Kate Chopin’s novel, The Awakening, has borne a burden of criticism and speculation since its initial publication. While many past critics have chastised Chopin and condemned the novel for the portrayal of an adulterous heroine, modern responses are often inexorably concerned with drawing conclusions about the novel’s inconclusive ending. Most modern critics have set aside moral considerations about Edna’s adulterous behavior in favor of multitudinous considerations of the final scene of the novel: Edna’s death. Readers want to know whether Edna’s death was intentional. It is hard to escape dwelling on this point because the answer determines whether Edna has succeeded or surrendered. The reader seeks conclusion for satisfaction, yet this sought after conclusion is not given by Chopin. However, Chopin’s failure to provide all the answers and her failure to give Edna lines of thoughtful explanation for her actions is not a fault, nor should it be a criticism of the novel. Whether Edna means to kill herself, whether she is reclaiming her authority over her life by taking it or whether she is simply giving up, is an important consideration, the author’s simple answer to which would depress the novel’s power to produce readers’ thought and speculation while possibly leading to negative social assumptions. To understand and find satisfaction in the end of the novel, one must appreciate both the freedom of discourse permitted by such a non-ending and the implications of the portrayal of female adultery and suicide in the nineteenth century. Although the escalation of the plot implies that Edna’s demise is necessary, as she cannot be free to live the life she chooses, a suicide would present a problem in that it provides a conclusion for readers that attaches to Edna the social conceptions by which female suicide was defined. Suicide would not just have been seen as another moral transgression for a selfish character, it could be deduced, applying popular thought on female suicide, that Edna’s problem was not systemic and not a problem with society but rather a problem with her own mental state. Chopin may not define Edna’s death as suicide because to do so would be to provide a conclusion that would invite social interpretation of her act rather than deliberation as to her intentions and alternatives. Rather than speculate on her intentions, requiring close reading of the events that drove her to her death, closure through definitive suicide invites interpretation through the lenses of nineteenth century thought on female suicide, a lens that would be sure to condemn and isolate her and her plight.As Chopin’s novel draws to a close, hope begins to wane that Edna will find happiness and freedom in her social world. The novel must end in Edna’s death because society cannot offer a solution to her problem or acknowledge her needs. With the imminence of her husband’s return, Edna has no choice but to either play the part of dutiful wife and move back into his house or attempt an escape likely to warrant condemnation and dismissal from her society. The reader would be sorely disappointed if Edna returned to her house to live her life in misery because such an action would be anticlimactic and outside of Edna’s character. Edna’s daring increases throughout the novel and Chopin admits that her “original conception of the novel was changed by Edna’s making such a mess of things” (Treu 2). By the end of the novel, Edna has abandoned her Tuesdays at home, coming and going as she pleases. She has also moved to her own house where she has engaged in extra-marital affairs. Having broken nearly all social codes and knowing her husband’s return must put an end to it, Edna has no choice but escape or return. However, escape with Robert proves unachievable. His desire to make her his wife and possess her is not possible and also not what she wants. Edna says “I give myself where I choose, if he were to say, ‘Here Robert, take her and be happy; she is yours,’ I should laugh at you both” (Chopin, 102). A continuation of her affair with Robert could not bring happiness because he has the same intention of possessing her. Robert’s note “good-bye- because I love you” ( Chopin, 106) puts an end to their affair. From this point on Edna’s intentions can only be speculated. Edna can neither be happy or have what she wants. She is incapable of self-ownership and autonomy. The novel has diagnosed something for which there is no answer. While a return to her society position would be anticlimactic her escape from it seems impossible. Edna’s death is necessary to the plot, but yet it is left ambiguous.Such ambiguity, however, is consistent with the rest of the novel and serves Chopin’s purpose. Edna is consistently a very passive character. The major decisions she makes in the novel hardly seem like decisions at all. When she is asked why she has abandoned her Tuesdays at home she replies “I simply felt like going out, and I went out” (Chopin, 49). When Edna tells of her plans of renting a house, Mademoiselle Reisz replies “Your reason is not yet clear to me” and the narrator goes on to say “neither was it quite clear to Edna herself” (76). Edna’s first encounter with a drowning death again takes the reader to the limits of Edna’s inconsideration. As she swims, Edna seems purposeless, “she seemed to be reaching out for the unlimited in which to lose herself” implying that she is not conscious of it. “A quick vision of death smote her soul and enfeebled her senses.” Once again this implies her passivity and lack of influence over her environment. Her death fittingly reveals the same structure. Edna does not determine that she will commit suicide; her decision to go down to the beach is only a notion, Edna says “I have a notion to go down to the beach and take a good wash and even a little swim, before dinner” (Chopin, 107). Edna continues by saying that she “might go down and try” (Chopin, 108). Asking twice about dinner and requesting some towels, the reader is unprepared to accept a premeditated suicide. As she swims into the ocean her thoughts are of her children, husband and childhood. She has no resolve but to swim and as the ocean and distance overcome her, her strength disappears. Her body propels her forward, the ocean challenges her strength and yet her mind is without resolution. Does Edna make the conscious decision to die? Is her death a reclamation of her body or is she simply giving up?Chopin’s ending is both fitting and shocking as it demands thought from the reader. It refuses to supply a simple answer. Whether Edna has surrendered or succeeded, died accidentally or through her own decision, is left for the reader to decide. Neither idea can be proven, yet interpretation is encouraged if not necessary. The reader’s mind hungers for conclusion; however, one is not supplied. One can imagine responses to alternate conclusions less effective at producing thought. In the event that Edna thinks “That’s it! I cannot go on, I will never have the freedom I choice to possess, I must end my life” the reader thinks, “how sad! I feel sorry for a person who is so dissatisfied they must end their life.” In the event that the novel ends with Edna thinking “I am desperate and the only way to claim my life is to take it” the reader thinks “hmm, it’s sad that Edna could not find happiness in life but she has made a decision that is a victory to her.” The last scenario one could imagine is that Edna, aimlessly swimming, realizes “I’m too far from the shore, I feel tired, and the sea is too powerful. Help!” In which case the reader thinks “Somebody help her! Why did you swim so far? Didn’t you learn your lesson from the last time?” However, Chopin fails to adopt any of these conclusions. The reader’s response to these endings would seem contained and brief. Chopin’s real ending, however, produces other feelings. “Why?” asks the reader. “Was it intentional?” A search for answers must occur. Chapters are reread and Edna’s thoughts and statements are reviewed. Finally the reader comes to a conclusion that can not be proven. This conclusion cannot be a definitive conclusion but rather a subjective conclusion in that the thoughts of the reader influence the novel by giving more or less weight to evidences pointing towards Edna’s intentions. A subjective interpretation is necessary. This interpretation is important in that the reader is challenged to take into consideration the evidences the novel provides and interpret them to draw a conclusion. This personal interpretation allows the reader to justify the ending in relation to both the rest of the novel and their own feelings toward Edna and the situation. If the reader feels that Edna has committed suicide, they must feel that she had no way out. It is more difficult to criticize a character and their actions when you have deduced their actions instead of the author giving them. For closure in this novel, the reader must ask what Edna would be likely to do and to a lesser extent and perhaps subconsciously, what they would do. The inconclusive ending has a way of drawing the reader in while stimulating identification and thought on larger issues. When a reader is asked to draw his or her own conclusions it is less likely for the character to face criticism and condemnation in the eyes of the reader and more likely that reader is able to identify with the character.Identification with a character is important, especially for a character readily condemned by the standards of her society. Chopin acknowledges the “mother women” who represented what Edna, as a wife and mother, was supposed to be. Chopin says of these mother women , “They were women who idolized their children, worshipped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels” (Chopin, 9). Indeed, society expected books to be about such women; the portrayal of an adulterous woman who refuses to let her husband and children “possess her, body and soul” was a moral abomination. Chopin does her best to let us see who Edna really is, and who she can be as she comes to realize the “blind contentment” that is the existence of the mother women. Chopin also allows society’s perspective into the novel through the thoughts and actions of males in the novel, especially Lonce and Doctor Mandelet. As Lonce finds Edna’s independent behavior disturbing, he makes an important trip to the family doctor. Not surprisingly for the time period, Lonce and the doctor see Edna’s actions as a result of a individual psychological problem rather than a social issue. Lonce tells the doctor “I don’t know what ails her” I tell you she’s peculiar. I don’t like it; I feel a little worried over it” (Chopin, 63). Although doctor Mandelet insists that “women are not all alike” , Lonce goes on to tell him what he believes are egregious symptoms that set her apart from all other women (Chopin, 63). In Lonce’s eyes Edna seems on the verge of being mentally ill. To his nineteenth century male mind Edna’s actions can mean nothing other than illness. Through Lonce Chopin seems to acknowledge her reader’s response and popular nineteenth century female stereotypes, and ideas on mental illness and suicide in the female sex. Edna’s perspective through the novel seems to discredit these ideas as does Chopin’s conclusion technique.Chopin’s lack of definitive closure fails to provide the best reaffirming outlet for dominant theories about female mental illness and suicide. Modern nineteenth century thought on such issues assumed that “traditional familial values were the best protection against self-destruction” (Treu). In this century suicide was a growing phenomenon. Attributed to the competitive economic environment and the growth of the capitalist economy suicide was found to be three times as likely in men, whose sphere, the world of commerce and economics, was in. Reinforced by stories of men who were driven to self-destruction after financial ruin and business crises, male suicide became a societal problem. Society put men at risk for this phenomenon. Women, however, were different. Their position outside of the social sphere and position rather in the home environment was felt to have inoculated them against this danger. Women were “more sedentary and followed more regular practices,” they were also “more religious and more resigned to life” (True 1). However, suicide in women, although not as common, did occur. It was just not thought a problem with society. “Suicide among women was portrayed as an individual emotional act and, thus inconsequential, while male suicide was seen as a barometer of national economic and social well-being” (2). Female suicide was thought only to occur when women deviated from their traditional role and “left the security of their families.” (True 2) This decision was often attributed to mental illness and ended in suicide. If Edna were to follow this nineteenth century logic she would end her life with a definitive suicide. However, Chopin’s conclusion for the novel is limited. Edna cannot succeed by getting what she wants in her society. Her problem is diagnosed and yet there can be no solution and no conclusion. If Edna were to definitively kill herself she would seemingly fit the female suicide model akin to nineteenth century society. Her death, not left open for interpretation, would invite a preponderance of societal attributions. Edna’s death would serve to reinforce these perceptions as did novels like Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, and The House of Mirth. An attempt to show the hopelessness of Edna’s situation is easily turned into fodder for these ideals. Chopin’s ending lets us see Edna’s death as something between accident and suicide, defeat and victory. One cannot decide that it is a defeating suicide without acknowledging the possibilities of accident and victory. Chopin’s ending requires a deeper thought.
