Situation in the United States after the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) was marked by a process of industrialization, leading to a complete transformation of the agrarian society into the urban one. In 1860, most Americans lived in small villages or on farms, but by 1919 half of the population concentrated in about twelve cities (“History in America” wic.org).
However, people had to face problems brought by these changes, such as poverty, poor and overcrowded housing, unsanitary conditions, low wages, or difficult working conditions. Despite that, business boomed and over twenty-three million foreigners came into the U.S. between 1860 and 1910 (History in America wic.org).
These immigrants provided a supply of inexpensive labour. During forty years the population of the United States more than doubled-from thirty-one million in 1860 to seventy-six million in 1900 (History in America wic.org). Baym claims that the farmer gradually became an object of ridicule, while the ideal American of the post-Civil War period was the millionaire. By 1914 was this small, young, and agricultural ex-colony transformed to a huge, modern, industrial country that became the world’s wealthiest state (3).
This era is named the Gilded Age4 after Mark Twain’s novel, and shows American rich and powerful upper class.
However, the beginning of industrialization and urbanization transformed also society and family life. So far, families had had some small businesses or farming and work and duties were divided within the family. It changed. Men as the primary “breadwinners” started to earn their living outside the home and women were expected to stay at home to raise children, clean, cook, and expect returning husbands (Truewoman).
A nineteenth-century woman, rich or poor, European or American, is most often portrayed as a victim of the patriarchal society because this age is characterized by gender inequality. At the beginning of the century, women had few of the legal social or political rights. What we now take for granted seemed to them impossible because under the law women:
...could not vote, could not sue or to be sued, could not testify in court, could not sign a contract without the signature of her husband, had extremely limited control over personal property, after the marriage-a husband became the owner of his wife’s property, in cases of divorce, only rarely legal custody of their children were granted, women were also barred from institutions of higher education. They were expected to serve their husbands and fathers. Women were also extremely limited in their job choices. Lower-class women usually worked outside the home as domestic servants or labourers in the factories and were badly paid. Concerning middle and upper class, women were most often at home with children and ran the household. (Cott 12)
According to the common law that was accepted at that time, the identity of the wife was merged into that of the husband. In other words, he was a legal person but she was not. Motherhood was appreciated and considered the most important female role. Most women of that time accepted their roles and adopted their female responsibility for domestic affairs because they found this attitude natural. The nineteenth-century created the cult of domesticity and motherhood (“The Cult of Domesticity and True Womanhood” library.csi.cuny.edu).
Kate Chopin was a Creole from her mother’s side and her husband was a Creole too. Therefore, it is not surprising that Chopin’s books are based on Creole culture and their lifestyle.
Also Edna Pontellier, the protagonist of the novel The Awakening, is married to a Creole and surrounded mostly by Creole society. In their relationships and expression, prudery and strictness Edna was used to in her childhood, are replaced by intimacy and open expression of feelings. She as a non-Creole outsider first finds this habit surprising and unnatural but soon gets used to it. Creole culture and people are responsible for Edna’s first awakenings. Their mentality was the first impulse Edna needed to open herself and start her process of self-realization. Thus, I find it important to note something about these people.
The meaning of the word “Creole” has changed over time. The term Creole (Spanish-Criollo) was introduced in 1590. It derived from the Latin word “crear”, which meant, “create”. In 1590, Father J. de Acosta decided that the mixed breeds born in the New World were neither Spanish, African, Indian, but various mixture of all three, thus a created race. So he identified them as “Criollos”. At that time and for approximately 250 following years, the word Creole, for the most part, only signified that a person was born in the New World.
( “The meaning of the word Creole” frenchcreoles.com)
Webster Dictionary identifies a Creole as:
One born of European parents in the American colonies of France or Spain or in the States which were once such colonies, esp. a person of French or Spanish descent, who is a native inhabitant of Louisiana, or one of the States adjoining, bordering on the Gulf of Mexico.
