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The Awakening published in 1899, was a controversial book. In this book, Kate Chopin depicts Edna, her main protagonist as a woman with active sexual desires who dares to leave her husband and have an affair. What is significant about the writing of Kate Chopin In “The Awakening” is that instead of condemning her protagonist for overstepping the boundaries set by society, Chopin maintains a neutral, non-judgmental tone throughout and appears to even condone her character’s unconventional actions. The novel can be seen as an account of Edna’s progressive journey from ignorance into knowledge – the account of her quest to discover self.
Thesis: Edna’s journey to the end of the sea at the end of the novel can be interpreted in two ways: the simplistic one being that Edna commits suicide and a deeper interpretation being it’s an expression of her ‘awakening’ to the oppressive nature of her husband and her own feminist side seeking freedom.
Different critics have interpreted the ending in different ways. Joseph Urgo maintains that by the end of the novel she has discovered that her story is “unacceptable in her culture” (23) and hence decides to “extinguish her life than edit her tale” (23). Here, her suicide is interpreted in terms of societal pressure. Edna’s life has become inseparable from the role her husband, lover, and society choose for her. Peggy Skaggs’ reading of Edna’s suicide is one of despair as Edna faces the hopeless situation that she can have all her needs satisfied only at the cost of her individuality. She could have her dream life with Robert only through the societal cage of marriage that she resented. Skaggs points out that her role of wife and role of mother adds to her conflict making it impossible for Edna to continue her quest for individuality.
As she walks into the water and swims away from the shore she thinks of “Leonce and the children. They were a part of her life. But they need not have thought that they could possess her, body and soul.” She could not be the mother to her children if it meant the cost of her individuality (p. 53). Portales contends that Edna wants an undefined, unexpressed, ineffable life that she cannot articulate or shape. Rather than live a life of compromise Edna chooses to die (Portales 436). Elaine Showalter points out in “Tradition and the Female Talent” that drowning conjures up similarities between “femininity and liquidity”. Women’s bodies are “prone to wetness, blood, milk, tears, and amniotic fluid; so in drowning the woman is immersed in the feminine organic element” (52). By choosing to drown herself Edna seeks to go inside herself and find liberation.
Edna battles with her innate sensuality and social conventions on the exterior level. Chopin portrays her as a woman whose sexual nature is unleashed and wishing to escape the enslavement of marriage. But then, her affairs with Arobin and her romantic dream of a life with Robert Lebrun do not adequately satisfy her. To Fox-Genovese, “They are loves that partake of, even as they mask, the longing for the lost mother” (p. 280). Edna is ambivalent in her reaction to the charms to the Arobin. She does not experience intimacy with Arobin. With Robert, there is only the dream of an unattached attachment. She is not ready to enter into marriage with him. She speaks in terms of an all-consuming attachment: “We shall be everything to each other. Nothing else in the world is of any consequence” (p. 103). The love she imagines is only an illusionary dream state that will protect her from estrangement or engulfment. Edna is thus torn between her own desires to overcome loneliness through a relationship with Robert and her desire for absolute freedom – to be left unhindered in her quest for an individual identity. In the ultimate choice Edna makes, she resigns herself to a sense of hopelessness.
Chopin’s description of the “seductive” power of the sea is sexual. As Edna disrobes and walks into the wavelets that “coiled like serpents about her ankles” (p. 127) her association of the sea with her sensual awakening and fulfillment creates a vision of the sea as her lover (Ryan 253). But then, the sensuality of Edna in her nude state and the sea that was “enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace” (p. 25) also carries Edna back to her childhood, to “the blue-grass meadow that she had traversed when a little child, believing that it had no beginning and no end” (p. 109). The final dream of Edna Pontellier is not only of the lover’s embrace but also of the mother’s embrace – the longing to attain an intimacy that she cannot hope to have in real life and what she has not had in her past (Ryan 253). According to FoxGenovese, “Various psychoanalytic schools concur in recognizing the ocean as a maternal symbol. It is, accordingly, relatively non-controversial to suggest that Edna returns, at the novel’s close, to the maternal womb for the repose and nurture she cannot find in the human world” (p. 272).
The suicide of Edna can be seen as the ultimate outcome of depression caused by a deep longing for love. Chopin’s use of the words “despondency” and “delirium” is quite consistent with twentieth-century theories on the mood swings of many depressives. The “despondent moods” (p. 100) are noted after Robert’s return from Mexico, and Edna explains to Doctor Mandelet that “there are periods of despondency and suffering which take possession of me” (p. 105). The “despondency” sets in again on a decisive night before the suicide (p. 108). The mood swings are discussed after Mr. Pontellier wonders if his wife is “a little unbalanced mentally” (p. 55). As Edna becomes more herself, “casting aside that fictitious self” (p. 55), she becomes extremely unstable in her moods. Chopin describes Edna as a person with intense feelings that swayed from one extreme to another. Edna’s periods of elation were “days when she was very happy without knowing why. She was happy to be alive and breathing, when her whole being seemed to be one with the sunlight, the color, the odors, the luxuriant warmth of some perfect Southern day” (p. 56).
