The Modern Woman (My ENG 355: American Literature End of Semester Assignment)

The Modern Woman


What is a woman? What are the differences between a man and woman? To be frankly put, the latter question will have a myriad of answers but the former would need time to define. In actuality, both questions are universal Pandora’s boxes able to generate both positive and negative answers. To say that the differences between man and woman are that one exhibits all the characteristics of strength and dominance, and the other exhibits frailty and subservience is actually ridiculous. Most people are hermaphrodites in personality if the gender “axis” of society is perceived; masculinity, in this axis, means assertiveness, aggressiveness and dominating tendencies whilst women exhibit passiveness, indecisiveness and subordination. If this is the gender axis of common “civilized” society than obviously we can see its flaws. The flaws are in the characterization of individuals – most never fit this axis completely and the original minds seek never to pander to it as much as possible. This gender axis is also broken apart by the phenomenon of the modern day woman. Though feminism has something to do with it the evolution of the modern day woman it is beyond one specific era: This paper aims to explore, by using several texts, the qualities of a modern day woman which can be defined as assertiveness, awareness and individuality. The texts I am going to use are The Awakening by Kate Chopin, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller and The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. I will be using Emily Dickinson’s poetry and life cultural as a reference to illustrate the modern women.

Firstly, the modern day woman does not belong to one specific era as she can be defined as an emancipated individual. This evidence is proved by the poet Emily Dickinson and Edna Pontellier the protagonist of the novel The Awakening by Kate Chopin.

The soul selects her own society,
Then shuts the door;
On her divine majority
Obtrude no more.

Unmoved, she notes the chariot’s pausing
At her low gate;
Unmoved, an emperor is kneeling
Upon her mat.

I’ve known her from an ample nation
Choose one;
Then close the valves of her attention
Like stone.

The lines above are the poem by Emily Dickinson called “XIII. Exclusion” in her published Poems, Series 1. The lines can be the very slogan of individuality but these lines are from a woman who lived in a world subjugated for her gender. So, she is one of the first identities that we can call as the modern woman. She observes the world and has chosen to define it; her words are blasphemy to her culture but it is freedom – the very core of modernization which begins with the freedom to choose one’s self. In her timeline women showing this amount of bravery (Chivalry as Adrienne Rich may have called it) is obviously unwelcomed; knowing this Dickinson lived an isolated and introverted life. She didn’t want her work to be published because she knows the criticism of her society towards women. Her gallant display of her ideology in this poem is beautiful; the original individual will obviously not care what “the divine majority” cares about in respect to what they feel about her and neither will they bar her from having her own estate. The true emperor will respect her for her unimpeded style of identity but the world may ostracize her by “[closing] the valves of her attention/Like Stone.” But, the modern woman will not be discouraged to be herself – she will not withdraw herself from her-self because of people’s opinion. This exact attitude is shown in Edna Pontellier as she awakens to her true identity.

Edna Pontellier is the wife of one Leonce Pontellier and that is how she is acknowledged; like merchandise she is shown to the world as the faithful possession of one Mr. Leonce Pontellier. The person who is Edna is not born until later in life and her awakening, her metamorphosis is consequently the path of exploration, observation and ultimately the death of her oppression. Edna cannot accept society’s objectification of women; she wants to be treated as an equal human being but the society she is in does not let her. Moreover her husband is a merciless personification of the patriarchal society who gets puzzled and frustrated by the changes in Edna. Though Edna starts out as the traditional wife she grows into a mature and liberated individual who no longer wishes to play with her children and please her husband.

In the beginning Edna is the complete archetype of the traditional woman. Full of subservience and humbleness she can only act silly to please her husband. Even when she tries her hardest her husband rebukes in his calm, cool and condescending manner (as shown initially when Edna protests that the boys don’t have fever) making Edna miserable enough to weep horribly. But, she must do this in silence for the patriarchal society she lives in cannot accept her taking offense to anything her husband has done. However, this slowly changes when Edna realizes her attraction towards Robert Lebrun, a married acquaintance. He too seems to possess an interest in her and Edna experiences a sensuousness and wholesomeness of life she had not find accessible to her:

In short, Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her position and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her. This may seem like a ponderous amount of weight to descend upon the soul of a young woman of twenty-eight – perhaps more wisdom than the Holy Ghost is usually pleased to vouchsafe to any woman.


This statement is meant to be both insightful and sarcastic by Chopin due to the fact that the Church to Edna is an exhausting mechanism that influences patriarchal dominance: with the imagery of God as The Father, The Son and The Holy Ghost. It is also insightful because many women cannot possess this transcendence as Edna; they remain caged in their unsatisfying roles like Madame Ratignolle, Edna’s friend, who always seems to get pregnant or Mademoiselle Reisz who are so rebellious that they become deformed in character and are ousted by society. It is first the sensuality of Edna that makes her want to make an artist and have a atelier and be more honest with herself. She realizes her husband’s condescending behaviour towards her and decides to argue with him then just appease him. When her husband leaves for business she even gets her own house to spend her time.

Robert Lebrun and she begin a budding relationship but it interrupted by his need to leave and go away for some business. Edna gets anxious and depressed and by this time she is seduced by the notorious flirt Alcee Arobin, who is enthralled by her emerging sexuality. Though it is implied that Arobin has sex with Edna she does not care and pursues Robert. By this time Robert realizes the intensity of Edna’s attraction and tries to distance himself from her. Edna is still determined to have him and does not care that they both are engaging in an extramarital affair. She wants a relationship that is hers and not produced to her by a societal need. However, in the end Robert abandons her and Edna cannot accept going back to the role of traditional society, so, she unconsciously kills herself.