Characters win the reader’s attention through common grounds of understanding, situation, or personality. Playing the major role, protagonists possess distinguishing characteristics of a complex character. In The Awakening, Kate Chopin develops the protagonist’s appearance through direct and dramatic description, her personality through her reactions, and her role through the relationship with the theme.The first physical description of Edna Pontellier occurs when her husband’s comments of her sunburn cause her to look at her “strong, shapely” hands (7). Only after lifting her lawn sleeves above the wrist does she remember the rings that she removed, of which one is her wedding ring. Her “quick and bright” eyes closely match her thick, wavy, yellowish brown hair (9). Gazing intently at an object, she often loses herself in an “inward maze of contemplation” (9). Unlike the “faultless Madonna,” Madame Ratignolle, Edna’s physique leans towards the gentle beauty of “poise and movement” (27). Intertwining the physical appearance of the twenty-eight year old protagonist with the development of her personality, Chopin further establishes the role of the character.Interactions with other characters reveal unique tendencies of Mrs. Pontellier’s personality. The first conflict the reader witnesses between Mrs. Pontellier and her husband presents a sharp disparity with her infatuation with Robert. Her “little interest” in the worries of her husband and disregard for his conversation allows the reader a glimpse of her disloyal heart, married to her husband yet captivated by another man (12). “Tacit and self-understood,” her devotion to her husband contrasts with the faithful women who adore their husbands (14). When her husband informs her that their son burns with fever, Mrs. Pontellier nonchalantly retorts that she is “quite sure” Raoul suffers from no ailment (13). Her failure to see the “use of anticipating” causes her to defer until the “last minute” to prepare for supper (39). Gathering her children “passionately” yet sometimes forgetting them, Edna’s paradoxical nature attempts to embrace both love and negligence. Her whimsical temper causes her to undress, start to dress, and “change her mind” again (73).The essence of Mrs. Pontellier’s personality enhances the theme that freedom of choice does not nullify responsibility. As she begins to do and feel “as she likes,” she completely denies her marital and maternal duties (95). Learning to swim in the ocean gives her an exaggerated feeling of power over the working of her “body and her soul,” causing her to grow “daring and reckless” (47). She deliberately neglects her children and ignores her husband, yet refuses to face the inevitable repercussion. Her distorted view of her newfound freedom causes her to see the past as an ineffectual instructor that offers “no lesson” she will heed (76). Perhaps if she had attempted to “penetrate” the future and stopped using tomorrow to “think of everything,” she would have foreseen the termination of her relationship with Robert before forsaking her family (185).Kate Chopin introduces Mrs. Pontellier to the reader’s sense of sight through detailed descriptions of her figure. Direct characterization of the narrator incorporated with the dramatic presentation of actions reveals the personality of Edna’s character. Her naive concept of her freedom to create an identity that excludes duty leads to her tragic end.
Creating a social sensation when it was introduced in 1899, The Awakening was labeled one of the first feminist novels as it fell into tone with the rapidly rising group of young women who demanded political and social equality. The reader witnesses Edna Pontellier’s transformation from a caged beautiful parrot to a disabled bird that flies freely. The avian symbolism in the novel is apparent as the readers mark her tribulations from one bird to the next as she forges an unheard-of path in her upper-class world but eventually finds that she is unable to survive in this new environment of feminist individualism.The novel is introduced with the image of a colorful parrot squawking words of rage. Two translations of its dialogue are “Go away! Go away! For goodness sake!” and “Get out! Get out! Goddammit!” Either phrase conveys an unpleasant environment, as a parrot traditionally repeats overhear words spoken by humans. To set a tone for the story, the parrot, though beautiful and well taken care of, isn’t free and is unhappy. Its position resembles that of all women in the male-dominated world at the turn of the twentieth century. More specifically, however, the bird represents Edna and the lack of true attention that she receives from her husband Leonce (Bookwolf 1). She is discontented in her marriage, though no outward activity can presuppose this, as her husband provides her with ample money and sends her many gifts. Although he is very devoted, he provides no passion in the marriage as he expects her to assume the typical role as a wife of a wealthy New Orleans businessman. Edna’s spirit is too wild and free to succumb to a life of subservience, and she will soon learn that she would rather forsake the many social benefits that she enjoys for a life of liberty.Accompanying the parrot in a separate cage is a homely mockingbird whose song is much more beautiful but whose appearance is dull and plain in comparison with the parrot. This mockingbird represents Edna’s friend and advisor, Mademoiselle Reisz, a dowdy old spinster whose awkward social skills and gruff mannerisms leave her virtually friendless. Her extraordinary music, like the mockingbird, impresses all, however, and Edna is mysteriously drawn to her piano-playing as they form an understood kinship. Though Edna is flocked by friends, Mlle. Reisz is the only one to recognize Edna’s desire to break free the parrot “could speak a little Spanish, and also a language which nobody understood, unless it was the mocking-bird that hung on the other side of the door, whistling his fluty notes out upon the breeze with maddening persistence” (Chopin 468). The parrot, like Edna, is well-accomplished, though its own language could only be interpreted by the mockingbird that is recognized solely for its musical skill.Leonce’s reaction to the birds’ songs drives him inside, as he is obviously upset and disgusted by their commotion. The contemporary man of this time would likely be appalled by a woman who considered herself equal to him, voicing her own opinions and neglecting the immediate desires of a man. Radical views such as these were not only thought to be unchristian, but were so socially unacceptable as to endanger the family’s business. His leaving the porch also represents a man’s ability to discard women whenever they ceased to be entertaining, implying that women served the sole purpose of being seen and not heard (Fleischman 1).A few weeks later, Edna and Mlle. Reisz have come together at a social gathering on the beach. The atmosphere is full of typical happiness: children playing, people enjoying delectable treats, and adults dancing. Although Edna seems to be enjoying herself, she is in the presence of all that she inwardly despises: the conventional society from which she longs to break free. The parrot is again present and squawks the same disapproval that was expressed in the first lines of the novel. During a recital by the Farival twins, two girls who represent perfect children as they are dressed in blue and white to represent holiness, the parrot “was the only being present who possessed sufficient candor to admit that he was not listening to these gracious performances for the first time that summer.” (Chopin 485) Its “venom of nature” was released as it interrupted the supposedly lovely act of the twins. Although she has yet to admit it, Edna despises their duet as well, as it stands for everything in her life that rejects her character. These sentiments are later echoed by Mlle. Reisz who, when asked about her summer replies that it was “rather pleasant, if it hadn’t been for the mosquitoes and the Farival twins” (Chopin 506).Later that evening, Mlle. Reisz plays for the audience, and during her performance, Edna finds herself in a daze as she is transported to another place on the wings of Mlle. Reisz’s notes. One certain piece, entitled Solitude,’ conjured another image of a bird in which we can assume Edna’s position represents. “It was a short, plaintive, minor strain. When she heard it there came before her imagination the figure of a man standing beside a desolate rock on the seashore. He was naked. His attitude was one of hopeless resignation as he looked toward a distant bird winging its flight away from him” (Chopin 487). She is one of very few women of her time that believes in her own rights, hence the title of the piece and the solo flight of the bird. However, she has finally realized that she can’t survive her present lifestyle as devoted wife and mother. Like the bird, she must fly away from the strains of society and her family, represented by the man standing on the shore who is looking desperately towards her flight. The bird is strong and not looking back: Edna has taken her first step to freedom. It is on this night that she first admits to herself her passions for her friend Robert and the first time that she denies the demands of her husband.Upon her return to New Orleans, Edna is once again entrenched by the strains of society and motherhood, and she gradually denies them all. Firstly, she is unavailable to receive callers because she is out, evoking much rebuke from her husband. The last straw is pulled when she moves from her elaborate mansion to a more modest dwelling. She has not forgotten her understanding companion, Mlle. Reisz, who supports her lover for Robert, and she frequently makes trips to see the elderly lady. It is during one of these visits that Mlle. Reisz feels Edna’s shoulder blades to see if her wings were strong’, saying “The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth” (Chopin 533) Mlle. Reisz seems to be the only one who truly knows Edna, realizing that she will attempt flight by leaving the conforms of society. Although Mlle. Reisz warns her of failure, she continues to provide advice, encouragement, and an ideal model as one who can survive without being a successful wife and devoted mother. (Smollett 2)As she moves to her smaller, more comfortable house around the corner, Edna appropriately names it the pigeon house.’ Here, she is free to act in a manner improper to a woman of her social standing as she has denied the wishes of her husband and keeps company with a younger suitor. Her new abode reflects her desire to reject convention and settle in to a lifestyle all her own. During her time spent dedicated to her new house, a romance is kindling with an acquaintance, Alcee Arobin. Based solely on lust rather than love, their time spent together is yet another rejection of the social ideal. Upon close inspection of his name, Arobin is pronounced slowly as a- robin, a bird known for its free flight and ability to live in close proximity to humans. “Arobin matches this description, for he, as his name implies, flies freely through society and as his reputation suggests becomes close with many women Clearly he disregards the restrictions and “rules” that society has set up. Edna admires his ability to live carelessly, as Arobin obviously enjoys himself and succeeds socially. Their relationship is one of mutual pleasure, thrown in the face of the upper class. He sees her company as the conquest of a married woman while she longs pursuits him in her quest for adventure, a kindred spirit, and free wings.When her true love, Robert, presents himself and confesses his mutual affections for her, she realizes that she is unable to survive without him. In the real world, however, she could never live freely with Robert, and she resorts to tragedy to end her sorrows. She takes to the sea, where her desperation first became alive that summer, and commits suicide by drowning. As she wades in, she catches sight of a bird with a broken wing, unable to fly and falling down to the ocean. Its descent represents Edna’s inability to survive the social mores with her desire to live an independent life. The scene mirrors that which was invoked when Mlle. Reisz played the piano. This time, however, the bird has failed, and its flight, though begun so magnificently, is doomed. Edna, standing naked on the shore just as the man was, can now admit to this and realizes her defeat. Her miserable end can also be seen as freedom, as an awakening. She has finally broken from her family and her upper-class New Orleans lifestyle, and can now fly freely (Dyer 131).Another bird that makes an appearance twice throughout the novel is an owl that marks two stages of Edna’s progress in her awakening. In the third chapter, the reader sees the first mental breaking of Edna as she mourns her situation, crying to herself after her husband has reprimanded her for being a neglectful mother. “There was no sound abroad except the hooting of an old owl in the top of a water-oak It broke like a mournful lullaby upon the night.” (Chopin 471) Representing wisdom, the owl seems to lament her sorrowful situation as Edna has yet to understand the actions necessary for happiness. When she has eventually given into her desires, admitting feelings for Robert and swimming for the first time, the reader notices the changes in Edna’s mannerisms. She is carefree as she drops all pretension and finally submits to her own desires. Edna has come into her own, and she no longer needs sympathy as signified in Chapter 39 when “The old owl no longer hooted” (Chopin 492).Her life seemed to be perfectly in order, but a closer look only revealed the worst. Edna Pontellier could never be satisfied with convention, with following the rules, and with doing what was socially right. But in the end, her wings could not support her flight of freedom. Whether her will was not strong enough or a bird of her spirit could never survive on Earth is up to the reader’s interpretation. But her happiness depended on her awakening. In order to have flown, she had to be free.Works CitedChopin, Kate. “The Awakening.” Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Bayn et al. 5th Ed. Vol. 2 New York: 457-558.Dyer, Joyce. “Symbolism and Imagery in the Awakening.” Approaches to Teaching Chopin’s The Awakening. Ed. Bernard Koloski. 1988. 126-131.Fleischman, Tom. “Essay on the Awakening.” Nov. 2000. Grand Valley State University.
Much controversy surrounds the ending of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and for good reason; the novel can be used to support two completely opposing views. On one hand the suicide of Edna Pontellier can be seen as the ultimate culmination of Edna’s awakening as she comes to see both herself and her place in reality and begins to fully and ultimately control her own destiny rather than giving up what she has gained. Conversely, Edna’s end can be seen as a most terrible failure that mocks not only her own awakening, but also the message that Kate Chopin intends to relate. Multiple passages and ideas from the novel can be used to support each view and in some cases, depending on interpretation, both.It is easy for readers to dismiss Edna’s suicide as a failure, because frankly it’s unpleasant. People instinctively shy away from death, and the strength and growth that Edna shows through the course of the novel make her death sting all the worse while at the same time making it feel wrong. The last chapter, in which Edna actually drowns herself, contains a good deal of evidence in support of the negative view of Edna’s death. Early on, she reveals the core of her failure; she has shed off the entire world she had lived in, but is unable to define a world into which she can enter. First, she tells of discarding the men in her life. “‘Today it is Arobin; tomorrow it will be someone else. It makes no difference to me, it doesn’t matter about Leonce Pontellier…'” she says as she realizes “There was no human being whom she wanted near her except Robert; and she realized that the day would come when he, too, and the thought of him would melt out of her existence, leaving her alone.(pg. 188-189) She then explains away her children as “antagonists” who sought to enslave her soul, “But,” she confides, “she knew a way to elude them.”(pg. 189) She finally escapes the mental enslavement by men and her children that society had attempted to force upon her, but she was unprepared to suddenly shed everything in her world, for she had nowhere to go and became depressed for “there was no one thing in the world she desired.”(pg. 198) Edna’s failure can be seen as battling forward without looking where she was headed and thus ending up in limbo. There are several instances in the final chapter where Edna herself supports the view of herself as a failure. As she walks onto the beach she claims that there is no living thing to be seen, but in the very next sentence she describes a bird with a broken wing falling into the sea. In the novel birds are frequently symbols for women and Edna in particular. Viewing the bird with a broken wing as Edna, we see that although the bird flies free, it is too injured to continue on and so dies in the sea. The fact that Edna claims that no living thing can be seen may imply that she views herself as already symbolically “dead” due to her failure and her swim merely completes the process, as does the bird’s dive into the sea. The image of the sea as seductive further lends credence to this idea as it provides a final escape from the struggle and despondency she cannot overcome. The sea also is described as “coiled like serpents”, which are a classic symbol of seductive evil.(pg. 189) Perhaps Edna’s clearest admission of failure is her thought of Mademoiselle Reisz sneering at her act of suicide, “And you call yourself an artist! What pretensions, Madame! The artist must possess the courageous soul that dares and defies.”(pg. 190) This last imagining clearly shows that Edna knew she had failed, knew she was lacking. She then goes on to admit that there lay in Doctor Mandelet the possibility of understanding, of not being alone. However, in her hurry to escape a reality she was unequipped to deal with she had not even grasped at the chance. Perhaps Chopin meant to emphasize the hostility of the Victorian world to feminist ideals, but ultimately she emphasized more a womanly weakness, something surely unintended in what is otherwise a clearly feminist novel. Edna fights through obstacles both internal and external to grow in independence and self-awareness; she lives on her own, excels in her expression through painting, dissolves her responsibility to children and husband, and then suddenly it is as if Robert’s inability to fit her newly uncovered demands drains all the strength from her. This progression to Edna’s ultimate failure in death undermines the message that Chopin spends most of her novel setting up.With a little thought and perspective on Edna’s struggle one can move beyond the simple “death is bad” mentality and see Edna’s death for what it truly is, a symbol for the completeness of Edna’s awakening and ultimately a conscious defiance of the forces that would try to keep her entrapped. Again, the final chapter, as it deals with Edna’s final thoughts, gives us the most insight into her end. As previously noted Edna had overcome obstacles like Arobin, Leonce, her children, and with a push Robert. Her sadness rose not from anything lacking in herself, but from the realization that her awakened self could not exist long in the still closed-minded Victorian world, especially alone. This is illustrated by the final freedom of the bird with the broken wing that represents Edna. The bird is able to fly uncaged, but is still restrained by a hostile world that injures it, and rather than limp about, free but unable to soar, it plunges into the sea. Both main female figures in the novel, Mademoiselle Reisz and Madame Ratignolle, are presented as unfit role models for Edna, and with the option of living an awakened life with Robert abruptly closed off, she is left with only one option that will solve all her problems and fulfill her needs. Edna is unwilling to compromise in any way the free and independent self she has developed; she realizes that to continue on she would have to do just that. When Edna steps out of her bathing suit to stand bare before nature she reaches the end of her journey toward self-actualization, for she has finally become the most she can be. To turn back, put on clothes, settle in a relationship married or otherwise, or to be chained by societal pressures to her children, would be a regression, and one unacceptable to Edna. Thus, Edna takes firm control of her destiny and leaves behind a world that cannot further her. The sea is described as sensuous, inviting, even loving, and provides a fit medium for the continuation of Edna’s journey beyond life. Viewed in this way Edna’s suicide is not a failure, but any other choice available would be.No matter which argument one is in favor of, it is easy to see that the novel supports both views to some extent. Whether Edna’s suicide was a failure on her part or her greatest success depends both on the reader’s own feelings, and on the interpretation of the evidence presented by the novel, which is easily influenced by the first. Do these opposing, but equally supported claims lessen the meaning of the book or destroy it entirely? We can leave that question to the deconstructionists.
