The Awakening By Kate Chopin: A Journey Of Self-Discovery
The Awakening by Kate Chopin, an 1899 novella, reenacts the tale of a young woman who undergoes a dramatic period of change as she “awakens” to the restrictions of her traditional societal role and to her full potential as a woman. The novel shares elements of the local colour genre. It was written between 1897 and 1899 when Chopin lived in St. Louis. The narrator is anonymous and mostly objective, although in many cases the reader feels sympathetic for the main character’s fight for independence. Chopin’s choice of diction and syntax makes the novella almost as if it were from her point of view. Throughout this novella, the protagonist, Edna Pontellier, awakens in situations that signify more metaphorical awakenings to new knowledge and sensual experience. The Awakening, by Kate Chopin, deals with the sexual awakening of a woman who lives the reality of a wife and mother until the young age of twenty-eight. Edna finds herself feeling so subjected and sorrowful that she is willing to defy many aspects of Creole civilization to gain spiritual immunity. Edna gradually abandons reality, initiating a bohemian lifestyle to exercise freedom of choice in matters of sex. Edna’s process of finding herself in The Awakening by Kate Chopin takes place in a series of three significant stages that eventually lead to the death of Edna at the conclusion. Before Edna begins to discover herself, she is caught between her desires to explore herself and her desires more fully and the realities of Victorian womanhood and life. It is not until the first major event in her awakening; the merging of music and a swim in the ocean that she finally awakens to a much more realistic sense of self-awareness.
In a mechanical manner, various characters activate particular aspects of Edna’s awakening. The pianist Mademoiselle Reisz, characterizes an independent woman as artist, yet unconcerned with personal appearance or public perusal. She encourages Edna to sketch and cultivate her own creativity. Chopin intentionally fails to depict a woman who can be both an artist and a mother. Mademoiselle Reisz may even appear less “feminine” because she does not conform to society’s norms. Reisz, unlike Edna, lives her one-sided reality without question.
Venturing forward in the novella, Chopin incorporates two men as lovers in Edna’s sexual awakening. The way Robert Lebrun views Edna provides a more equal mutual assent than her failing marriage can. Edna credits Robert with awakening her that summer at Grand Isle. Chopin describes Robert in a manner the shows he loves Edna somewhat generously, yet his desires are tinged with a possessiveness that Edna cannot abide. She rejects the possibility of marriage, saying, “I am no longer one of Mr. Pontellier’s possessions to dispose of or not. I give myself where I choose. If he were here to say, ‘Here, Robert, take her and be happy; she is yours,’ I should laugh at you both.”
Chopin continues to elaborate on each of Edna’s individual awakenings, writing “As she swam she seemed to be reaching out for the unlimited in which to lose herself’ the narrator speaks volumes about the further elements of Edna’s awakening, while it also alludes her suicide because eventually she loses herself in her own reality. Following this, Edna no longer possesses the will to mirror her past self who is still a victim of Victorian demands (housework, raising the children, being a faithful wife, etc.), but is restored and reborn. Chopin writes, “Edna began to feel like one who awakens gradually out of a dream, a delicious, grotesque, impossible dream, to feel again the realities pressing into her soul’. These realities are her love for Robert, her responsibility, and the insatiable demands of Victorian society. Still, after this first awakening she is able to spend a glorious day away from the island with Robert and takes up painting with renewed spirits. She is literally and figuratively a new woman after this experience.
Near the climax of the novella, Edna has been sexually involved with Alcee Arobin, the town Casanova, who “detected her latent sensuality” and with whom she has a purely carnal, adulterous relationship. In contrast, she loves Robert and finds great comfort in him. Nevertheless, she no longer trusts in any sort of permanence in any relationship. Ultimately, only Dr. Mandalet, well acquainted with human affairs of the heart, seems to understand Edna and may possibly have led her to some alternate solution than suicide. She explains to him at the story’s end, “perhaps it is better to wake up after all, even to suffer, rather than to remain a dupe to illusions all one’s life.” The kind doctor encourages her to confide in him saying, “I know I would understand, and I tell you there are not many who would – not many, my dear.” Edna’s suicide illustrates the result of her final awakening; that the woman cannot balance her essential self with her life’s demands. Edna forgoes, disregarding her best efforts, and two worlds. One world, which is that of a solitary artist, and the other that of the Victorian woman enamored with society and the home; the woman that conforms to society. “As a result of the lack of ability to develop a balance or allow herself to live two lives at once, Edna’s final way out is suicide”. Her awakening happened almost too quickly and her actions as a result of it were too drastic and mellow. The only way to cleanse herself of both realities was to enter the sea; the site of her baptism into awakening.
Kate Chopin’s The Awakening has become one of the classics of feminist literature because of its theme of sexual awakening and a woman’s right to freedom of choice in matters of love. Feminists believe that the sexual repression of women, which is still common throughout the world, illustrates a necessary precondition of the political repression and economic exploitation of women that live on every continent of the globe. Feminists believe that until women have control of their own bodies, they cannot hope to have control of their own lives. Upon its initial serial publication, this novella caused quite a stir because it presented a female protagonist who was so blatantly refusing the society she lived in and furthermore, because she was so sexually aware. This combination in Edna’s character made her a literary icon for feminist ideals. “Because of the way Edna chooses individuality over conformity, sexuality over repression, and art over entertaining she is acting as a feminist”— even at a time when this was not a common concept.
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