Themes in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening Free Essay Example
In reviewing Kate Chopin’s book, The Awakening, one first takes note that the central character of the story, Edna, is a woman and that she is dealing with issues which can be attributed to the struggles not only of Edna the individual, but also Edna as a female.
In considering other themes related to psychology and sociology, aside from gender, one also notes that Edna is a married woman with children living within or among the social mores and constructs of her time, the late 19th century in the southern Catholic region of the United States, mostly on Grand Isle, a sleepy coastal island getaway on the Gulf for people, mainly women, of urban New Orleans.
Throughout the journey of Edna’s life during the course of the novel, the reader gets a picture of her ethical and personal situations and dilemmas, until the final stages of her life where she self destructs by committing suicide in the open waters of the sea.
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The late 19th century was not a time of freedom and independence for the single woman. Largely, a woman during this time was still mostly dependent on the care from her father and then, subsequently, on the care from her husband.
In Edna’s situation, she tires of living a life which she considers to be unfulfilled and is mired in a stifling existence where she wants to be rid of her husband Leonce. Although Edna yearns for love in another relationship with another man, she sees little way out of her unsatisfactory relationship with her husband.
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Edna is trapped, and the theme of independence or self-awakening being elusive for her is threaded by Edna’s actions and literary symbolism and imagery throughout the novel.
Although Edna is depressed, sleepy, lazy on the island shore, she is literally unable to move emotionally in her life. She sees no complete future for herself as a single woman with children, and she sees no complete future for herself remaining married. The only outlet satisfactory to Edna would be a transfer of herself to another man, yet the man she loves and has passion for, the man who claims to love her, Robert, rejects her in favor of the conventional mores of the time. She is married with children, therefore perceived by him as inaccessible (Holz, 4).
Read about “The Radical Idea of Marrying for Love”
The theme of struggling for independence or struggling for awakening to oneself is constantly bombarded with the theme of social correctness. In aiming to liberate herself, to be honest with herself, Edna affirms her lack of love for her husband and opens her heart to the love of Robert, she begins painting again and unleashes the artist within her, coaxed by the local pianist Mademoiselle Reisz, and she learns how to swim, moving out into the Gulf waters with confidence. However, despite all of Edna’s actions toward self realization, she is constantly reminded of what she should be doing in regard to conventional mores.
Her friend Adele is the epitome of the graceful southern wife and mother, and Adele encourages Edna to return to her husband and children and to forget Robert. The local doctor encourages Edna to visit him, because he believes she is confused in her passions and hurting her marriage. Finally, Robert himself leaves Edna a note of farewell, emphasizing his inability to remain with her due to the ideas of what is socially and morally correct. The acceptance of herself, the awakening of Edna’s heart and mind, is rejected by almost all facets of her social circle.
Her best friend, doctor, and even her lover reject her moves to liberate herself to her heart’s desires, and Edna is again stifled. Although she herself moves toward freedom, society is unable to allow her to live freely and to follow her passions, and, so, in the end, Edna sees no other option for herself than to free herself through death, escaping her caged situation in life. Although Adele and Mademoiselle Reisz are complete opposites, they are both central characters in helping to define Edna and lend to the theme of the self actualized woman as opposed to the repressed woman.
In Adele, one is able to see and appreciate a woman who is happily married and devoted to her husband and children. Adele’s joy, in addition to her free speaking manner, is inspiring to Edna. Although Edna does not find joy in being a wife and mother, Adele’s character is an example of a woman who is married with children as well as self actualized and happy living her life. Adele serves as an example to the reader that, yes, some women are happy in their lives and roles as wives and mothers, contrasting Edna’s lack of satisfaction and feelings of oppression.
Mademoiselle Reisz is also an inspiration to Edna, but in a very different way. In Reisz, Edna sees the freedom of the single woman and artist, totally independent of any man and completely self sufficient. Reisz’ passion for music and self expression through art is where she finds joy, however, similarly to Adele, Edna will not be able to find full completion is her lifestyle either. Remaining married to the father of her children is not Edna’s goal or path toward awakening, and neither is the single life of a self sufficient artist. Adele and Reisz serve as polar opposites of exactly where Edna is not.
In Edna’s search, these two women function well to remind the reader both of how some women are able to find self-satisfaction as well as of where Edna does not want to find herself (Thornton, 52). In viewing Edna from another perspective, from the perspective of a more passive player being manipulated by more powerful outside forces, the case could be made around the theme of selfish men. The men who surround her and want her, namely Robert and Alcee, certainly disregard and disrespect the fact that Edna is a married woman with children.
The time and attention these men devote to her, the sexual advances or sexual acts these men commit with Edna, could be viewed as inappropriate advances by men, people with much more power in the social structure than women. Edna can be viewed as a passive player being charmed and moved by the lustful desires of the men who surround her. With Edna’s husband Leonce being away from Edna so often, the case could also be made that Leone abandoned his wife and left her susceptible to being taken over by other prowling males.
In this case, the theme of male irresponsibility is played out through the selfish actions of men who are only concerned with their own social placement, leaving Edna pining for something emotionally real and tangible (Bender, 461). Linking the theme of selfish men to the theme of powerful forces, The Awakening can also be seen as a look toward the powerful, potentially oppressive social structures of man versus woman, master versus slave, church versus layman, society versus individual, and even mother versus child.