Leonce Pontellier, the husband of Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, becomes very perturbed when his wife, in the period of a few months, suddenly drops all of her responsibilities. After she admits that she has “let things go,” he angrily asks, “on account of what?” Edna is unable to provide a definite answer, and says, “Oh! I don’t know. Let me along; you bother me” (108). The uncertainty she expresses springs out of the ambiguous nature of the transformation she has undergone. It is easy to read Edna’s transformation in strictly negative termsas a move away from the repressive expectations of her husband and societyor in strictly positive termsas a move toward the love and sensuality she finds at the summer beach resort of Grand Isle. While both of these moves exist in Edna’s story, to focus on one aspect closes the reader off to the ambiguity that seems at the very center of Edna’s awakening. Edna cannot define the nature of her awakening to her husband because it is not a single edged discovery; she comes to understand both what is not in her current situation and what is another situation. Furthermore, the sensuality that she has been awakened to is itself not merely the male or female sexuality she has been accustomed to before, but rather the sensuality that comes in the fusion of male and female. The most prominent symbol of the bookthe ocean that she finally gives herself up toembodies not one aspect of her awakening, but rather the multitude of contradictory meanings that she discovers. Only once the ambiguity of this central symbol is understood can we read the ending of the novel as a culmination and extension of the themes in the novel, and the novel regains a coherence missing in a single edged interpretation of Edna’s awakening. A number of feminist critics focus on the entrapment Edna feels in her marital situation. Edna realizes that “she had all her life long been accustomed to harbor thoughts and emotions which never voiced themselves. They had never taken the form of struggles” (96). In the novel the struggle begins and it is against the demands of her husband and children. As she walks into the ocean at the end of the novel to escape her life she thinks, “they need not have thought that they could possess her, body and soul” (176). Emily Toth claims, “an escape from confinement is the overriding theme of The Awakening” (242). The primary means for this emotional confinement is the societal expectation, held over from the early Republican era of America, that “‘the best way of a married woman to carry her points is to yield sometimes.'” Jan Lewis says that in early America “it was the wife who had to bend” (712). This remained true at the middle of the century when William Alcott declared “the balance of concession devolves on the wife. Whether the husband concede or not, she must” (32). Edna comes to understand that earlier in her life she followed this dictate without even thinking; she conceded in all cases, “not with any sense of submission or obedience to his compelling wishes, but unthinkingly, as we walk, move, sit, stand or go through the daily treadmill of the life which has been portioned out to us” (78). But she now realizes that this pattern was a mere treadmill whose path was always determined by someone else. The female treadmill of late 19th century bourgeois culture is shaped by more than mere expectation of submission. One of the main aspects of 19th century American marriage, according to Hendrick Hartog, was coverture, whereby a woman’s public identity was altered by her marriage: “coverture gave wives not an absence of identity but, rather, a particular recognized identity, one that sometime gave them certain privileges” (127). Edna finds these privileges in the thoughtful packages, jewelry, and furniture that her husband sends home. But these gifts come at the cost of an expected identity to which Edna must subscribe. This identity has its attendant duties that are explicated in Thorstein Veblen’s description of the leisure class in the late 19th century. In the leisure class, such as the Creole culture Edna lives in, conspicuous leisure and consumption are necessary gauges of a family’s success, and the “duties of vicarious leisure and consumption devolve upon the wife alone” (81). Edna realizes and rejects her participation in this system when she abandons her reception day on Tuesday afternoonan emblem of prominently practiced leisurewith a vengeance. Her husband confirms that these hours are not important in themselves, but rather as part of the economic framework of the New Orleans society. He angrily tells her, “we’ve got to observe les convenances if we ever expect to get on and keep up with the procession” (101). Edna realizes at some point that the institution of marital expectations is itself inviolable. It is like the diamond in her wedding ring which she stamped upon violently, only to find that “her small boot heel did not make an indenture, not a mark upon the little glittering circlet” (103). The institution is an adornment carefully cut by someone other than the wearer, an adornment that has little value except pride for the wearer. She understands that stamping upon the ring was a “futile expedient” (109) that accomplished nothing. Rather than trying to dent the system, she removes herself from it. As Edna rejects her position within this system the narrator says, “she was becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self” (108). For Edna, this fictitious self does not spring from the specific conditions of her relationship, but rather from the logos of the leisure class. She visits Madame Ratignolle and sees the “domestic harmony” that reigns in their household through a earnest and happy involvement of both husband and wife in the relationship. But even in this scene of conjugal bliss Edna sees an “appalling and hopeless ennui” (107). Edna has made an “escape from confinement” as Toth explained, and because she rejects not just the specific, but the general condition of her confinement, Edna becomes a model of feminine liberation. Missing from the discussion so far is any mention of the conditions that engender this awareness of confinement. This is because any discussion that focuses on confinement only considers the negative aspect of Edna’s quest. In becoming herself Edna does not merely shed old layers, she also discovers new, or at least previously repressed layers. As she contemplates abandoning her old world she says, “the fruit vender, the flowers growing there under eyes, were all part and parcel of an alien world which had suddenly become antagonistic.” This antagonism, it is suggested a few moments later, comes because “she was thinking of Robert. She was still under the spell of her infatuation . . . the thought of him was like an obsession, ever pressing itself upon her” (104). The presence of Robert is the emblem of the positive thing toward which she is movingan awakening of her sensual side. And the presence of Robert immediately throws into confusion the true nature of Edna’s rebellion against her confinement. The narrator says that the absence of the beloved makes even flowers seem antagonistic. The use of the blameless flower here directs the reader to interpret all of Edna’s antagonism, not as stemming from anything inherent in the antagonistic object, person, of system itself, but rather in Edna’s subjective understanding of them while under the sway of her obsession. At this moment we are delicately directed to see Edna’s rebellion as a mere manifestation of her sexual obsession. This understanding of Edna, Priscilla Allen claims, fills the male written criticism about Edna Pontellier: “Eros rules allon this there is general agreement among modern critics” (226). This reading of Edna evinces the way “as female she must be dehumanized. It is universal in our culture that she be designed solely to fit biologic functions, to be sex-partner [if she is not to be] mother” (229). With Allen’s direction we might see that this depreciation of Edna’s rebellion is too simplistic, not the least of all, because Edna says that she has always had an antagonism towards certain treatment she received at the hands of her husband (as she did not always have an antagonism toward flowers). After one scene where her husband abandons her to take care of the matters in the house we learn that “she was somewhat familiar with such scenes. They had often made her very unhappy” (102). Edna does not create the problems she finds in her marriage and motherhood. She says that she has always had the “inward life which questions,” and now she is simply giving that life an outward voice (57). But we cannot say that her love for Robert is irrelevant in drawing this voice out. As we come to understand Edna’s awakening, then, Chopin does not direct us to read her awakening as purely an outgrowth of her oppressive conditions, or purely a result of the positive element she finds in Robertinstead ambiguity is prominent as we begin to consider Edna’s quest. But to define the positive elementthe sensuality heretofore ascribed to Robertas strictly an element of her relationship with Robert, is again a simplification of matters. The core elements of Edna’s movement toward awareness are pointed to in the structure of the first five chaptersand in these chapters both the ambiguity of the positive/negative nature of Edna’s awakening we have pointed out, and the ambiguity of the sensual awakening she has is underscored. The first chapter of the book is the only one in the novel where Mr. Pontellier is the narrative focalizer. The world is seen through his economic eyes, wherein Sunday is the day there are no market reports due to the lack of newspaper. Mr. Pontellier’s eyes immediately turn to Edna, and we see Edna and her adventures from his view; her laughing is explained as “some utter nonsense; some adventure out there in the water” (45). Edna is understood as a narrative product of her husband, and this commodification of Edna is made explicit when Mr. Pontellier is said to look at “his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property” (44). This commodification of the wife is what Veblen speaks of when explaining the vicarious acts of leisure consumption that devolve to the woman. The first chapter presents this male view of Edna because this is the framework in which both she and others have understood her up to this point. At a later point we learn that she had always possessed some inward questioning, but even she admits that before her transformation, “she had never realized the reserve of her own character” (61). This first chapter narratively represents Edna’s pre-transformed position, as a vicarious actor for her husbandsomething that he can view and enjoy and use to his economic benefit. By the fifth chapter the transformation has begun, as the narrator says that Edna was becoming aware of “a certain light that was beginning to dawn dimly within herthe light, which, showing the way, forbids it” (57). There is something new that is powerful, and off limits to the male view. The source and cause of this light is not singularly defined as the three chapters that separate the opening, male-centered view of Edna, and the new inward view of Edna, do not discuss one, but three separate interactions. In the second chapter Edna converses with Robert, and enjoys his company. No sudden desire springs up in Edna, but we are first made aware of his presence as more frequent and pleasurable than that of Edna’s husband. In the third chapter, she suddenly becomes annoyed with her husband when he demands that she check the health of their son. By her own admission she suddenly becomes bothered by demands that had not bothered her before: “they never seemed before to have weighed much” (49). These two themes have already been discussed for the role they play in Edna’s transformation, but in the fourth chapter a new element is introduced when we are introduced to Adele Ratignolle. In her description she is described in overtly sensual terms, as no other character is in their initial introduction: “one would not have wanted her white neck a mite less full or her beautiful arms more slender. Never were hands more exquisite than hers” (51). A few moments later this relationship enters the more overtly sensual realm when Adele takes the liberty of laying “her hand over that of Mrs. Pontellier, which was near her. Seeing that the hand was not withdrawn she clasped it firmly and warmly. She even stroked it a little, fondly.” In