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Character: In Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, the role of main character is filled by Mrs. Edna Pontellier, a young wife and mother living in 1890’s New Orleans who starts her journey to discovering herself while on a family vacation in Grand Isle. Edna is immediately shown to be different from most. She is artistic and impulsive, and has friends but is content to be alone on occasion. When with those she’s comfortable with, she can be witty and adventurous, but with most others Edna is reserved, unused to outward affection. Her lack of affection, especially towards her family (though she loves them), makes her markedly different from the women around her. Unlike them she is, “…not a mother-woman,” (Chopin 16).
All of these traits just serve as evidence of the most important thing to know about Edna; she is unhappy with the status quo which most women of her time embrace, where their expected main goal in life is to be little more than happy homemakers. Edna, instead, wants for something she takes some time to recognize as independence, and in pursuit of these things she is, “…beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her,” (Chopin 25). Edna’s longing for individuality and freedom is conflicting as, on some level, it seems she believes that these are things she shouldn’t want. Societal expectations of women which encourage them to be quiet and submissive enforce this belief that Edna should devote herself to her husband, children, and home, and not want for anything else. Her own peers support this throughout the novel, as well.
Mr. Pontellier shows frequent dissatisfaction at her willfulness, and her friend Madame Ratignolle, the “…embodiment of every womanly grace and charm,” (Chopin16) unknowingly serves as a pressure to adhere to society. Edna deals with this in her own way, growing in stages powered by spurts of selfish impulse and vulnerability. She starts her journey out as a woman who submits to her husband purely out of habit and barely understands why she feels wrong about it, seeing her distress as, “…indescribable oppression which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar part of her consciousness…” (Chopin 14). Edna starts to really change and feel freer after being dragged out of her comfort zone in Grand Isle; she swims in an ocean that terrifies her, and mastering her fear seems to give Edna a glimpse of what she is capable of and the freedom she really wants, made clear where it is said, “As she swam she seemed to be reaching out for the unlimited in which to lose herself,” (Chopin 48). She becomes noticeably more confident after, saying no to her husband’s requests and going off with her friends for fun. At this time, though, she leans heavily on Robert LeBrun, a man she has become friends with on the Isle. Edna finds herself in love with him, but it seems that love is more just a manifestation of her desire for freedom than anything else.
Robert urges her to be adventurous, but still she feels lost without him, not allowing herself to be truly independent. This remains true throughout her other stages of growth; first, when she goes home to New Orleans and throws herself into art and visits to musician Mademoiselle Reisz, and where she finally breaks down in an impulsive fit of anger at a marriage and life she clearly hasn’t realized she’s been trying to escape. She is ashamed at her breakdown but accepts that she simply isn’t fit for that life, which is a major step that puts her in an independent mindset where she is sure of herself and has, “…resolved never to take another step backward,” (Chopin 95). Another big step (where Robert still looms over her head) occurs when her husband and children leave the house, and Edna up and decides she is done with living there. She buys a house alone, engages in a short and less-than-fulfilling affair with another man, and lives happily in her little house ignoring how it will negatively affect her family, who she still loves and imagines in her life. She’s blissfully unaware until Robert shows up, they declare their love, and he disappears again after Edna tells him she won’t belong to anyone, saying, “I am no longer one of Mr. Pontellier’s possessions to dispose of or not. I give myself where I choose. If he were to say, ‘Here, Robert, take her and be happy, she is yours,’ I should laugh at you both,” (Chopin 178). It is then that the final stage occurs, where it is clear that Robert’s leaving makes it click for Edna that she can’t have all she wants. She loves her family, but in her time that means devoting herself to them, which she doesn’t want, and she loves Robert, but their relationship is an impossible goal if she doesn’t wish to marry him. Full independence can’t come with following either path in front of her, but she isn’t the type to handle too much loneliness well. Edna goes back to Grand Isle in her last stage, to the ocean where she felt free, and it is there where she can finally be truly on her own by losing herself to the water.
Literary Style: Many important literary elements go into writing an engaging story like The Awakening. First there is tone, or the way the author seems to feel towards the story they’ve written. In this novel the tone is fairly detached, as Chopin is narrating others’ lives from an outer perspective. At times, though, the tone is passionate and understanding, showing sympathy for Edna’s struggle, such as when she’s just starting to question her life and it’s written, “But the beginning of things, of a world especially, is necessarily vague, tangled, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing. How few of us ever emerge from such beginning! How many souls perish in its tumult!” (Chopin 25). Another important element to a story is theme, the message us readers are to take from the writing. One of the most prominent themes in this novel is that individuality and independence are worth pursuing as they’re what truly make a person. Edna Pontellier knows she needs independence, that there should be more for her than a domestic life where she feels and experiences nothing great. She even comes to say of domesticity that she feels, “…pity for that colorless existence which never uplifted its possessor beyond the region of blind contentment…” (Chopin 93). A second theme comes as she realizes this, which is that going against societal values is difficult and not without consequence. Consequences come in the form of judgement from friends at the fact that Edna won’t give herself entirely to being a mother and in the form of rage from her husband for the same reason. He sees her striving for self-expression as, “… the utmost folly for a woman at the head of a household, and the mother of children…” when she, “…would be better employed contriving for the comfort of her family,” (Chopin 95).
The final consequence of Edna’s disregard for society as she tries to be free is the fact that, no matter what, with full independence she ends up alone. Chopin also uses symbolism, where some elements in the novel represent deeper facets of the writing, to tell Edna’s story. Birds serve as a major symbol, used to mirror Edna herself. The first birds introduced, a mockingbird and a parrot in a cage whose noise drives Mr. Pontellier away, symbolize Edna’s suppression (and other women’s of her time) brought on by societal values and by her husband, who likes when she is proper but resents when she starts to use her voice. Another bird is mentioned later by Mademoiselle Reisz, as an example of Edna’s strength in rebelling against society to reach her independence, saying, “The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings…” (Chopin 138). Finally, “A bird with a broken wing was beating the air above, reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water,” (Chopin 188) serves as a clear symbol of Edna at the end of the novel, giving in under the realization that she can’t achieve all she wants and giving herself to the sea. The sea is the second major symbol; it’s first mentioned that, “The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation,” (Chopin 25). In this way, the sea itself and the way it calls is a parallel for the life of freedom and independence that Edna seeks. She wants it, but she doesn’t understand it, and knows that going after it could end horribly. Eventually conquering her fear of the ocean leads to newfound confidence in herself, and the waves become a solace for her. Just talk about diction and syntax and what they accomplish.
Impact: The Awakening, in the time it was written, would have gone against every societal standard set against women and their purpose. Women of the Victorian age were seen solely as caretakers, responsible for the home, family, and keeping up appearances, and they were expected to be happy with that. Often they were, not questioning a life where they could possibly be any different, or too shocked or afraid to even think of wanting more. If they did voice such thoughts up they would be disregarded, as women of the time often were seen as inferior beings when it came to intellect. Chopin through this work seems to rebuke these views; she encourages women to think for themselves and gives value to their thoughts and desires. Edna’s journey serves to show all women that they can question society as she does by actually supporting her journey instead of criticizing it, and by taking the care of going in depth to trying to understand the motivations and struggle behind her actions.
Treating a woman and her thoughts with this amount of respect is something unlikely to have happened in any novels during the Victorian age in which it was written or in any from before that time either. It is an early form of feminism, brought about towards the start of when women in America started fighting for their rights to vote but when they were still too used to being submissive to society. At the time, this story had little impact since women were still so deeply rooted in the roles that were made for them and men were not particularly inclined to change that; impact might have simply been relegated to the small, brave groups that fought for suffrage, who longed for the same things as Edna. Perhaps they read the novel, and it contributed to their success in reaching their goal. It’s impossible to know, but it wouldn’t be surprising, as feminism eventually gained support as a movement, and women continue to work towards a more equal status. The Awakening is now recognizable as an important piece of literature for the way it supports feminism but also in the way that it encourages people as a whole to fight for their independence and individuality.
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