloved is Paul D, who like Sethe, was a former slave with a devastating past and emotional scarring. Paul D spent his slavery time chained to other men, having to move as a team, watching his friends get lynched, and realizing that the chickens on the farm have more freedom than he does. With a heart of gold, Paul D lives as a lonely wanderer and can’t develop as a man. He is so alienated from himself that he often questions his value as a person. Although he shows his love for Sethe, he tells her to not love anything too much. The novel states “Risky, thought Paul D, very risky. For a used-to-be slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she had settled to love.” (Morrison, 45)
In the novel The Awakening, Edna’s husband Leonce Pontellier acts as if he is so significant to Edna’s life since he is the breadwinner of the family, and bosses her around to the point of tears. He was a traditional man, claiming that “he reproached his wife with her inattention, her habitual neglect of the children if it was not a mother’s place to look after children, whose on earth was it?” (Chopin, 7) After Edna’s rebellion, Leonce begins to lose his identity as a strong man similar to Paul D. He goes out of his way to make Edna happy and for her to come home, even renovating their home just to please her. Although traditional eighteenth-century men are supposed to be strong alone and capable of handling any situation including their wives’ decisions, Leonce shows weakness in that he cannot be a true man without following societal norms, and loses his sense of identity and pride quickly after Edna’s departure.
Paul D and Leonce are connected in the same way that Sethe and Edna are connected. Although Paul D has the opportunity to move on with his life and find true love with Sethe, he is so lost as an individual that he doesn’t even know how to love and is afraid to sacrifice his feelings. Leonce feels extremely powerful when Edna is his wife so that he can control her in any way he wants, stating that “he looked at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage.” (Chopin, 3) Although he acts like the boss at the beginning, Leonce begins to lose his sense of manhood after Edna leaves him, doing anything to win her back. The male protagonists of both novels cope with the past by losing their original identities in hopes to find a brighter future.
In essence, the main female and male characters of the novels Beloved and The Awakening are affected psychologically due to their unfavorable life situations. Both Sethe and Edna lose their selves throughout the search for true happiness and love, and Paul D and Leonce lose their sense of manhood after their surprising and life-altering situations.
Ultimately, these four characters are seeking out any way to find joy and harmony in their lives, even if it means losing their true selves as human beings.