In all of these dichotomous relationships, the former assumes greatness over the latter. Man assumes his power over woman, master over slave, churchman over layman, society over individual, and mother over children. Leonce, Robert, and Alcee all seem to be in agreement about Edna’s responsibility to her husband, and all three of them lack of responsibility to her. Edna isn’t able to commit to her husband and neither is she able to commit to Alcee, due to lack of love. She wishes to commit herself lovingly to Robert, yet even Robert will not have her and love her in the end.
Despite the fact that the men do not love truly love Edna, they seem to have no problem using her for their own benefit. Edna acts as a housemaid and servant for her husband, a mistress to Alcee, a temporary romantic friend for Robert, yet Edna is never able to claim the fulfilling joy of having a man at her side who truly loves her, because he simply is not there anywhere in the book. Although Robert claims to love Edna, the imposing social and moral rules hinging on the idea that Edna is a possession belonging to Leonce dissuade him from being able to offer himself fully to Edna, and he is left a coward.
The religious and social rules which attempt to force Edna to feel obligated to unloving men could be interpreted as the rules which destroy her. Even Edna is personally guilty of misuse of her own power position when she abandons her responsibility to her own children, and she becomes a part of the system which oppresses and stifles the weaker person/people (Gilbert, 28). In aiming to place consideration in the worthiness of hierarchal or patriarchal structures of love, one can also view Chopin’s novel as engaging in the theme of a disrupted hierarchal social structure of love.
In traditional thought, God is responsible to Jesus, who is responsible to priest (Church leaders), who is responsible to man (Church laity), who is responsible to woman, who is responsible to children, an upward to downward flow of love and consideration. However, if one looks at Leonce as a disrupted part of the chain, as an absent and unloving husband, of providing a relationship devoid of romance, then responsibility for the problem of Edna’s unhappiness can rest with Leonce.
Even Edna’s inability or disinterest in raising her children could be attributed first and foremost to Leonce, who was unable to make or keep his wife happy. Here, the self satisfaction or awakening that Edna craves can be discussed as a desire for her to able to place blame, personally and socially, on her husband. The lack of fulfillment described in Edna by Chopin can very well be the rational anger and resentment of Edna toward her husband.
In this situation, Edna could be viewed as an innocent victim of Leonce’s lack of love, and subsequently freed from responsibility for the problems in her family life. However, placing blame on the husband has always been a hotly contested idea, even in modern society, and like all powerful people who are devoid of true responsibility, men were halfway responsible, responsible for the successes and irresponsible for the failures. Religious oppression is also a theme worthy to be considered.
In the late 19th century, it was very uncommon for a woman to ask for an annulment or a divorce, and it was very uncommon for a woman to receive one. A widowed woman, like the Lady in Black, was expected to mourn her husband and not find another. The idea of a woman who lacked satisfaction in her marriage attempting to get out of her marriage was simply rare to impossible, whether the husband was alive or dead. The idea of a wife’s duty to her husband, and husband to wife as well, was rigidly upheld by the Catholic and Protestant Christian practices of this time.
The lack of love in a marriage was often illuminated in simple unhappiness, or, sometimes, in the infidelity of the spouses, because leaving the spouse was simply something overwhelmingly disapproved of and unconsidered by many, especially those upholding the religious social systems of this time period. Religious mores correspond directly to social ethics, and, in the late 19th century, the idea of giving a woman approval to leave her husband was radical (Yaeger, 213). Feminism is also a valid theme within Chopin’s novel.
The radical notion of feminism, pure feminism in the form of a woman following her heart in being with a man that she knows she loves, despite the social conventions of the time, was a step that Edna was willing to take. The disheartening reality of Edna’s journey, however, was that although she was able to swim out from the layers of oppression, to leave her husband, to engage in personally fulfilling activities, to express her love to the man of her dreams, in the end, Edna is pushed back unwillingly into the sea of oppression by the actions of Robert.
He is still so mired in social conventions and perhaps even his own lack of self awareness that she rejects Edna and forces her away from him personally using the same misguided types of judgments as society. In believing in Edna’s duty to her husband Leonce, Robert joins the massive oppressive structure with which Edna has been struggling. The devastation of losing the bright spot in her life, the extinguished light of romance which had beckoned her, effectively washed away her life goals, and washed away her life. Edna swam out and above the oppression, only to be sucked under again.
She expressed her life, and then allowed herself to drown, pulled away from herself by something far more powerful than she was (Wornton, 107). Whether one meditates on the themes of oppression, independence, freedom, responsibility, self awareness, religious influences, patriarchal structures, feminism, social correctness, selfish men, or power structures, all present within Kate Chopin’s novel, The Awakening, one gets a unique view of Edna in her life and times. Despite the many angles from which Edna can be viewed, the overarching reality is that of a woman, who, in the end, could not find satisfaction in life.
It’s compelling to think of the many women who lived during more oppressive times, to consider the real life struggles of women who were unable to escape an internally or externally imposed system of skewed ethics which disabled the person to live happily and freely. At least, in today’s world, which is still chock full of skewed ethics, there are hurdles which have already been overcome, and chances for women to breathe more freely and attain more personal satisfaction and success in modern society.
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