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In Kate Chopin’s controversial novel “The Awakening”, the protagonist, Mrs. Edna Pontellier, experiences a personal rebirth, becoming an independent, sexual, and feeling woman, shunning the restraints of the oppressive society in which she lives. This awakening happens on Grand Isle, a luxurious island on which Edna vacations in the summer. Following her awakening, she must return to her permanent home in New Orleans. Through the two settings (The Grand Isle and New Orleans), Chopin shows the reader the rift between Edna and her husband Leonce; this disparity ties into a larger theme of the difference between love and possession, and the contrast between freedom and oppression.
In the first chapter, the reader is introduced to Edna’s husband, Leonce Pontellier, who is sitting on the porch while his wife swims with her young admirer, Robert. Leonce, a New Orleans businessman, is obviously out-of-place in the lush, relaxing atmosphere of Grand Isle. He is irritated by the sounds and goings-on around him, such as the Madame Lebrun’s parrot and the Farival twins playing piano, and hardly seems impressed by the beauty of the land; rather, the narrator describes the young people playing croquet and the woman with beads in a quite passive tone, signifying Leonce’s boredom with his surroundings. The first truly rich description offered to the reader occurs when Leonce catches a glimpse of his wife: “The gulf looked far away, melting hazily into the blue of the horizon. The sunshade continued to approach slowly=2E Beneath its pink-lined shelter were his wife, Mrs. Pontellier, and young Robert Lebrun.” This introduction immediately reveals the rift between husband and wife: Leonce trying to mentally escape Grand Isle by reading his day-old paper, and Edna embracing Grand Isle by lazily partaking in its pleasures, such as swimming and flirtation.
As the novel progresses, Edna grows to relate the ocean with romance, beauty, and perfection, while Leonce only associates it with annoyance and wishes to leave it. The narrator remarks that Leonce, noticing Edna’s sunburn, looks at her “as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage.” This introduces the difference between love and possession: while Robert spends leisure time with Edna, enjoying the ocean and appreciating her company as a function of what we later discover to be his true love for her, Leonce declines to partake in Edna’s favorite activities, and only regards her as a piece of property to be cultivated and cared for. He further escapes the atmosphere of Grand Isle by leaving the house to go play billiards with the other men and displaying ambivalence about returning home for dinner. His wish to be surrounded by other businessmen playing men’s games intensifies our understanding of their rift: though he is only going to another spot on the island, he is mentally in another world, unable to understand the environment of his wife and her young admirer. When he returns from playing billiards and wants to talk to his wife about his night, she is indifferent and wants him to leave her alone so she can sleep; she has no desire for his world to collide with hers. They argue because Leonce grows frustrated with Edna’s lack of concern for their children; this may actually signify a wish to control Edna and keep her in her place. When, during the business week, Leonce leaves for work in New Orleans and Edna stays in her sphere, he sends home luxuriant gifts which reassure everyone, including Edna, that he is the perfect husband. The gifts, however, do nothing to bring them closer together, because he exists in his cold world of numbers and money, and a gift sent from his world to hers means little.
Instances of his sense of possession on Grand Isle come up numerous other times, such as when he demands that Edna come in from lounging in the hammock; he is not as concerned for her safety as he is about his property being harmed by mosquitoes, and about his desire going unsatisfied. Although he has seen Edna swim out, become frightened, and leave the beach, it is not Leonce, but Robert who follows Edna home after her experience; Leonce only returns when he feels like it, and immediately takes on the role of the demanding husband. This stands in direct contrast to Edna and Robert, who are souls of the island and the ocean.
The theme is continued when the couple returns to New Orleans. Leonce expects Edna to act like a possession, dressing well and receiving guests to assure others of his high post in society. Since Grand Isle is more Edna’s world than Leonce’s, he doesn’t expect as much from her there as he does in the city. However, upon their return to New Orleans, Leonce makes demands on her, the cook, and others in order to ensure that he is comfortable in his environment; as Edna is now in his sphere, he feels even more of a right to possession. As she descends deeper and deeper into her own world, he consults a doctor about her behavior, more out of concern for keeping up appearances than for his wife’s health.