this moment Edna comes into contact with a feminine sensuality she was not used to: “the action was at first a little confusing to Edna, but she soon lent herself readily to the Creole’s gentle caress” (61). This feminine sensuality cut off from any male presence continues through the book in her interaction with Adele and with Mademoiselle Reisz, in whose piano playing “the very passions themselves were aroused within her soul, swaying it, lashing it, as the waves daily beat upon her splendid body” (72). This presence of feminine sexuality makes it difficult to say that Edna’s sexual awakening is merely a result of Robert.Something happens in these intermediate chapters that brings Edna, for the first time, to feel a light “beginning to dawn dimly within her.” For the first time she hears the “voice of the sea” which speaks to her soul of it’s touch, a touch that is “sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace” (57). This foreshadows the most evident awakening that comes a few days later, when Edna suddenly finds within herself the ability to swim, “and intoxicated with her newly conquered power, she swam out alone” (73). Barbara Solomon says that at this moment Edna finds a new life, and “the waters had awakened it” (xxvi). But it’s vital to see that the water is not the source of her awakening. She first becomes aware of the water’s symbolic sensual power only after she has had the light awakened in her by the elements expressed in the first four chapters. When Edna does take her epic swim, during which she determines “to swim far out, where no woman had swum before” (73), it is tempting to understand it purely as a result of the sensual awakening provided by Mademoiselle Reisz’s piano playing that occurred immediately before the group headed to the beach. We are even encouraged to do so by the description of Edna’s response to the playing, which includes a reference to sense of waves beating “upon her splendid body.” But there are two other vital elements that condition this swim. One is the fact that Robert “proposed” the late night swim, and then “directed” the crowd to the ocean. It is on the walk to the sea that Edna feels the first longing for Robert, as “she wondered why he did not join [her]” on the walk down” (72). The second is that in this swim, she swims away from the shore, where her husband stands.The water then is not the awakening agent, and furthermore, it cannot be read as the symbolic outgrowth of merely one of Edna’s multiple realizations: the self pleasure she finds in Mademoiselle Reisz’s piano playing, or the gratification she finds in time with Robert, or the defiance she is developing toward her husband. Instead the sea becomes the ideal symbol for the ambiguous confluence of these factors. The ocean is both forceful and receptive, thereby embodying the dominant traditional notions of both male and female sexuality. The symbolic power of the ocean is elucidated by the other dominant symbol that is omnipresent during this early awakening: the young lovers. They can be referred to as a single symbol because they are never distinguished as individuals, or even as male and female. Their description as “the young lovers” suggests that they be read as a fusion of the sexes. And attendant to the young lovers is always the “lady in black,” who spends her existence fingering her rosary beads or praying. Her constant proximity to the fusion of sexuality represent the figure of orthodox theology that is attendant in every such situation, not letting the couple ever fuse too intimately. She is a parallel manifestation to the church on Cheniere Caminada, which immediately causes in Edna “a feeling of oppression and drowsiness” (82). The woman represents the traditional societal strictures that both the lovers, and Edna, in her own fused sexual discover, seem to be perpetually fleeing. Her awareness of the ocean as both a force of life and death during her first swim represents a symbolic awakening to the confluence of repression and sexuality, and of both feminine and masculine sexuality. Immediately afterward Edna breathlessly says, “a thousand emotions have swept through me to-night. I don’t comprehend half of them” (75). This should not merely be read as her response to the swim, it should be read as her response to the transformation she has undergone in the preceding days. A few moments later, when the narrator describes her new condition there is a similar effort at ambiguity: “she was seeing with different eyes and making the acquaintance of new conditions in herself that colored and changed her environment” (88). The narrator carefully avoids attaching these new eyes to any specific conditions. The image of the ocean and the lovers stands as the most powerful directive from Chopin to avoid understanding the awakening of the title, that is embodied in the swim, as an awakening into a single aspect of freedom or oppression, but rather as an awakening into the multitude. Describing both Edna’s first contact with the sea, and the first light that dawns within her, the narrator explains that, “the beginning of things, of a world especially, is necessarily vague, tangled, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing” (57). After her swim Edna enters into a struggle with each of the issues apparent before her swim. As has already been discussed, she begins to reject her duties to her husband and children and instead spends time in her atelier practicing her drawing. She moves out of the house in which she was merely a piece of furniture, and establishes an independent home. At the beginning of the novel, Madame Ratignolle tells Robert that Edna is not sexually liberated like the other members of the society at Grand Isle, but by the end she is carrying on trysts with Alcee Arobin, and surrendering almost daily to the sensuality of Madame Reisz’s piano playing. But in each of these struggles she realizes a futility to her actions. She understands that, as Dr. Mandelet tells her husband, her rejection of her wifely duties is interpreted as a disease, that might even be hereditary (118). In addition, her quest for independence is impossible without reliance upon the funds of her husbandshe is acutely aware of the bills her husband will get for the dinner saying goodbye to her life with him. Her economic situation makes true independence impossible. Sexually, she discovers that, as Hartog explains, the “basic ideological task of the law of marriage” in the 19th century was “to make sure that the married and the nonmarried were clearly divided from one another” (94). This binary system allows for no true relationships in between, like the one she wants with Robert. It is because of the stark lines of marriage that Robert leaves her forever even though they both clearly love each other. The failure of both her sexual and intellectual quests for independence lead to her final, apparently suicidal swim.When we read the ocean as a symbol of the confluence of factors, rather than as a symbol of one of Edna’s discoveries, this ending gains a deeper coherence with the struggle that fills the rest of the novel. Essentially the final venture into the ocean capsulates and extends this struggle. It is vital that as she wades out she does not merely surrender, or collapse to the water. Instead she swims and struggles until her “exhaustion was pressing upon and overpower her” (176). She relies on her own power to carry her as far as she can, into the awakening she has found, and does not worry if where she ends up is the middle of the ocean, or a place of ambiguity beyond interpretation (where the reader seems to be). Edna does not surrender to the sea; she struggles as long as possible, and seems satisfied merely with the struggle. Works CitedAlcott, William. The Young Wife, or Duties of Woman in the Marriage Relation. Boston: George Light, 1837. Allen, Priscilla. “Old Critics and New: The Treatment of Chopin’s The Awakening.” In The Authority of Experience: Essays in Feminist Criticism, ed. Arlyn Diamond and Lee R. Edwards. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1977, 224-238.Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. London: Penguin, 1986.Hartog, Hendrick. Man and Wife in America. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2000.Lewis, Jan. “The Republican Wife: Virtue and Seduction in the Early Republic.” The William and Mary Quarterly. 44 (1987), 689-722.Sullivan, Barbara. “Introduction to The Awakening.” In The Awakening, ed. Barbara Sullivan. New York: Signet, 1976.Toth, Emily. “Kate Chopin’s The Awakening as Feminist Criticism.” Louisiana Studies, 15 (1976), 241-251.Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: Modern Library, 1899.
Society of the 19th Century gave a heightened meaning to what it means to be a woman. According to the commonly known “code of true womanhood,” women were supposed to be docile, domestic creatures, whose main concerns in life were to be the raising of their children and submissiveness to their husbands. Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wall-Paper capture, in their respective works, two women who have turned down these expected roles, and, consequently, suffer because of it. The husbands of these women, entirely because they stand to represent patriarchal society, are a great deal to blame for the “condition” of their wives. In an examination of these works, this essay will discuss the role played by the husbands, as well as what these female writers might be saying about men in general in their writing.The very first words Chopin ascribes to Leonce Pontellier point out his paternalistic view of his wife: “What folly! To bathe at such an hour in such heat!…You are burnt beyond recognition…” (Chopin, 44). Clearly, Edna Pontellier’s husbands looks at her as if she is his property. The reader comes to see Leonce as a fiercely conventional, respectable, and conservative man. However, he is by no means portrayed as a tyrant by Chopin: he is kind, lovable, but chiefly concerned with money and showing off that money. There are three scenes in the novel which show the oppressive nature of Leonce as well as the development of the enormous gulf between Edna and her husband. In the first scene, in the bedroom, after being scolded by Leonce about not being a good mother, Edna responds by crying. Later, on the porch, she responds with defiance, refusing to come in to sleep, according to her husband’s wishes. Finally, in New Orleans, after a fight with her husband, Edna violently throws off her ring, and reacts with rage. These scenes, as well as the journey into the sea at the end of the novel suggest that she has become awakened to the oppressive nature of her husband, and that of the institution of marriage in general.The Yellow Wall-Paper is also a story which shows the anatomy of an oppressive marriage. The narrator of the story encodes the rage that might be felt by a woman who is forced into idleness by the scripts of her husband and the medical establishment. Simply because the narrator does not cherish the joys of married life and motherhood, and therefore, is in violation of the rigid code of true womanhood, she is classified with a nervous condition, and sentenced to passivity. The narrator clearly feels a hostile rage against her husband, and the ending of the story confirms this deep-bedded anger. Under the cover story, the compliance of a woman to her husband, is the story of a heroine rebelling against the social constructs that deny her. The narrator is being silenced by her husband, and she is forced to be dependent on John for her every need. He treats her in a very paternalistic way, for example, when the narrator gets up to see if the wallpaper really does moves, John reacts by saying, “What is it, little girl?…Don’t go walking about like that-you’ll get cold” (Gilman, 23). The paternalistic manner in which the narrator is being treated only foreshadows her child-like state at the end of the short story: in a metaphor for the entrapment of bourgeoisie women, the narrator is reduced to crawling on all fours.In their work, Chopin and Perkins seem to be conveying a message about men that is very critical. They seem to be alluding that men see their wives as property, as dolls, or as an extension of themselves. By portraying the husbands as they do in their respective works, Chopin and Perkins are calling attention to the need in society to move away from the separate spheres, and a need to move closer to the equality of the sexes attained in the 20th century.