But such days were followed by others “when she was unhappy, she did not know why,–when it did not seem worth while to be glad or sorry, to be alive or dead; when life appeared to her like a grotesque pandemonium and humanity like worms struggling blindly toward inevitable annihilation” (p. 56). The depressive mood swing is best described during Edna’s birthday dinner party: “she felt the old ennui overtaking her; the hopelessness which so often assailed her, which came upon her like an obsession, like something extraneous, independent of volition” (p. 84-85). Edna also behaves in erratic ways like a mentally disturbed person. She is found in one instance stomping on her wedding ring and in another, feeling sorry that her husband is leaving for New York. She behaves in an inappropriate manner at the dinner party when she practically falls apart when Victor sings Robert’s song. There are also several passages where she contends she has inner thoughts or secret ideas, which when viewed in this manner, could be construed as a step toward mental illness.
Chopin uses psychologically suggestive language in describing Edna’s feelings towards Robert: “an obsession, ever pressing itself upon her” (Chopin, p. 52) and “her infatuation” (p. 52). The terms “obsession” and “infatuation” indicate that Edna was experiencing a reawakening of her youthful sexual fantasies in her responses to Robert: “she recognized anew the symptoms of infatuation which she had felt incipiently as a child, as a girl in her earliest teens, and later as a young woman” (p. 44). Justus concurs and offers the following analysis of Edna’s regression: “… a return to the protective, self-evident identity of childhood” (p. 112). Like a child, Edna’s reactions are frequently found impulsive. Early she is described as “blindly following whatever impulse moved her, as if she has placed herself in alien hands for direction, and freed her soul of responsibility” (p. 32).
When she breaks from her conventional role of wife and accepts Arobin as her lover, “A quick impulse that was somewhat spasmodic impelled her fingers to close in a sort of clutch upon his hand. He felt the pressure of her pointed nails in the flesh of his palms” (p. 73). She carries a childhood memory of when she fled her father’s Presbyterian service, “just following a misleading impulse without question” (p. 17). Throughout the novel, Edna is shown as a woman who is restrained and self-contained, yet is subject to impulsiveness. This impulsive nature adds to her vulnerability as a depressed person. Even the novel’s central motif, sleep, and waking has clear connections with depressive behavior. According to Lewin, sleep is related to elation in the depressive’s regressive denial (p. 101). After Edna refuses to leave her hammock and join her husband, she eases into a deep slumber: “the physical need for sleep began to overtake her ” (p. 31). Edna experiences strange drowsiness during the service when she is with Robert at the Grande Terre. When she is taken to the home of Madame Antoine, she falls into a deep sleep and when she awakens, she asks Robert, “How many years have I slept?” (p. 37). Edna reminds Doctor Mandelet “of some beautiful, sleek animal waking up in the sun” (p. 67). These references to sleep add weight to the argument that Edna’s final swim to the sea was an outcome of depression.
Thus, the ending of Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening” can be interpreted in many ways. The fact that Edna was a complex character with obsessive-compulsive tendencies and a fragile psyche might have contributed most to the drastic choice she makes in the end.
Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth (1979). Kate Chopin’s Awakening. Southern Studies. Volume 18, 1979.
Lewin, Bertram David (1961). The Psychoanalysis of Elation. Psychoanalytic Quarterly Inc. New York, 1961.
Portales, Marco A. (1981). The Characterization of Edna Pontellier and the Conclusion of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. Southern Studies. Volume 20, Issue 4, 1981. 425-436.
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Ryan, T. Stephen (1998). Depression and Chopin’s ‘The Awakening. The Mississippi Quarterly. Volume: 51. Issue: 2. 1998. Page Number: 253+.
Showalter, Elaine (1993). Tradition and the Female Talent: The Awakening as a Solitary Book. Ed. Walker, A. Nancy. Bedford Publishers. Boston. 1993. 33-55.
Skaggs, Peggy (1974). Three Tragic Figures in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. Louisiana Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of the South. Volume 4, 1974. 345-64.
Urgo, Joseph R. (1987). A Prologue to Rebellion: The Awakening and the Habit of Self-expression. The Southern Literary Journal. Vol. 20, Issue 1, 1987. 22-32.