Edna’s death is symbolic and occurs only after Robert rejects her and it is too painful for her and is her realization of facts: this society was a patriarchal one and it exists only for those virile men not women. Edna’s observation of the world prior to her awakening is limited but it is full blown and rope after her metamorphosis to an independent woman as she becomes more aware of her desires and decides on doing nothing

It was so late; he would be asleep perhaps. She would awaken him with a kiss. She hoped he would be asleep that she might arouse him with her caresses.

Still, she remembered Adele’s voice whispering, “Think of the children ; think of them.” She meant to think of them , that determination had driven into her soul like a death wound – not not-tonight. To-morrow would be time to think of everything.


The characteristics that Edna displays in the sentences above are usually considered to be masculine. However, her assertiveness towards her sensuality is quite natural for any emancipated individual: the modern woman cannot suppress her sensual cravings, her address to her needs and her ability to be upfront of her feelings just by “[thinking] of the children.” She needs to be her-self and not some ideal image imposed on her. However Robert’s timid withdrawal and his impatience at not waiting for her as she goes to see Mrs. Adele Ratignolle’s giving birth is actually quite frail. He himself encouraged the relationship but he breaks it with the words: “ I love you. Goodbye – because I love you” when he realizes that Edna’s passion and intensity surpasses his – he is weakened by her command of her sexuality; the perseverance she shows towards their affair scares him. Yet isn’t frailty a “womanly” quality? In the battle of individualism Edna is victorious as she is gallant enough to grasp at what she wants but instead of being applauded by her society she knows she will branded as a whore – Adele’s forewarning of thinking of the children may have been also a reminder of her position as a woman and patriarchy’s suppression of being human while you are a woman.

Edna feels the annoying weight of all these superficial and artificial obligations, and we see her peeling away these extra skins before her suicide:

She put it on, leaving her clothing in the bath-house. But when she was there beside the sea, absolutely alone, she cast the unpleasant, pricking garments from her, and for the first time in her life she stood naked in the open air, at the mercy of the sun, the breeze that beat upon her, and the waves that invited her.


Edna’s retreat to the sea is justified – if she cannot be the way she wishes to be in her society then she will have to be herself somewhere else and this place she chooses is in the sea, the wider universe compared to the confined spaces of a patriarchal society. Like Dickinson who decided her room best described her world Edna chooses the world of death so she can be who she is: though it is tragic it is natural for modern women who were born before their time to escape into other avenues where their identities could be appreciated.

The female character present in The Great Gatsby and The Death of a Salesman are in contradiction with the modern woman though they are born during modern times. They are either incomplete as modern women or they are traditionally subservient despite the need to be more straightforward and strong. First is Linda Loman, wife of Willy Loman from The Death of a Salesman, who does everything to please Willy though Willy treats her unkindly and is even unfaithful to her. He condescends and rebukes her for things that are his fault but she lacks the spirit to do anything but pander to him and the ludicrous thing is that she wants her sons, Biff and Happy, to be subservient as well. Instead of taking charge when she realizes Willy’s mental health she believes him to be the best man around; and when he kills himself she is left lonely and confused at as to what happened. The same sort of pandering attitude is seen by Daisy in The Great Gatsby: she only loves Gatsby because he is wealthy and continues to do so with an illusion and though she is her old beau, James Gatz:

‘Make us a cold drink,’ cried Daisy

As he left the room again she got up and went over to Gatsby and pulled his face down , kissing him on the mouth.

‘You know I love you,’ she murmured.

‘ You forget there’s a lady present,’ said Jordan.

Daisy looked around doubtfully.

‘ You kiss Nick too.’

‘ What a low, vulgar girl!’


Daisy’s sensuality is not like a modern woman as it lacks the determination and passion of women like Dickinson and Edna Pontellier; it does not help to mould her identity neither is it a promiscuous attitude, it is but flimsy and meant to die away.

  Wild Nights! Wild Nights!
Were I with thee,
Wild Nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile the winds
To a heart in port, —
Done with the compass,
Done with the chart!

Rowing in Eden!
Ah! the sea!
Might I but moor
To-night in Thee!

The poem by Emily Dickinson above is definitely a good definition for a modern day woman who is present during modern times. Like The Great Gatsby and The Death of a Salesman the book The Sun Also Rises is written during the 20’s and 30’s the period that marked the advent of the modern woman.  Brett Ashley is promiscuous, headstrong and even attempts to dress in a neo-masculine trend made by women. Her indifference towards her affair with Cohn show an approach that was once considered masculine and Cohn’s pursuit of her even after the affair is over is a frailty once thought to be in women. She exudes confidence and is the most emancipated woman as seen in her choices and even her ability to decide who she will pursue next. Her only flaw is that she lacks direction but that is the “The Lost Generation” phenomenon that all Americans exiled from their homeland seems to experience.

In conclusion, the modern woman is a woman who is independent, strong and able to seek her identity. We see this in the real-life poet Emily Dickinson and the fictitious characters of Edna Pontellier and Brett Ashley; not, in the characters of Linda and Daisy. In all these women I find Edna Pontellier to be the perfect example of a modern woman – a person who knows what she is passionate about and isn’t afraid to seek it – a woman with direction and strength.

(2, 406 words)

Note: I took Emily Dickenson’s poems from this site


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