The narrator describes the pleasure Leonce takes in examining the objects that he has acquired for his house and the extended time that he spends away from home, securing more and more business deals to make more and more money; one can assume that Edna has just as much significance as a sculpture on the mantle in his business-obsessed setting. This significantly contrasts with Edna and Robert’s relationship: when Edna is on Grande Isle, she is very much in Robert’s sphere, but he helps her to become at one with it, and demands from her nothing but the pleasure of her company. As Leonce begins to spend less and less time with Edna, remaining in his cold world of business and money-hoarding, Edna begins to engage in serious flirtation, and eventually consummates an affair with Alcee Arobin: now that her appetite for love and sex has been unearthed by Grand Isle, she will not let the cold attitude of her husband force her to suffer in silence. When she begins her liaison with Arobin, she feels a pang of guilt for being unfaithful – not to her husband, but to Robert, who values her and does not seek to possess her. Edna does not live by the social dictate that marriage is a sacred and unbreakable bond; rather, she admits the loveless state of her marriage and her true reasons for agreeing to Leonce’s proposal, and seeks love outside her union. This feature of her awakening reaches its peak when, in the haven of Mademoiselle Reisz’s home, she confesses her love for Robert.
The second significant function of setting, the contrast between freedom and oppression, is also introduced very early in the story. Through observing her friends and neighbors on Grand Isle, Edna receives a message of unrestrained sexuality combined with strict chastity. Creole society, of which the Protestant Edna is not originally a part, while accepting of Edna, is quite different. The men and women of Grand Isle choose openly sexual subjects for discussion, read sensual literature, and flirt without thought, because Creole husbands are certain of their wives’ faithfulness, and never become jealous; at the same time, they are quite proper in action, and no thought of actual infidelity or sordid affairs between unmarried persons ever exists. This reveals the strong freedom of thought encouraged on Grand Isle; while New Orleans is also largely Creole, Edna does not feel free there due to the restraints placed on her by her husband.
Because she is used to traditional restraints, Edna is not at one with the free culture that she finds herself in the midst of at the start of her summer on the Isle. As the summer progresses and she is sexually and mentally awakened, the freedom of her setting becomes a part of her, and forces her to feel alone and stifled in the city. The ocean, the center of her existence on the Isle, is largely responsible for her awakening and her subsequent longing for Grand Isle. In the beginning of the summer, she mentions being so afraid of the water that even some of the children try to help her learn how to swim. However, the ocean slowly seduces her; she is confused about why she rejects Robert’s invitation to go for a swim, but goes anyway. In this short chapter, the narrator tells us that Edna’s eyes are fully opened by the ocean, its seductive voice calling her to inner contemplation and to the realization of her place in the universe. This is probably Edna’s first true realization that she is her own person; it is something she has sensed before due in her silent protest against being defined only by her relationship to her husband and children, but it is a realization that she was previously unable understand.
The next chapter shows Edna slowly loosening her reserve at Grand Isle, allowing herself to be drawn to Adele Ratignolle’s beauty and confiding in her, and being confused but charmed by Adele’s outward affections. The ocean’s seduction of Edna culminates when she swims, in her own mind, further than anyone has ever swam and becomes completely free; her momentary fear of death is significant because taking a risk that may kill her makes her feel as though she has broken her figurative bindings. Although her husband simply scoffs at her and informs her that she did not go very far, she is a new woman – the ocean is cemented into place as the center of her liberation, and both Robert and Edna realize their desire for each other. Furthermore, Leonce experiences outward insubordination from his wife for the first time.
Just as Edna is beginning to blossom and make her own decisions, such as inviting Robert to go to the Mass with her, she discovers that he is leaving for Mexico; in their fumbling and formal farewell, they become aware of their mutual frustration over their unrequited love and their efforts to keep their relationship chaste and appropriate. At the end of her stay at Grand Isle, Edna confides to Adele that she would never sacrifice herself for her children, a notion that she had held for a long time but was afraid to confess, signifying that the free atmosphere of her setting has transformed her into her own person.
