The Incommunicable in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening

May 22, 2019 by Essay Writer

An indescribable oppression, which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar part of her consciousness, filled her whole being with a vague anguish. (Chopin, 28)The Awakening portrays a woman caught in the feminine role defined by her society. The real nature of Edna’s problem is conveyed through different images and literary techniques rather than being directly mentioned. Although Edna’s inability to communicate her problem is rendered on both the story and discourse levels, on the story level this issue is limited to Edna’s inability to make sense of her suffering and communicate it to other characters. On the discourse level, however, Edna’s situation is conveyed through imagery and high symbolism rather than directly discussed. Edna is caught between the conventional and the unconventional, between what society expects her to be and what she shouldn’t be: “at the very early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life—that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions” (35). This characteristic of Edna is highlighted through some recurrent images or is symbolically conveyed in some of her relationships with the other characters of the novel.The image of the unmarried “young lovers” followed by “the lady in black” who often carries a prayer book (37, 42, 54, 55) can be regarded as one of the elements of the setting of the story that can be linked to Edna’s inner contradictions concerning the social values and the individual values. Apart from the fact that the lovers can stand for social unconventionality and the lady in black for religious morality, it is interesting to note that the couple is always followed by the lady. The lovers can be regarded as the temptations of life, something that the lady in black consciously avoids but unconsciously adores. Another instance of Edna’s oscillation between the conventional and the unconventional can be traced in her loving relationship with both Madame Ratignolle and Mademoiselle Reisz. The former is portrayed as the embodiment of what a woman should be according to the criteria of the patriarchal society and the latter as the isolated, socially rejected woman artist. Although over the course of the novel Edna is more inclined to lead Mademoiselle Reisz’s life rather than that of Adele’s, the ending of the novel points out her rejection of the both. Edna’s inner conflict is also depicted in several of her reactions to her companions in the novel. In seems that in her thought process she has to think twice to adjust her real inner thoughts and emotions to the conventions of the real outward world. In the course of the novel and during the process of her awakening, she grows less and less successful in privileging her social role to her inner desires: “wishing to go to the beach with Robert, she should in the first place have declined, and in the second place have followed in obedience to one of the two contradictory impulses which impelled her” (34). ‘Thinking’ in Edna’s opinion is referred to the process of adjusting her desires to the rules of the society. In several passages in the novel it is indicated what Edna is in search of is ‘thoughtlessness’; thoughtlessness for Edna is a way to express herself, a way to regain her individuality and freedom. I will return to this issue in the section regarding the symbolic significance of the sea to discuss it in more details and with reference to the related textual passages.The Awakening opens up with the image of two birds, both kept in cages. Although in the first reading of the opening paragraphs of the novel the birds might only be detected as some minor elements of the setting of the story contributing to the construction of a summer abode in Grand Isle, in the course of the novel they come to assume a rather significant symbolic value. A green and yellow parrot, which hung in a cage outside the door, kept repeating over and over:”Allez vous-en! Allez vous-en! Sapristi! That’s all right!”He 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. (22)The parrot can be associated with Edna, who faces a sort of failure in communicating her thoughts and emotions to the people around her. Edna’s lack of the proper language to give voice to her feelings and thoughts is expressed several times in the text of the novel through the voice of the narrator, or in Edna’s direct speeches: “she went on crying there,” but “she could not have told why she was crying” (27), “a thousand emotions have swept through me to-night. I don’t comprehend half of them.” (50), “she had all her life long been accustomed to harbor thoughts and emotions which never voiced themselves” (75). If the association of Edna with the parrot could be taken as credible, then it is interesting to note that even the comprehensible words it utters—”Go away! Go away! For God’s sake!” (footnote, 22)—do not convey much to the listener; the utterance conveys the speaker’s agitation without referring to its source or cause. Another interesting point concerning the above quote is the “mocking-bird” who seems to be the only one who can understand the language spoken by the parrot. The mocking bird “whistling his fluty notes out upon the breeze with maddening persistence” can stand for the character of Mademoiselle Reisz whose music (fluty notes) is much favored by Edna. In the course of the novel, she seems to be the only person who develops a comprehension of Edna and her enigmatic situation rephrasing it in another bird imagery: “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” (106).The birds having been hung “outside the door” are portrayed as social outcasts who can be simply rejected and isolated due to certain conventions of the society, “Mr. Pontellier” for instance, can have “the privilege of quitting their society when they cease to be entertaining”(22). A more concrete example of this issue occurs at the Saturday night party thrown in Madam Lebrun’s place where in the middle of the performance of the “Farival twins”, who are “clad in virgin colors, blue and white, having been dedicated to the Blessed Virgin at their baptism”, the parrot from outside the door shrieks “Allez vous-en! Sapristi!”