In her novel, The Awakening, Kate Chopin shows Edna Pontellier¹s confrontations with society, her imprisonment in marriage and Edna¹s exploration of her own sexuality. Chopin also portrays Edna as a rebel, who after her experiences at Grand Isle wants to live a full and a free life and not to follow the rules of society. Edna¹s life ends in her suicide, but her death does not come as a surprise. Chopin foreshadows Edna¹s death by the use of nature and Edna¹s connection to it; also by the use of symbols, especially the symbolic meaning of a bird; and by the use of many different characters in the novel, such as Robert Lebrun, Mademoiselle Reisz and Madame Ratignolle.Edna is a very romantic character, who turns to nature for comfort. She “seeks herself” in nature (508). But her surroundings are not comforting to her. She hears voices “from the darkness and the sky above and the stars” that are “not soothing”; the voices “jeered and sounded mournful notes without promise, devoid even of hope” (508). Edna wants to feel the embrace of nature upon her but instead she doesn¹t feel “uplifted” and hears a “mournful lullaby”(471). This gloomy presentation of nature foreshadows the future events in Edna¹s life. Kate Chopin uses the symbolic meaning of a bird to deepen the meaning of the story and to foreshadow the upcoming events. In “The Awakening” a bird symbolizes Edna Pontilier herself. In the beginning of the novel, Edna is the “green and yellow parrot” caged “outside the door”, saying, “Go away! Go away! For God¹s sake!”(467). Edna feels trapped in her marriage just like a bird in a cage and after she meets Robert she wants to “go away”. Edna, the bird, decides to flee her marriage and moves into the “pigeon-house”, where she feels “risen in the spiritual”(541). To change her life and escape the “tradition and prejudice” of her circle, Edna “must have strong wings”(533). Mademoiselle Reisz tells Edna that people are cruel and if Edna doesn¹t feel strong enough, she will be like a “weakling bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth”(533). This conversation foreshadows Edna¹s lack of strength and her death. As Edna takes her last swim, she sees the bird “with a broken wing”, falling “down to the water”(558). Edna feels weak; she “falls down” into the waters of Grand Isle.When Edna meets Robert Lebrun at Grand Isle, she experiences an awakening from her “life-long, stupid dream”, as she recalls her life (553). She is ready to give her heart to Robert, but he flees Grand Isle and Edna before he ruins his reputation as a “good Creole”. Robert knows that “the Creole husband is never jealous” about the harmless flirting and as a “good Creole”, Robert cannot go beyond these social boundaries (475). Robert follows the rules of his society; his departure foreshadows his future actions towards Edna. She returns to her “pigeon-house” and finds that Robert is “not waiting for her” and the house is “empty”(556). Robert is gone again. Edna remembers the warning of Mademoiselle Reisz about the cruelty of society. Edna is scared to face the cruelty alone. Edna feels that without Robert by her side she is helpless. Edna doesn¹t want anyone “near her except Robert”(557) but he cannot be a “good Creole” and be with Edna. Even if Robert would be with Edna, society will never allow them to be together and Edna¹s husband will never “set her free”(552). Edna also can¹t find her purpose because she is “not a mother-woman”(473) and she could not “give herself for her children”, like her friend Adele Ratignolle (505). Without Robert and a purpose in life, Edna chooses not to live. Edna¹s decision to end her life is the only way for her to escape reality.”The Awakening” has a tragic end, but it¹s the only possible end for Edna Pontellier. Edna feels trapped in the “cage” of society, it¹s rules and standards, and she can¹t find happiness if she follows the rules. She cannot be happy without Robert, but Robert cannot be with her. Edna feels like a trapped bird. She sets herself free, only to find that her wings are not strong enough. As Edna takes her last swim she feels like a happy child, running through the “blue-grass meadow” that has “no beginning and no end” (558). For Edna it¹s the beginning of her freedom from all.Works CitedChopin, Kate. “The Awakening”. The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition, Vol 2:W.W.Norton & Company Inc, 1998.
In Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, the sea symbolizes Edna’s freedom from oppression. Edna feels suffocated by conventional society and has no interest in being a devoted wife or mother. She feels trapped with Leonce and her children, but does not have the abilities required to start a new life as an independent artist. Edna ultimately faces choosing between staying with Leonce, in which she would remain miserable, or breaking free from her marriage but having nowhere to go. The sea, though intimidating to Edna at first, allows Edna to escape the pressures of society, and brings Edna her best option and desired solitude in death.
Throughout the novel, the sea calls to Edna, inviting her to escape. “The voice of the sea is seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander in abysses of solitude” (115). Edna wants to learn how to swim, and finally does so in Chapter X:
Edna had attempted all summer to learn to swim. She had received instructions from both the men and women; in some instances from the children. Robert had pursued a system of lessons almost daily; and he was nearly at the point of discouragement in realizing the futility of his efforts. A certain ungovernable dread hung about her when in the water unless there was a hand nearby that might reach out and reassure her. (27)
This paragraph is symbolic of Edna’s journey to discovering her own inner strength. Others around Edna hold certain expectations of her role in society, including Robert, who throughout the novel is in fact “nearly at the point of discouragement.” In this scene, swimming alone in the vast sea without someone to “reach out and reassure her” worries Edna. This indicates her current state of dependency and submissiveness. ” However, Edna becomes thrilled as she swims farther and farther into the sea: “A feeling of exultation overtook her, as if some power of significant import had been given her to control the working of her body and her soul….She wanted to swim out far, where no woman had swum before” (27). Here, Edna realizes her importance as a human and gets a taste of the independence she yearns for. “She turned her face seaward to gather in an expression of space and solitude…. As she swam, she seemed to be reaching out for the unlimited in which to lose herself” (28). The sea brings Edna the experience of a solitude she could “lose herself” in, which is very appealing to Edna as her character feels the need to get away from the pressures of her children, husband, and society. This thrill of being alone is soon interrupted by Edna’s fear of death: “A quick vision of death smote her soul, and for a second of time appalled and enfeebled her senses … She made no mention of her encounter with death and her flash of terror, except to say to her husband, ‘I thought I should have perished out there alone’” (28). Edna’s bliss while swimming alone suddenly turns to terror, indicating that she is not yet ready to be independent because she fears the consequences of breaking away from her old life. This scene foreshadows Edna’s death at the end of the novel. As she is swimming away from the shore, “She looked into the distance, and the old terror flamed up for an instant, then sank again.” (116) At this point, however, Edna is ready to be alone, and she overcomes the terror she felt while learning to swim by finally giving into the inviting sea.
While speaking to Madame Ratignolle, Edna recalls a childhood memory in which she wandered aimlessly through a field, comparing it to swimming through the ocean. “…of a summer day in Kentucky, of a meadow that seemed as big as the ocean to the very little girl walking through the grass, which was higher than her waist. She threw out her arms as if swimming when she walked, beating the tall grass as one strikes out in the water” (16). Edna recalls feeling strange, as if she could have walked through the field forever without it ending. “I don’t remember now. I was just walking diagonally across a big field. My sun-bonnet obstructed the view. I could see only the stretch of green before me, and I felt as if I must walk on forever, without coming to the end of it. I don’t remember whether I was frightened or pleased. I must have been entertained” (16). She remembers that she was in the field running away from the Sunday church service that she did not enjoy as a child. When Madame Ratignolle asks if Edna still finds herself running away from prayer, Edna defends herself, saying she is no longer impulsive.“ ‘No! oh, no!’ Edna hastened to say. ‘I was a little unthinking child in those days, just following a misleading impulse without question… sometimes I feel this summer as if I were walking through the green meadow again; idly, aimlessly, unthinking and unguided’”(16). However, Edna’s character is still as impulsive, whether she would like to admit it or not. She is conflicted by her impulses and undecided about whether or not to follow them. Running away from church symbolizes Edna’s need to escape from conventionalities such as marriage and motherhood. Her journey to finding her true self feels as unguided as her walk through a meadow which was as vast as the sea. This memory is mentioned again at her death. “She did not look back now, but went on and on, thinking of the blue-grass meadow that she had traversed when a little child, believe it had no beginning and no end” (116). Edna continues to swim without looking back, because unlike the aimlessness she felt in the meadow, she is now certain that the sea will guide her to freedom.
