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Kate Chopin was writing even before the phrase “women’s movement” had been coined, but the stirrings of this twentieth century movement were beginning to simmer in the US at that time. Patriarchal custom demanded that women be defined in relationship to the men in their life – wife, mother, and daughter- and not as separate human beings with a defined self outside their relationship to others. Society strongly discouraged women’s attempts to develop a separate and independent self. It had been purely satirical on the part of those women who have tried to find themselves apart from their “significant others”. Thus; it was the reason for the transpiration of a novel who suffered societal criticism and dispute. For the people of her time, Kate was way far too ahead of her generation.
Overview of the novel
The Awakening is the story of one woman’s struggle for self-identity. Edna Pontellier, who was twenty-eight year old wife and a mother of two children with a lawful husband, Leonce, a businessman, was soured on the world and her personality insures that of solitude. Edna sees this picture of herself as frightening because of what the society can do to shun those who seek a life outside the norm. She has grown tired of her duties and responsibilities at home that finally when she met a young man, she became more aware of her physical body and her desires that she had felt wantonly before. She was so confused until she started to see herself as an individual. She could no longer conform to the expectations and principles of the society where she duly belonged that’s why she attempted to free herself from such attachment to her family. She soon realized that society’s denial is nothing compared to the desperate longing inside her that almost devoured her sanity. Yes, she had felt an illicit passion towards a wrong man who left her for good, which then led her to the clasp of death.
The gulf has a sensual and mysterious part throughout the story. Chopin uses vivid imagery to create such mood making the readers aware of intense feelings and the reality of human desire. Chopin calls upon all the senses to show Edna’s unfolding sensuality. Food and appetite became symbols of an awakening to sexual consciousness. Symbolism is very obvious in the plot. Bird imagery is used reminiscent of Whitman, to symbolize freedom. A broken-winged bird that cannot fly symbolized the failure possible in the search. This explains why Edna does not beg for pity at any time (Robertson, 2004)
I think this book’s literary significance transcends time, making it valid for each generation. This tightly woven novel looks at women’s struggle for change and acceptance of self against the dictates of society. Chopin mirrored in the plot much of what was being observed in her own reality and society if not in her own life. The novel shows the sea as a metaphor for the seducer and the gulf consciousness. Her poetic qualities can be seen and heard in this passage.
The structure of the story or the plot was intricate and climactic. The flow of every chapter of the novel is continuous and the relation between each chapter is obvious and significant. The opening and closing scenes are very relevant and overwhelmingly presented in the story. Each with a different but similar connection to the other; both extremes are satisfactorily embossed on the water which played a significant role in the story (Gilley, 2006).
An objective third person narrated the story. The narrator did not criticize or applaud characters for their traits or their actions. Most importantly, the narrator withheld judgment and the choice she makes to the readers interpretation. The author does not appear as a significant observer. Chopin exudes a hands-off quality as though she attempts to describe her characters and events but does not comment on them to the reader. Her feelings on universal human nature and society in general are subtle, allowing the readers to “awaken” gently on their own.
The plot is not too fast paced and not too slow. Just the right amount of pacing for every chapter was applied. There is symmetry though not too obvious in the novel. Some scenes recur in the succeeding chapters with explanations tantamount for the readers to grasp the theme and connotative meanings inherent in the novel (Lewis, 2007).
There are indeed recurring motifs in the novel. The iconographic approach was utilized minimally in the sequences of the story. It was quite obvious in the plot. For one, the colors used to describe her paintings were actually silent manifestations of the inner turmoil that Edna was experiencing. The shape of her body also describes what kind of woman she was and what character does she portray.
A contemporary review from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, by C.L. Deyo published on May 20, 1899 is helpful in analyzing and tracing the main characters in the story from the beginning till the end (Edna’s death). The article states that Edna was aroused when Robert Lebrun “revealed her to herself”. Edna was not treated like a person by her husband but rather a decorative piece of property. When Robert left her, she continued to open her eyes to life (Deyo, 1899).
