The Open Sea: The Centrality of Ambiguity in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening

July 19, 2019 by Essay Writer

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 terms‹as a move away from the repressive expectations of her husband and society‹or in strictly positive terms‹as 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 book‹the ocean that she finally gives herself up to‹embodies 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 afternoon‹an emblem of prominently practiced leisure‹with 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 moving‹an 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 all‹on 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 Robert‹instead ambiguity is prominent as we begin to consider Edna’s quest. But to define the positive element‹the sensuality heretofore ascribed to Robert‹as 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 chapters‹and 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 husband‹something 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 her‹the 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 husband‹she 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.

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