As we can see, Webster’s dictionary has broaden the definition to include French descendents, so according to the dictionary a Creole is a white person descended from the French or Spanish settlers of Louisiana and the Gulf States.
I will focus on the French Creoles of Louisiana because these are closely connected to Kate Chopin as well as the protagonist of The Awakening. My main interest is to depict the characteristics most Creoles have in common.
Creoles reflect the concept of mixture, which is obvious in their culture, architecture, as well as customs, or the way they live, cook and dress. The majority of their society was made up of rich white Creoles, proud of their ancestors. But all Creoles regardless their position in society, “looked down on the Americans” (frenchcreoles.com).
For Creoles, the centre of the world was their family with a dominant father as a head of it. Unfaithfulness was quite common in men, but unacceptable in women. Having a mistress was a frequent custom because marriages were more business arrangements than acts from love (Baumann).
In the 19th century, Creole husbands expected their wives to be passive, obedient and innocent lovers, which was not typical only for Creoles but men in the 19th century in general. However, Creole men were not jealous and as we can see on the example of Edna Pontellier, they gave their wives quite big independence and did not mind if somebody accompanied them. It was because they were sure of their wives’ faithfulness.
We can assume that nowadays Creoles are very similar to their ancestors regarding their leisure time activities. They seem to enjoy dancing and going to balls, going horseback riding, or playing cards (Baumann).
A Creole Julie Eshelman-Lee summed up some typical Creole features. She answers the question what it is to be Creole:
To be Creole is to focus on family. To be Creole is to always be near and offer a wing when it rains.
To be Creole is a careful loving eye and heard dedicated to the child.
To be a Creole is to provide a sense of self, a sense of place and pride with unspoken expectations for the child.
To be Creole is to guide the child, for with the child we have the future.
To be Creole is to be a devoted role model.
To be Creole is to consider family in every decision made.
To be Creole means the strength of a woman filled with innate intelligence, nurturing, love, mentoring, and crusading for those close to her.
To be Creole is the gentility of capable patriarchs devoted to family.
To be Creole means we are taught about the past and are graciously given to baton to continue the legacy.
To be Creole is to live a life of celebration, appreciation, and devotion.
To be Creole is to respect and model the directions of our paternal and maternal elders.
To be Creole is to honour our ancestors. (Eshelman)
As it is apparent from the extract above, the cult of the family and children was and still is in Creole society on the first place. Creoles, being descendants of French and Spanish Colonists of the 1700s, were considered outcasts of Anglo-American society; therefore, they created very strong family ties (Campbell). Clement Eaton says that: “the Creoles, to a greater degree then Anglo-Americans, lived a life of sensation and careless enjoyment. They loved to dance, gamble, fish, attend feasts, play on the fiddle and to live without much thought of the morrow” (Eaton 252).
Nancy Walker describes Creole people as “very lively and outgoing because of their tight society (252). Walker claims that their “life for the moment” attitude was enabled to them by the fact that unlike other colonists, Creoles did not move west to claim land. They lived on the relatively same place for most of the life. However, although it helped to create close relationships between families and members of families it also brought difficulties for the plantation system because growing in population asked for consumption of other lands (253).
Chopin in her novel introduces Creole people as “generally warm and open, having plentiful long relationships” (16). From Edna’s story we learn particularly about close bond Creole mothers have with their children. The mother-child relationship is described as “very close, loving and caring” (16).
Chopin uses Adele Ratignolle to introduce an example of a perfect loyal Creole wife, a prototype of a “mother-woman,” who always worries about her children and is devoted and obedient. Nevertheless, it is important to say that Adele does not suffer in her role but enjoys it. Her caring service seems to be the fulfilment of her life. This perception of mother’s role was considered the common one and expected from every Creole woman.
The Awakening is a nice picture of Creole culture and Kate Chopin being a member of it proofs to understand this community well.