Edna’s rediscovery of feelings that she has long been repressed underlie her search for freedom, self-expression and love. Her relationship with Robert Lebrun awakens forgotten physical needs and prompts Edna to think about her life as a person. After some incidents, she started to open up to others, learned to swim, she shared confidences with others close to her and she allowed herself to be stirred by others in the person of Mademoiselle Reizs’s music. She further realized the experiencing power of the connection between the mind and the body. She finally acknowledged her feelings for one person…Robert (Culley, 1994).
It also shows that societies objections to Edna’s experiences, and suggests a lack of courage in facing society as the reason Edna sacrifices herself to the sea. Edna realized her worth and passion for life. She also wanted passion in a loving relationship but felt passion and love could not be provided by her husband, Robert, or any man. As a result, Edna’s unwillingness to sacrifice passion and wait for love left her empty and more hopeless than before the ‘awakening’. She could not function or survive in society, unfulfilled.
Edna’s role is not static but dynamic. She decides to do things because she wants to, not because someone else expects her to. She explores how not all women are content being wife and mother. Edna realized she needed more. Thus, when she discovered the strength of will to explore what she can be, she went for it. She was motivated to find herself a place under the sun.
Other characters were also imminent as the story climaxed. Each was symbolically portrayed in the novel. Madame Ratignolle represents the quintessential mother-woman figure that society recognizes and applauds. Mademoiselle Reisz is a musician but not really beautiful and everybody despised her. She is quite talented, although no one but Edna can see through that. Leonce, on the other hand is a man who accepts as his due the deference of others to his perceived superiority (Robertson, 204).
Robert is a perfect manifestation of the eccentricity in tradition and inconstancy in the society. He is the personification of flirtatious younger men who finds amusement and gratification in knowing to have tempted supposedly older and more knowledgeable women. He mirrored the abandonment, which sometimes befell the individuals who would otherwise have no purpose for living.
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As a reader, it is obvious that the major theme of “The Awakening” is the main character’s realization of life…freedom. Edna Pontellier goes through changes, in which she abandons all expectations from her husband and society in general. The fact that Edna is a woman, ignoring her duties as a mother and a wife, to explore life and find herself, appalled the male critics of the late 19th century.
Unity of women was also a minor theme throughout the novel and how accurately it reveals life. It is true that the women characters have bond. They give advice, hide secrets, and discuss their problems with each other. It also depicts Louisiana Creole life clearly and precisely. The novel displays leisure class activity and the abundance of free time such people possess (Monroe, 1899).
The Awakening of Chopin constitutes a frank exploration of how a woman of end century wakes up to the limitations of her life and initiates a transformation in which she tries to reach for learning, liberation about arts, sexual and emotional independence.
Chopin emphasized on the femininity of women and the value of independence. It just shows that Chopin has a high regard for herself and for the women in general. Her beliefs that women can be productive and recognized in their own rights are clearly depicted in her novel.
There were also repressed feelings due to chained personal freedom that were expressed in the story quite precisely. The role of women was something degrading and embarrassing in some part. Life was duly presented as unfair and that decisions made impose consequences of choices. (Kirkpatrick, 1904)
The book was filled with bad theology; emotional and physical excesses (for some parts however) selfish activity (extra-marital affairs of Edna with other men) and false signs and wonders. The connection between the birth of the Pentecostal movement in America and the Welsh Revival is obvious but usually ignored by modern revivalists. This made the book a sympathetic account that can be easily exposed by anyone with a basic understanding of the Scripture.
To completely understand a novel and the author’s point of view, it is extremely helpful to examine important aspects that scholars have noted within literary pieces. Readers may be given a better interpretation of characters, several minor themes, effects the novel had on society when it was first published, or other points the author is clearly trying to convey. I found this to be true with Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. By examining the story closely, I was given a greater comprehension of the novel.
