Rebecca Aanerud

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Rebecca Aanerud


Aanerud, Rebecca. "Fictions of Whiteness: Speaking the Names of Whiteness in U.S. Literature." Displacing Whiteness: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism. Ed. Ruth Frankenberg. Durham and London: Duke UP, 1997. 35-59.

Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. New York: Avon Books, 1972. 5-190.


Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Trans. Robert Hurley. Vol. 1. New York: Vintage Books, 1978. 18.

Basic Overview - Using Unnamed Whiteness as a Literary Device

In her essay, “Fictions of Whiteness”, Rebecca Aanerud discusses how unnamed whiteness is used as a literary device, as seen in Kate Chopin's, The Awakening. For instance, when all the white characters are introduced, none of them are explicitly named as white. She argues that not naming whiteness as a race implies whiteness as a norm, thus placing all other races outside of the norm. She also discusses the many implications of this maneuver, especially the references associated what it means to be a white mother and wife in the early 1900’s.

Aanerud explains that white subjectivity has 3 goals, the first of which is that by not explicitly naming whiteness, whiteness maintains a certain racial neutrality, thus displacing all other races. The second is that whiteness can be seen metaphorically through the imagery of the novel, or implicitly through the traits of characters such as class status. The third goal of white subjectivity is that it interrupts notions of race as essentialized. In other words, the status of certain races, white being one of them, is achieved and is preserved through social constructions. “Whiteness…cannot be understood simply as a natural phenomenon. Rather, it is a highly orchestrated product of culture and nature” (Aanerud 43). This is a key concept in understanding that not only is whiteness socially constructed, but race is also a modern invention.

Aanerud also comments on historical positions of women at the time, and in particular women's role as mothers. “Historically, white women’s sexuality has been bridled by their role as mothers. In order for women to have esteem, value, and indeed power within white society, the role of mother must be maintained and honored” (Aanerud 41-42). So a way that one could argue that whiteness is not essentialized is through motherhood. One of the key ways (and only ways) for women to be valued and respected is through their positions as mothers, a position that wasn’t naturally or effortlessly maintained. The Cult of True Womanhood, which was the expectation for females to be pious, pure, submissive and domestic, only served to reinforce this expectation of women. Also, in the instances when race is named, it is also used to designate class status. In The Awakening, the reader will see phrases like “black maid” or “quadroon”, always seeing race and a lower class status paired together.

Unnamed Whiteness and People of Color in The Awakening

It is apparent that the use of unnamed whiteness as a literary device in The Awakening serves to support the goals of white subjectivity. In certain ways, when Chopin talks about Edna being white, it is not to give the reader an insight to her race. Rather, that is a side effect of Chopin's original purpose, which was to often distinguish the color of her skin and relate that to certain elements. “Whiteness…is often understood to signal Edna’s vulnerability, her innocence, even her purity associated with the rebirth of her true self” (Aanerud 35). This excerpt is referring to the end of the novel where she drowns herself. In this instance, her whiteness is symbolizing certain elements like her innocence and purity, supporting the second goal of white subjectivity. The reader has a sense of this whiteness as symbolizing beauty. What establishes Adèle’s beauty is “the rich, melting curves of her white throat” (Chopin 92).

In relation to Edna’s whiteness, Aanerud sees it as “inextricably tied to the construction of the feminine gender (understood especially as motherhood) and female sexuality (understood as Edna’s desire)” (Aanerud 39). In the novel, Edna was struggling to find her place in society. She did not feel comfortable in her role as a mother. During the time the novel takes place in, the cult of true womanhood was very prominent. What Aanerud is trying to argue is that Edna's white skin represents more than just race, but how race is tied to motherhood and sexuality. This becomes problematic because constantly throughout the book, Edna did not feel comfortable as a mother, and simultaneously experiences difficulty voicing her sexual desires, thus placing her outside what whiteness represents. Aanerud comments that although both Adèle and Edna are white skinned, it is Adèle that always has the whitest skin. It is also Adèle that is what society deemed the better mother. “The imagery of Edna’s darkened white skin represents ambivalence, even rejection, of the social category in which she is positioned” (Aanerud 40). This is evident when in the beginning of the novel, Edna does not care whether her skin tans, yet her husband expresses his concern over her dark skin. This scene is a good occasion to talk about gender roles during this time of the century. Men were subject to patriarchal standards to make it appear as though they are high class, and some would argue that women were expected to be what is known as The Angel of the House. The Angel of the House refers to women as property of men, and also as a marker for high class status. So it was Edna's husband's responsibility to monitor how dark Edna's skin got, because if she got too tan then she would not portray The Angel of the House, and would lower his class status.

It is important to note that those who have their races named in their description, or those who are referred to by their first name, almost always are of a lower class. Equally important is to note that the work that the colored servants do “makes Edna’s mothering role tolerable” (Aanerud 42). This is what sets Edna apart from Adèle. Adèle works at being a mother, where as Edna would not be able to be a “mother” without the aid of the “quadroons”. In looking at Mariequita, because she is not held to the same standards that Edna or other white people are held to, she is freer to do what she pleases. “Mariequita, with ‘her round, sly piquant face and pretty black eyes’ and her ‘broad and coarse’ feet, which she makes no attmpt to hide, inspires both fear and longing in Edna” (Aanerud 41). In this freedom, Aanerud would argue that Mariequita represents “unattainable sexuality” for Edna. Some would argue that colored people actually don't experience freedom at all, and this argument has merit to it. In this case, race serves as a barrier that prevents women of color to have a family or a marriage and also rise in the class hierarchy system. Historically, women of color were prone to sexual exploitation, particularly enslaved women. This argument ties in to the idea of an angel in the household through the idea that since women were subject to sexual exploitation, they were unable to foster a family of their own and thus not able to produce a family.

Whiteness and Foucault

The reader can begin to recognize some of Foucault’s arguments emerging while reading The Awakening through the lens of unnamed whiteness. One of Foucault’s arguments is how norms are regulated by allowing some people to speak and forcing others to remain silent. You can see how those in the white society are not allowed to speak as freely about marriage, compared to those in the Mexican culture. Mariequita can freely talk about infidelity, but there is a sense that Edna can’t. Aanerud cites Barbara H. Solomon in saying that “Edna could never adopt Mariequita’s casual attitude toward marriage and infidelity, much as she struggles to escape the consequences of her unfortunate marriage to Léonce…” (Aanerud 42).


Rebecca Aanerud does an excellent job of summarizing unnamed whiteness and its implications in The Awakening, and she goes on to talk about named whiteness in other books and the implication of guilt. But these ideas lead to more questions. What benefit does it do for Edna as a woman to have her slaves be of a colored orientation? From today’s standpoint, it would make sense for the colored subservient women of that time to be allied with the white subservient women, especially since it is not in the white women’s best interest to have their servants be of color. Also, why is it that the colored women are never viewed as mothers? It may be true that the quadroon that so laboriously tended to the children may have been somewhat seen as motherly, but it is still not the same thing.

Continued Readings:

See Also: