An analysis on Chopin’s The Awakening
Chopin explores many devices to portray her rightly titled novel, The Awakening. Throughout the text, there is a consistency of similes, metaphors, and symbols regarding the motif of “awakening.” Chopin points us to times where the protagonist, Edna Pontellier, wakes from a sleep, or is compared to a new born animal, and with all these constant reminders that Edna has finally awoken from a life that chained her into one that frees her from the bonds of society, the text should be seen far from one of liberation. Yes, the rebellious acts and occurrences throughout the novel can be defined as liberty, but what does that mean when the last few chapters negate all possibilities of there being a novel of freedom? We should stray far from categorizing this novel as any means of a liberation.
To understand why we reject the term “liberation,” we must look at the context first, and though it is considered sin to conjoin author and text, Elaine Showalter’s feminist perspective essay “Tradition and the Female Talent: The Awakening as a Solitary Book” justifies doing so by stating, “[In] order to understand The Awakening fully, we need to read it in the context of literary tradition” (Showalter, 205). Showalter goes on to explain Chopin’s influence on women writers in the 19th through 20th century and how the literary tradition of female deaths links with The Awakening’s ending. Showalter states, “[But] the ending too seems to return Edna to the nineteenth-century female literary tradition …Readers of the 1890’s were well accustomed to drowning as the fictional punishment for female transgression against morality, and most contemporary critics of The Awakening thus automatically interpreted Edna’s suicide as the wages of sin” (Showalter, 219). The comparisons of Chopin’s life and Edna’s are brought up throughout her essay but it is the parallel between Chopin and the book’s life that destroys any theory of true liberation. Since drowning was seen as traditional throughout the literature of the nineteenth–century, this leaves little room to be the final step of a break from normativity, as Showalter continues, “Drowning itself brings to mind metaphorical analogies between femininity and liquidity… Drowning thus becomes the traditionally feminine literary death” (Showalter, 219). The context does create a nice starting point, but is not enough to prove it all. Thus, we must look at the literary text.
It is wrong to say the book has zero relation to liberation. It is important to note that there are events that show occurrences of Edna’s freedom, as it becomes an essential part of her awakening. Showalter notices a transition of liberation in the narrative when the relationship between Edna and Adèle Ratignolle is emphasized. Showalter states, “In textual terms, it is through this relationship [with Adèle] that she becomes Edna in the narrative rather than “Mrs. Pontellier.”” (Showalter, 213–214) This transformation can be seen early on, starting with her hailing of “Mrs. Pontellier” from chapters one through five, transitioning to Edna Pontellier, and finally dropping the surname every so often after chapter six. Another attempt of Edna’s liberation include her opposition to Léonce’s demands:
“Do you know it is past one o’clock? Come on,” and he mounted the steps and went into their room.
“Edna!” called Mr. Pontellier from within, after a few moments had gone by.
“Don’t wait for me,” she answered. (Chopin, 52)
This act of resistance is what starts up the increasing need for liberation. Edna does try obtaining liberation, but her attempts are just steps, and eventually they turn useless in the long run. In the end of all things, Edna’s children, Robert, and her childhood are factors that negate the liberation idea of the novel.
Elizabeth LeBlanc writes an essay on Edna as a “metaphorical lesbian,” a term used by feminist theorist Bonnie Zimmerman (LeBlanc, 238). LeBlanc argues that although Edna has heterosexual interest in Robert, her actions and relations with other figures in the text hail her as a “metaphorical lesbian.” An interesting point she brings up is Monique Wittig’s idea of “escaping” the role of being a “woman” by following and not following certain social tendencies that fall under the category of woman ( LeBlanc, 245–246). LeBlanc explains that “Wittig argues that the “first task” of lesbians…is to reject, to obliterate the culturally constructed ideal of “woman” (as intimately tied to childbearing capacity) while retaining ties to individual women and reaffirming the community of women” (LeBlanc 246). Her note on “childbearing capacity” plays an important role in the text. LeBlanc’s essay explains that the metaphorical lesbian is what Edna awakens to, and slowly becomes this subconscious end result of her liberation. As Edna climbs the stairs of liberation, she is quickly pushed down when she witnesses Adéle giving birth to a child. “Edna began to feel uneasy. She was seized with a vague dread. Her own like experiences seemed far away, unreal, and only half remembered. She recalled faintly an ecstasy of pain …and an awakening to find a little new life to which she has given being …” (Chopin, 133). Edna has finally seen the same thing she went through years ago with her children, and the whole idea of “escaping” being a woman closes when she remembers that she herself has experienced the biggest performance a “woman” was known for. One of the last things Edna thinks about is her children along with her husband, (“She thought of Léonce and the children,” (Chopin, 139)). It makes it harder to say that her final action in the novel is a movement of “liberation” if Edna herself realizes there is no escaping something society will pin her down as. Those final thoughts help negate all of these steps she went through to feel the rush of freedom.
Yet, her family was not her only thoughts, as she does recall Robert’s letter and memories of her childhood as her final thoughts. Robert becomes a big asset in her attempt at liberating herself, and once Edna follows through her first few steps of liberation, she can finally be at peace with the thought of being in love with him. When she reads Robert’s letter, she grows “faint” from his “Good-by — because I love you” (Chopin, 136). This is the same portion of the letter she remembers while engulfed in the sea water, realizing the fact he did not “understand” her attempt at liberating herself (Chopin, 139). Another series of thoughts that strikes Edna in the ocean are the memories of her childhood, most importantly, the cavalry officer. Chopin writes, “[Edna] remembered that she had been enamored of a dignified and sad-eyed cavalry officer…She could not leave his presence…but the officer melted imperceptibly out of her existence” (Chopin, 39). This idea of the officer “melting” out of her existence is similar to the idea of Robert himself “melting” out of Edna’s existence through the words of “Goodby — because I love you.” Another thought swirling around her mind was the first time she almost drowned swimming. “She remembered the night she swam far out, and recalled the terror that seized her at the fear of being unable to regain the shore” (Chopin, 139). These memories and thoughts that are running through her mind are not fond ones. They are the very memories that have suppressed her liberty throughout the novel. In no way did the novel read like a release from these painful memories and moments. “Exhaustion” began “pressing upon and overpowering her” (139) while in the ocean, the language suggests that her suicide has physical impression from the water, and these hostile thoughts are “overpowering” her. In the very same chapter just before she goes into the water, she witnesses a bird flying over the water, “A bird with a broken wing was beating the air above, reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water” (Chopin 138), a metaphor and foreshadowing of Edna and her fate. The language in the last chapter does not ring “liberation” or “freedom” in any way. It is also important not to confuse “liberation” with “awakening” when Chopin writes “She felt like some new-born creature, opening its eyes in a familiar world that it had never known.”
Edna’s tragic dream of liberation dies from the power of society. With her role in life as a friend, wife, and mother, her only true way to attempt an “escape” is her own suicide, but when her final thoughts consist of toxic moments in her life, why should we define her final act as “liberating” instead of “defeat by normality”? It is because of the social norms overpowering her desires that she feels the need to end her life in the first place, and the idea of Edna finally reaching her own nirvana of “escape” and “liberation” fades away. Chopin’s writing career experienced a similar effect (though not right away after the publishing of this novel) and this “drowning” of her name did not mark “freedom” in any good connotation. The Awakening should instead be read as a novel of attempted liberation, thwarted by the unwritten regulations of society. The biggest forces of Edna’s life being her children, Robert, and her husband (intentionally or unintentionally) all pushed her to the point of suicide, all because of her desire to be who she wanted to be: a woman for herself.
- Chopin, Kate, and Nancy A. Walker. The Awakening: Complete, Authoritative Text with Biographical, Historical, and Cultural Contexts, Critical History, and Essays from Contemporary Critical Perspectives. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000. Print.
- LeBlanc, Elizabeth. “The Metaphorical Lesbian: Edna Pontellier in The Awakening.” The Awakening: Complete, Authoritative Text with Biographical, Historical, and Cultural Contexts, Critical History, and Essays from Contemporary Critical Perspectives. Nancy A. Walker. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000. (1996): 237–56. Print.
- Showalter, Elaine. “The Awakening: Tradition and the American Female Talent.” The Awakening: Complete, Authoritative Text with Biographical, Historical, and Cultural Contexts, Critical History, and Essays from Contemporary Critical Perspectives. Nancy A. Walker. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000. (1991): 202–22. Print.
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