[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. Old Monsieur Farival, grandfather of the twins, grew indignant over the interruption and insisted upon having the bird removed and consigned to regions of darkness. (45) The juxtaposition of the image of the “Blessed Virgin” and the utterance of the disgusted parrot highlights Edna’s dissatisfaction with the religious and social conventions. At the same time, Monsieur Farival’s verdict concerning the interruption of the parrot underlines the fallen social status of a woman like Edna, if she decides to move against the stream of the established rules of the patriarchal society.The auditory image of the “owl” is another image that reflects Edna’s sorrows and isolation. Edna after the reproachful argument with Mr. Pontellier sits alone on the porch listening to “the hooting of an owl in the top of a water oak” which “broke like a mournful lullaby upon the night” (27). The bird imagery has also been used to characterize the women who have been able to well adjust themselves to the role society expects them to perform. These women are not portrayed as parrots or mocking birds confined in cages hung outside of the doors, instead they are “mother-women”: fluttering about with extended, protecting wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened their precious brood. They were women who idolized their children, worshiped their husband, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels. (29) The depiction of the mother-women as beautiful, free angels reflects the patriarchal society’s approval of their conducts. The sea, for Edna Pontellier, is a symbol of individualism and freedom in expressing herself. The image of the sea reminding Edna of her running experience in the green meadows in Kentucky in her childhood is associated with ‘thoughtlessness’. In the Creole society of Grand Isle, Edna is provoked to search for self expression and an “absence of prudency”(31), the characteristics for which she lacks the necessary courage. Not only the visual image of the sea but even the olfactory and auditory images of the Gulf are inspirational to Edna; the sea possesses a “seductive odor” (33) and its “sonorous murmur” reaches Edna “like a loving but imperative entreaty” (34). The connection between the sea and the green meadow of Edna’s childhood is revealed in Edna’s talk with Adele when Edna tries to explore the chain of her own thoughts:I can trace—of a summer in Kentucky, of a meadow which seemed as big as an 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. (37)She goes on revealing her memories talking about a particular Sunday on which she “was running away from the prayers, from the Presbyterian service, read in a spirit of gloom by [her] father” (38). Edna’s startled answer to the question posed by Adele regarding the fact if Edna has “been running away from the prayers ever since” underlies the function of ‘thinking’ for Edna: “No! oh, no! […] I was a little unthinking child in those days, just following a misleading impulse without question” (38, my italics). As indicated earlier, ‘thinking’ for Edna is an act of adjusting her inner desires to the social conventions ever since her childhood; thinking, in this particular sense, is a strategy to be established as an adult woman. However on this particular summer in Grand Isle she feels as if she “were walking through the green meadow again; idly, aimlessly, unthinking and unguided” (38, my italics). Edna, referring to her experience in the green meadows, talks about her urge to “walk on forever, without coming to the end of it” (38). This urge for absolute, unlimited freedom and self expression reappears on the night when she discovers that she is able to swim: “as she swam she seemed to be reaching out for the unlimited in which to lose herself” (49). In the last paragraph of the novel, the connection between her childhood memories and the sea is once again established. Through the voices of her father, her sister, their chained dog, and “the spurs of the cavalry officer” (139), she swims towards eternal, unlimited freedom, as a way to regain her individualism.Throughout The Awakening, the reader is confronted with Edna Pontellier’s futile endeavor to give voice to her incommunicable enigma. Although a direct explanation of Edna’s problem is never mentioned in the novel, the nature of her inner conflict is portrayed in the rich imagery and symbolism of the novel. Among the various symbolic images of The Awakening, I decided to limit myself to the images which accentuate Edna Pontellier’s inner conflict, the recurrent bird imagery and the symbolic significance of the sea as some of the significant issues reflected in the novel concerning Edna’s entanglement in the confining patriarchal society she inhabits. Works Cited:Kate Chopin. The Awakening. Complete, Authoritative Text with Biographical, Historical, and Cultural Contexts, Critical History, and Essays from Contemporary Critical Perspectives. 2nd. ed. Ed.Nancy A. Walker. Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism. Boston: Bedford/St.Martin, 2000.

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