The Pontelliers’ return to New Orleans signifies Leonce’s return to his element, as well as Edna’s return to oppression and stuffily formal duties, such as receiving visitors each Tuesday for the purpose of keeping the Pontellier name honorable in the society. Edna, newly awakened and drawn to her own whims, decides not to receive her visitors; this causes a squabble between her and Leonce, who is, as always, irritated at her shortcomings as a traditional society wife. When he stomps off to the club, he signifies his continued presence in the New Orleans setting, standing in contrast to Edna’s internalization of the Grand Isle. Leonce briefly struggles to drag Edna back into his world, but she has become too independent, and refuses with little effort. She begins to pursue art more seriously, and becomes depressed by her friend Adele’s limited life with her husband and children. It is evident that despite Edna’s adoration for Madame Ratignolle, she realizes that Adele is much more a part of New Orleans, very much at home with the rules of traditionalism. When the awakened Edna begins to frequent the home of Mademoiselle Reisz, she sees a prime example of another independent woman who refuses to conform and instead dedicates herself to her art. Because of this, she is more or less shunned by society, even though she is admired for her piano playing. Thus, we see a contrast within a contrast: the disparity between the woman who is content with tradition and is unknowingly condemned to a life devoid of wonder and self-discovery, and a woman who scorns tradition and cannot therefore be a full member of society. Edna continues to live her life as she wants, shunning her rigid setting, waving her husband away as a nuisance, and visiting her outcast friend to hear Robert’s letters about her; the two women get along because they are both liberated, one more than the other. Mademoiselle’s apartment is another dimension: in the traditional, structured New Orleans setting, it seems like a haven of freedom, explaining Edna’s wish to go there often despite her confusion about Mademoiselle. As the relationship between Edna and Mademoiselle develops and she comes often to read the letters and listen to the music, Mademoiselle and her home become vital to Edna’s complete realization of her love for Robert Lebrun.
Meanwhile, when Leonce visits Doctor Mandelet, their conversation about Edna further exposes the male attitudes towards women in this traditional society. In Grand Isle, the references to “mother-women” are numerous, and the narrator makes it clear what was expected of respectable women. Never before have we seen an attitude towards women as condescending we see during the discussion between Leonce and the doctor in the city. They view women who defy constraints as mentally unstable, and in general far less mature, almost childish – in short, in need of looking-after by the men in their lives. The men refer to feminists as “pseudo-intellectuals”, and talk scornfully about any notions Edna might have about women’s rights. While the doctor is perceptive enough to realize that Edna might be having an affair (and sensitive enough not to hint about this to Leonce), it is nevertheless clear that he views women as inferior to men.
As the plot progresses, Edna becomes more and more eccentric, while Leonce spends more and more time away from home. The children are sent off to their grandmother, and Edna becomes a frequent racetrack patron, thereby beginning her affair with Alcee Arobin. As a further function of her independence, she decides to make a final break from the oppressive environment of New Orleans society by moving out of her husband’s house and into a smaller one, and to support herself by gambling and selling her art. This signifies that she has stopped allowing herself to be defined by her setting, and has become a wholly independent woman. Although she is only moving around the corner, the small house is not a part of New Orleans society, and is therefore not subject to its constraints; it is as much a haven, a small piece of a freer world, as is the house of Mademoiselle Reisz. It is there that she and Robert confess their true love for each other – something that they cannot do anywhere else but Grand Isle.
The novel ends, appropriately, where it begins: at the beach in Grand Isle. Edna goes to take a swim after informing Victor of her presence. She returns to the beach and finds her old swimsuit, but then chooses to simply swim naked. As she swims out, she is consciously performing her last act: suicide. The first thoughts that run through her head are of her husband and children, whom she sees as her biggest restraints, who think they can possess her. She then thinks of Mademoiselle Reisz, who seems to be taunting her for lacking the courage to do what she wants. She finally fades out to a thought of Robert’s farewell letter, and images of her family. Just as the seductive ocean awakens her to the possibilities of life at the beginning, it frees her from all her restraints, and gives her the only way out afforded to the traditional female: death.
As we learn in the introduction, when “The Awakening” was first published in 1899, it opened to such widespread criticism that it abruptly ended the career of its talented – and potentially prolific – author. The critics, mostly men and traditionalists, were shocked by the “indecency” of the novel, which dared – finally – to give a female protagonist a soul, a mind, a sexual appetite, and a desire for true love. By providing two contrasting settings, Grand Isle and New Orleans, and by sprinkling the cold city setting with small “havens” of freedom, Kate Chopin offers her readers a clear view of the established social order of her day, and of the difficulty of breaking out of that order. The heroine, after a lengthy process of liberation, ultimately realizes that her only real way out is through suicide. By internalizing of the passions of the beach and breaking of the chains of the city, Edna Pontellier becomes a true feminist heroine. Likewise, Kate Chopin becomes a stifled but strong voice for liberty in the face of an enslavingly sexist, conservative traditionalism.
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