Personally, I could not identify well with the story perhaps because it would really be difficult for someone who was encouraged to be his own person in his life to deal with idiosyncrasies such as that of Edna in the story. More than once, some puzzled over Edna’s feelings and decisions. Yet it is this very novel which brought the country to its current belief system. Although a feminist book, this could speak to anyone trapped in a role not of his or her own making.
The novel was met with a great deal of controversy before. Even fans of her work prior the novel, shunned Chopin. She was indeed a pioneer creating women characters beyond the role of wife and mother. She wrote about women’s feelings, sexuality and independence.
Chopin used powerful dialogues, actions and elements, which are beyond being incidental. The story as a whole is realistic, philosophical, intense, and sardonic and in some ways, turned out to be nostalgic. The characters are in symbolic relationships with each other. They complement each attitude and desire of each and thus gave the story a truthful twist of fate. It is important to add that the author used a lot of symbols in all her works and the Awakening is really full of them. These symbols served to add meaning to the text and to underline some subtle points, which the readers would fail to understand and looked upon. Finally, such understanding of the meaning of such symbols in the story is vital to a full appreciation of the story.
This piece of literature emphasizes that as we get older with age, our views change, or that in a woman for all ages and periods, a certain independent personality could occur. But that does not mean that we have to change our whole lifestyle as Edna Pontellier did. Change is something inherent to humans. Be it in a story or in real life, we are all but responsible to the choices we make and choices entails much responsibility that passion and confusion were not mere reasons for a sudden change of flight to something we regard as independence. There is no absolute freedom. Happiness relies on the manner by which we live our lives not apart from others. Because it is with other people that we come to identify ourselves as to whom we really are.
Overall, the theme for women or individual independence, to explore the human capacity on arts, knowledge, and even physical satisfaction, has been the crux of The Awakening. It could be quite liberating if not utterly rebellious during the time it was first published, but has become as mundane and ordinary to modern day physical liberation, especially in the west.
Culley, Margo. “Kate Chopin-The Awakening Review” Second Edition. Norton, Chicago, New York. 1994.
This is a review on the works and life of Kate Chopin. There are indications and links as to her real life as a widow as well as her published stories.
Deyo, C.L. “A Contemporary Review”. Saint Louis Post-Dispatch. Louisiana, U.S.A. 1899.
This is a review on Kat Chopin’s as well as other published author’s works basing on the “contemporary” standards at that time. These standards, however, are unlikely considered as contemporary today.
Kirkpatrick, Mary Alice. “Kate Chopin, The Awakening”. 1851-1904. Chicago; New York: Herbert S. Stone & Co., 1899.
This review on the life and works of Kate Chopin focuses on the author’s strengths and appeal to the reader. Likewise, there is also a feminism view linking this appeal to female readers.
Monroe, Lucy. “The Awakening Review-Minor Themes”. Book News, New York. 1899.
This book review focuses on the view of feminism as well as women independence from their men. Although there are considerations of what was norm during those days, this celebrates the freedom sought by the character of Chopin’s story to the extent of highlighting what may be considered trivial for the uninitiated.
Penn-Lewis, Jessie. “The Awakening in Wales: A Book Review. Edited by: Gary E. Gilley. 2007 SVC.
This review of Penn-Lewis mirror and echo the discovery and revelation of female thoughts and undertakings which serve as taboo during the time Chopin came out with the book.
Robertson, J.C. “Southern Liteary Review- The Awakening” copyright 2004. Book News. 2004.
This review of Robertson depicts the values and ideas of Chopin against the norms and what is considered as acceptable during the era. Women movement and freedom was a novelty as well as rebellious during that time so that the view of those who may not accept the book is considered.
Toth, Emily. “A New Biographical Approach and Contemporary Review”. New Orleans, Louisiana.1899.
Kate Chopin’s life and ideals were juxtaposed against her work, and the norm of the time in this review.