Effects of the Environment on Edna’s Psyche
Kate Chopin seamlessly integrates plot with setting in her novel The Awakening. Various locations mold Edna Pontellier into a bold transgressor of outdated social conventions, and allow for her dynamic growth. Edna grows accustomed to the lax customs found on Grande Isle, and gradually transitions into a more independent state. Chênière Caminada represents a haven from any familial obligations for Edna. However, the strict schedules and structures of New Orleans prevent Edna from continuing harmlessly as she did on Grand Isle or the Chênière, and she then begins to actively rebel against the Creole way of life. Distinct environments shape Edna’s persona, each eliciting different emotions and moods from her.
The relaxed atmosphere of Grande Isle allows Edna the freedom to develop her opinions and desires regarding her current life. Edna experiences life without her husband, Léonce, and children binding her, and begins “to loosen a little the mantle of reserve that [has] always enveloped her” (14). When society does not force a role upon Edna, she gains the capacity to truly evaluate her life. Edna nervously realizes that the absence of her children “free[s] her of a responsibility which she had blindly assumed and for which Fate had not fitted her” (18). Edna soon gains a rudimentary stubbornness, demonstrated through her refusal to join Léonce inside one night. She refuses to obey her husband for the sheer purpose of asserting her independence, yet her simple act demonstrates her growing confidence and defiance. Additionally, the absence of Léonce allows Edna to gradually disregard Creole ideals and accept Robert LeBrun as a romantic companion. Initially, she repulses Robert’s advances, deciding that there “was no reason she should submit to it” (11). However, after her confrontation with Léonce, Edna acknowledges the futility of pursuing a relationship that she knows to be lifeless. Edna reveals her acceptance of Robert through inviting him to the Chênière, for “she had never sent for him before… She had never seemed to want him” (33). Fittingly, Edna’s physical departure from Grand Isle accompanies her emotional departure from her husband.
Edna voyages to Chênière Caminada, a remote island that serves as a haven from the stifling Creole lifestyle. Normally, the habitual chores of a mother-woman dictate Edna’s schedule; now, Robert tells Edna, “We’ll go wherever you like… We shall not need… anyone” (35). Robert offers Edna complete liberty, and does not expect her to conform to the image of the mother-woman. Similarly, as Edna travels farther physically from the mainland, she spiritually escapes as well. Edna feels “as if she [is] being borne away from some anchorage which had held her fast, whose chains had been loosening” (34). At the house of a native to the Chênière, the luxury of resting “in a strange, quaint bed” pacifies Edna, because the simple cottage presents a calming contrast to her structured home life (36). Edna falls into a deep and peaceful sleep, and then experiences one of many awakenings that the novel’s title refers to. Upon waking up, Edna remarks to Robert that “the whole island seems changed. A new race of beings must have sprung up” (37). Edna’s slumber allows her to become increasingly aware of her desires. Edna can finally “realize that she herself—her present self—was in some way different from the other self” (40). This revelation prompts Edna to consider shedding “that outside existence which conforms” and begin to pursue “the inward life which questions” (13). However, the austere conditions back in New Orleans force Edna to accept one of two extremes: reluctant adherence to tradition, or complete rejection of the cultural norm.
Upon returning to New Orleans, Edna faces a society hostile to her newly developed liberty, and therefore attempts to separate herself further from Creole life. While Grand Isle offered Edna a comparatively lenient and independent lifestyle, neighbors expect Edna to fulfill her role as a dutiful wife back in traditional New Orleans. Edna must resume “the programme which [she] had religiously followed since her marriage” (50). However, Edna refuses to abandon her newly discovered freedom and opinions, and endeavors to evade her duties as a mother-woman. Mademoiselle Reisz provides a model for what Edna hopes to be: “an artist,” who possesses “the courageous soul… the soul that dares and defies (63, 64). An opportunity to rebel further arrives in the form of Alcée Arobin. Edna cannot resist the temptation to escape from the stifling conditions of her marriage through engaging in an affair with the lecherous Arobin. She becomes aware of her sensuality after kissing him, and feels “as if a mist [has] been lifted… enabling her to… comprehend the significance of life” (84). The glorious rebelliousness of the affair results in Edna’s attempts to distance herself further from her family and home, and she undertakes the ultimate act of independence: purchasing her own home. Therefore, the constrictions of New Orleans in fact catalyze Edna’s radical departure from the social norm. In her efforts to flee from oppressive Creole beliefs, Edna manages to transform into the independent, sensual woman that had always smoldered inside of her.
Each unique environment in The Awakening propels Edna into a new phase of her life. She gradually progresses from a state of reluctant domesticity to one of self-reliance. However, Edna envisions Robert only as a means to desert her hated life. Unfortunately, Robert, unlike Edna, cannot bear transgressing the strict moral codes of the Creoles, and abandons her; Edna then realizes she cannot escape through her lover. She returns to the site that embodies the birth of her independence: Grand Isle. Chopin therefore weaves the significance of setting into Edna’s most monumental decision. Edna can only truly flee from oppression through sacrificing herself to the natural world— to her environment. Edna’s development comes full circle at Grand Isle: the island gives birth to her true identity, and ultimately accepts her life in a final, triumphant flare of defiance.
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