The sea gives Edna a feeling of rebirth. “How strange and awful it seemed to stand naked under the sky! How delicious! She felt like some new-born creature, opening its eyes in a familiar world that it had never known” (115). With Edna’s last swim, she is finally free of everything that had chained her down in the past, like marriage, her children, and her expected role in society. The sea allows her to be free of societal expectations and awakens Edna’s soul to the thrill of being independent and solitary.
Jane Tompkins writes on how nineteenth century domestic novels characterise ‘a monumental effort to reorganize culture from the woman’s point of view…in certain cases, it offers a critique of American society far more devastating than any delivered by better-known critics such as Hawthorne and Melville’ . Indeed, both Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Awakening seem to adhere to this tradition, though on differing tangents of realism and sentimentalism. I will be scrutinizing these texts as branches of the domestic tradition, and will be assessing their respective effectiveness in terms of social discourse. I will be investigating how affect theory applies to the use of emotion in female writing, and how that provided a new dimension to social criticism in American literature through its acknowledgment that emotions are vital to moral judgment. Due to its mass popularity and emotive style there have ever been connotations of domestic female writing with non-literary, indulgent, passive consumption. Tompkins corroborates this, speaking of how popularity is often equated with degradation, emotion with ineptitude and domesticity with insignificance . These female writers are thought to have used ‘false stereotypes, dishing out weak-minded pap to nourish the prejudices of an ill-educated and underemployed female readership’ . The idea of stereotyping is certainly true of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, yet such a claim is problematized with the example of the more elliptical writing style in The Awakening. This is where the tradition divides into realism and sentimentalism; though using different styles both use emotion and include the theme of the primacy of human connection and emotion in moral judgment, valorising the concept of affectional experience. Certainly, the Deleuzian concept of affect distinguishes how such a tradition offers a new dimension to social criticism. Affects are states of mind and body related to feelings and emotions, made up of pleasure or joy, pain or sorrow and desire or appetite . This non-cognitive reaction arguably determines a certain moral coding. Thus, art that has this effect can discover new truths otherwise lost in rigid logic. Undeniably, social issues including slavery and female oppression can only truly be dealt with in relation to moral judgments determined by emotional experience. Shaun Nichols writes about emotivism, the idea of expressing rather than reporting one’s feelings . He claims that ‘sentimental accounts are supposed to give a more accurate rendering of moral judgment on the ground, as opposed to the disconnected, emaciated characterization of moral judgment promoted by some in the rationalist tradition’ . Indeed, this emotive reflection on human morals seems to bring additional degrees of empathy and therefore affect for the reader. This affect is exploited in varied ways in the realist and sentimentalist traditions, being affecting to different readerships and effective in different ways. Uncle Tom’s Cabin deals with the ways in which women can be political actors through their capacity for expression and compassion; in fact, the writing of the book was a political act in itself. Meanwhile, The Awakening is about the self-expression and liberation of women on a personal level. To this extent, they are respectively apt for realism/sentimentalism as they act on different scales. Contemporary reaction to The Awakening saw much critical hostility. Certainly, at a time when one could not openly express such deviances from the patriarchal structure and sexual inclinations, this naturalistic representation resonated deeply with its readers. Moreover, there is evidence to suggest that much of Edna’s story stems from Chopin’s own thoughts on female liberation and independence, as she read much feminist writing and wrote in her diaries of her resentment towards various social obligations she held as a woman . This is portrayed when Edna gets up in the middle of the night and ‘she could not have told why she was crying’ . The unembellished depiction of a woman’s unarticulated and unheard strife provides significant potential for affect in the reader, speaking to the supressed voice of women and giving them agency to express themselves by depicting how they are not alone, that Edna too ‘had all her life long been accustomed to harbour thoughts and emotions which never voiced themselves.’ Lawrence Thornton refers to the novel as a ‘political romance’ . Indeed, Chopin chapters Edna’s liberation not just socio-politically, on a literal level, but emotionally, on a sentimental level. In other words, the hybridity of realism and sentimentality creates a new category of social commentary; there is a move from observational realism to the realism of embodied desire. Being influenced by Darwinist thinking, Chopin uses The Awakening to portray the dominance of humans’ natural instincts, and thus providing a study of the fundamental truth that humans cannot repress their sexual desires, despite social constrictions. In the process, critiques of the institution of marriage, motherhood and Christianity are implicitly explored with this view of emotional liberation. Sandra Gilbert writes that ‘Edna’s ‘awakenings’ become increasingly fantastic and poetic, stirrings of the imagination’s desire for ‘amplitude and awe’ rather than protests of the reason against unreasonable constraint’ . It is evident that such an emotive category of expression was needed during this period of oppression. She goes on to says that the passage in which Edna learns to swim is symbolic not just of her move towards liberation and independence, but of the novel itself from a realist text into ‘a distinctively female fantasy of paradisal fulfilment’ . Certainly, it is evident that the observational, literal and descriptive style of the novel changes to one of philosophical pondering, metaphorical imagery and erotic implications, marking Chopin’s rejection of the male-dominated style of realism and ultimately the male-dominated society. Notwithstanding the novel retains its naturalistic plot, thus preserving credibility and resonance. The sentimental aspects, for instance when she refers to the night of her first ‘awakening’ as ‘like a night in a dream’ and goes on to remark that ‘there must be spirits abroad tonight’ , despite being dramatized, draws on realistic sentiment, making it therefore more naturalistic in its affect. The fantastical imagery provided of Edna’s dinner party and her feeling like a ‘regal woman, the one who rules’ seems adverse to the realistic tone of the novel, yet it touches on realistic emotion and the real fantasy of empowerment. Furthermore, when she asks how many years she slept in Madame Antoine’s bed, it provides almost a fairy tale image, but reflects feelings of passion that are the reality of female existence. Finally, the symbolism and ceremony of her martyrdom may seem theatricalised, but it is not unthinkable to consider such a situation to be true, and such suicidal sentiments are tangible to a subordinated audience. Sentimental novels are often seen as being inherently false in sentiment, or as James Baldwin puts it, ‘fantasies, connecting nowhere with reality, sentimental’ . Yet this may be contested, as Beecher Stowe does draw on own experience of the loss of a child and personal feelings of attachment and empathy. She seems to appropriate such emotions to the large-scale issue of slavery; indeed, separation and loss were true factors of the slave trade, meaning the novel does not consist of ‘fantasies connecting nowhere with reality’, but with actual emotional ramifications of the industry. Incidents and injustices in Uncle Tom’s Cabin are not exaggerated in themselves, but the superficial stock characters and situations are dramatised, which could be seen as inauthentic and potentially less sympathetic. Certainly, Baldwin remarks that sentimentalism adheres to ‘the formula created by the necessity to find a lie more palatable than the truth’ . The unnaturalistic portrayal does makes the story more palatable, yet it may also be viewed as more sympathetic to those who had not considered the humanity of the black characters, meaning exaggeration is needed in order to explicitly subvert dominant prejudices. In other words, it needs to be made palatable to a wide audience that would be adverse to such claims as the humanity of slaves; these theatrical clichés provide an accessible comprehension, universality and plausibility for mass readership. Dobson corroborates this, noting ‘an emphasis on accessible language, a clear prose style, and familiar lyric and narrative patterns defines an aesthetic whose primary quality of transparency is generated by a valorisation of connection, an impulse toward communication with as wide an audience as possible’ . For example the lack of subtlety that describes Eva’s death, and the clichéd gesture of the Senator and his wife giving away their dead child’s clothes easily and simply conveys the theme of empathy, denoting the striving for affect in the reader. This differs in The Awakening in which metaphors are more commonly used than direct narrative guidance.Furthermore, the episode with the Senator and his wife depicts the effectiveness and resonance of sentimentalism. Mr. Bird’s decision to help is completely understandable to the reader as they have already established sympathy with Eliza and her child. Mrs. Bird unequivocally sums up the moral of this passage: ‘”Your heart is better than your head, in this case, John.”’ Thus, she draws attention to the significance of emotion in political judgment. George Orwell corroborates the effects of this cliché/truth dichotomy, claiming that ‘it is an unintentionally ludicrous book, full of preposterous melodramatic incidents; it is also deeply moving and essentially true’ . Ultimately, because of the sub-human status of African-Americans during this time, it could be seen that such hyper-sentimentality and guided narrative is needed in order to forcibly provoke a new perspective.Together these subgenres make up the domestic tradition, with Beecher Stowe looking at the institution of slavery from the domestic and emotional point of view, while Chopin explores female public standing from the private and psychological point of view. Indeed, contemporary women were placed in the domestic sphere by society, meaning domestic references and familial, emotional ties represent all they held in their agency to explore moral and social issues. These features were nonetheless poignant and effective in their own right. The use of domestic scenes, for instance the family home and dinner parties, are used as signifiers for the common, making such instances accessible to a wide audience (inclusive of male and female) and more personally affecting than institutional settings. Yet, communal issues have an effect on these domestic issues (for example, family separation in slavery and the oppression of women in marriage and society), thus this presentation of the domestic sheds light on the effects of the communal, depicting how this tradition brought a new way of critiquing society.This new form of social criticism was met with fierce denunciation, with Willa Cather writing about such authors as ‘women of strong and fine intuitions, but without the faculty of observation, comparison, reasoning about things’ . This condemnation of the use of emotions rather than rationale to explore fundamental truths and moral issues may be contested with the argument that with realism in The Awakening Chopin observes, compares and reasons with female emotion as Edna begins to recognise ‘her position in the universe as a human being, and…her relation as an individual to the world within and about her’ , while Uncle Tom’s Cabin draws on true sentiment and judgment, although presented in a hyper-emotive style. Furthermore, Dobson claims that sentimental texts ‘do not wallow in excessive emotionality; rather, they represent an essential reality and must be treated with heightened feeling’ . Although true of both texts, Uncle Tom’s Cabin may be seen to ‘wallow’ in its emotion, but this merely denotes a need for even more heightened feeling, as it is dealing with an industrial issue rather than a personal one. Ultimately, the use of domesticity and emotion shed a new light on the state of American society, being able to affect readers in a different way. As Dobson writes: ‘in a world of mortality, of absolute and certain loss…a body of literature giving primacy to affectional connections and responsibilities still reflects the dilemmas, anxieties, and tragedies of individual lives’ . To this extent, this tradition was able to appropriate such sentiments to national social issues, suggesting an adoption of emotional investment in the formation of moral judgment. Their respective positions in the canon of American literature proves their worth in terms of the development of the nation using the domestic style.Bibliography:Bakhtin, Mikhail, Mikhail Bakhtin: Creations of a Prosaics, ed.s Gary Saul Morson, Emerson, Cary, (California: Stanford University Press, 1990).Baldwin, James, ‘Everybody’s Protest Novel’ in Collected Essays, (The Library of America, 1998).Beecher Stowe, Harriet, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, (London: Wordsworth Classics, 1999).Cather, Willa, Pittsburgh Leader, 8 July 1899, Margo Culley, ed., The Awakening, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994 ), p. 170.Chopin, Kate, The Awakening and Selected Stories, (New York and London: Penguin, 2003).Deleuze, Gilles, ‘Part III, Proposition 56: Spinoza, Benedictus de’, Ethics. Trans. by W.H. White and A.H. Stirling, (London: Wordsworth, 2001 ). Dobson, Joanne, ‘Reclaiming Sentimental Literature’ in American Literature, volume 69, Number 2, (Duke University Press, June 1997).Gilbert, Sandra M., ‘Introduction: The Second Coming of Aphrodite’ in The Awakening and Selected Stories, ed. Sandra M. Gilbert, (New York and London: Penguin, 2003).Nichols, Shaun, ‘Sentimentalism Naturalised’ in The Psychology and Biology of Morality ed. W. Sinnott-Armstrong, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004).Orwell, George, ‘Good Bad Books’ in Tribune, (London, November 1945).Thornton, Lawrence, ‘The Awakening: A Political Romance’ in American Literature, (Montana: Duke University Press, 1980).Tompkins, Jane, “Sentimental Power: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Politics of Literary History” in Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860, (New York: Oxford U P, 1985).
In Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening, Edna’s marriage is complicated. Her marriage is both a source of positive and negative influence on her, in that it both confines, imprisons, and depresses her while also providing her with an impetus, reasoning, and inspiration for her individual aspirations and pursuits. Edna doesn’t particularly know, especially in the beginning of the novel, what is wrong, just that she is unhappy. Chopin characterizes Edna’s marriage as a factor in her unhappiness, but also as a factor in her budding awakening. Edna learns, through reflection on her lack of contentment, that her marriage is the foundation for individual, social, and even paternal expectations that concern, depress, and overwhelm her. This understanding, that a majority of her problem is rooted in her marriage, leads Edna strongly in a direction toward her own life’s goals. Chopin characterizes marriage as something in Edna’s life which constrains, informs, and inspires her and her pursuit for personal fulfillment. Edna’s marriage to Léonce Pontellier has the force to make her feel inextricably trapped, to complicate her social and solitary life, and to otherwise confuse the care, hope, and love out of her. The narrator frequently explores and elaborates the mental and emotional processing that Edna internally deals with. The apparent and clear turmoil Edna experiences is a response to the possession of her by external factors, her marriage perhaps the most significant, that she feels, senses, and frankly despises. Edna is at first, submissive to Mr. Pontellier, and could be described as an obedient, though unthinking, wife. It was as part of the common, unquestioned procession of life as its described in the novel, no love, but as part of the blind, guiding forces of life’s situations that Edna was married to Léonce in the first place. “Her marriage to Léonce Pontellier was purely an accident, in this respect resembling many other marriages which masquerade as the decrees of Fate. It was in the midst of her secret great passion that she met him. He fell in love, as men are in the habit of doing, and pressed his suit with an earnestness and an ardor which left nothing to desired,” (575). Edna, throughout the novel, progressively realizes her entrapment as she comes to desire an intimate relationship with Robert more and more. A significant part of Edna’s desire for Robert coincides and deepens with her will to break the traditional, societal, and marital obligations and code of behavior that she increasingly finds as fake and crippling. “She perceived that her will had blazed up, stubborn and resistant. She could not at that moment have done other than denied and resisted. She wondered if her husband had ever spoken to her like that before, and if she had submitted to his command,” (585). Edna’s awakening, the focus and title of the novel, is realized and demonstrated, in large part, through her growing discontentment of her marriage.Edna becomes primarily concerned with herself and her focus to be the sole arbiter of her own destiny, which means, of course, that she must understand all the intricacies of her imprisonment in order to seek and tread toward freedom. Edna recognizes her feelings for Robert as something real, something intrinsic to her inner true being, something completely different from the feelings she has for her husband. “The sentiment which she entertained for Robert in no way resembled that which she felt for her husband, or had ever felt, or ever expected to feel. She had all her life long been accustomed to harbor thoughts and emotions never voiced themselves. They had never taken the form of struggles. They belonged to her and were her own, and she entertained the conviction that she had a right to them and that they concerned no one but herself,” (598). Chopin characterizes Edna’s marriage as a reality of her life that has been imposed upon her, and that has, unbeknownst to Edna, driven her to accept. Edna learns to accept it no longer and follows the elusive, captivating guidance of her deepest desires. Edna, in learning the truth about her marriage to Mr. Pontellier, and in her deep, growing affection for Robert, also realizes that she is becoming an altogether new woman. “She let her mind wander back over her stay at Grand Isle; and she tried to discover wherein this summer and been different from any and other summer of her life. She could only realize that she herself–her present self–was in some way different from the other self,” (592). This notion of her marriage being a contradiction to her true self, and of breaking free from bondage, inspires Edna to a course of action that separates her from the other women around her.Through commiserating and identifying with Mademoiselle Reisz, longing in contemplative solitude for Robert, reminiscing with Madame Ratignolle on her days of youth dreaming of love, and in finally succumbing to the pull of the sensuous sea in its “soft, close embrace” (652), Edna acts out of inspiration to break free from external expectations for her life, for her marriage, and to live independent, unpossessed. “She felt no interest in anything about her. The street, the children, the fruit vender, the flowers growing there under her eyes, were all part and parcel of an alien world which had suddenly become antagonistic,” (603). As this excerpt from the novel shows, Edna’s quest to live free of social expectations does not exclusively result in a positive outlook or sentiment. She endures confusion, pain, and suffering in her journey of becoming a new woman, but she is not deterred from her path once she awakens to her reality and sets out. “Instinct had prompted her to put away her husband’s bounty in casting off her allegiance. She did not know how it would be when he returned. There would have to have been an understanding, an explanation. Conditions would some way adjust themselves, she felt, but whatever came, she had resolved never again to belong to another than herself,” (624). Edna makes up her mind, and though her wildly uncommon behavior and actions causes characters around her to question her sanity, and doesn’t turn back. “It sometimes entered Mr. Pontellier’s mind to wonder if his wife were not growing a little unbalanced mentally. He could see plainly that she was not herself. That is, he could not see that she was becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world,” (606). Léonce, and Robert even, don’t understand the real reason for Edna’s strange new behaviors and decisions, and she herself arguably wouldn’t expect or want them to. She acts out of learning, awakening to, and rekindling her inner nature which refuses to be commanded or restricted by external forces.Marriage for Edna is something that makes her unhappy, ties her down, and is an insult to the woman she becomes as she opens up to the possibility of her independence and freedom. Edna’s experience, in dealing with new, depressing realizations of her state in marriage, is intense and consumes her hopes, desires, and life. “There came over her the acute longing which always summoned into her spiritual vision the presence of the beloved one, overpowering her at once with a sense of the unattainable” (631). Though Edna, in her internal and external actions, could be described as moving like a roller coaster, consistently through the novel she moves away from her marriage to Léonce and the social expectations therein. Though she interacts with, and feels for other characters such as Robert, Mademoiselle Reisz, and Madame Ratignolle, it is through her unhappy marriage that Edna learns, awakens, and aspires to act for herself.