The tone of the novella is drowsy, somniferous, and almost like the sea it comes and goes in tides — attacking the reader with its sharp and true observations, then lulling into a trance of unknown expectations. Who is Edna? What does she want?
That is how I felt when reading The Awakening. Edna is marvellous. Following her awakening was like watching a mighty creature unfold from the shell that has heretofore provided protection, yes, but also constraint, numbing the potential that is truly limitless when free. Chopin crafted an amazing character for Edna Pontellier. When the woman realizes “her position in the universe as a human being,” the texture of the narrative changes, and I could feel the growth of Edna’s spirits. Yet I could also feel the tragedy of it all. Edna evolves into a creature out of tune with the society of her time, and this paves a path towards self-destruction. Imagine how many women Edna embodies! Beautiful, intelligent, powerful women who have undergone their own awakenings only to face that ever-present monster — society, thwarting their potential.
. . . she had apprehended instinctively the dual life — that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions.
It is easy to oppress someone without individual identity and independence. For this reason, women were expected to “efface themselves as individuals”. The ideal woman of the patriarchal world has no individuality. She is he Angel of the Home, the submissive wife, the tenacious mother (read: Adèle Ratignolle) — always fading into the background. When this woman tries to assert herself (ex. Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House), she is accused of selfishness, more often than not referring back to the “habitual neglect of the children” for which Mr. Pontellier (the ideal patriarch with his brokerage business and cigars) reprimands his wife.
If it was not a mother’s place to look after children, whose on earth was it?
Similarly, in A Doll’s House Nora’s husband entreats her to “think of the children”. This way, a woman’s only rays of light in an unhappy marriage — her children — also become a method of confinement!
Moreover, everyone needs a degree of selfishness to find and be themselves. This can be seen in Edna’s love of “dabbling” in painting because the solitary activity of sketching offers her a window into her individuality. This is also reminiscent of The Yellow Wallpaper in which a woman is driven to madness because her only escape, writing, is taken away from her. This need for selfishness and solitude is shown more explicitly when Edna physically separates from her family.
However, Chopin points out that above all there exists non-material selfishness; it is inherent to an individual:
I would give up my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself.
Birds and the Sea
A brief note on the symbols in the novella, in case I ever need to analyse it (which I would love immensely).
The Awakening opens with an image of a caged parrot repeating a sequence of phrases, and images of birds or avian features (feathers/wings) continue to reappear throughout the narrative. I interpreted the metaphor with the most obvious symbolic connotation (to me, at least): the women are caged like the birds; they are beautiful amazing creatures but are only there for entertainment or as decorations; they are given a voice but a limited one and are taught what to say and when to say it; they have wings (i.e. potential) but can never use them to fly.
The sea is another pervasive image which is everywhere in the novella. I chose to see it as symbolizing freedom, which, although tempting, has its own dangers. There is so much more material to expand on this, but I’ll leave it at that.
When reading through Edna’s encounters with the sea, I was reminded of my own love for water and swimming. There is something very natural about being in a body of water — it does cast a spell and it does seduce. When I swim in a lake, I do get tempted to swim as far as I can, and something calls me to try and reach the other shore (which also seems so enticingly close). Obviously, I never act on these urges, I don’t even swim that well. 🙂
I feel she deserves her own short paragraph. Mlle Reisz has a crucial presence in the narrative. Both she and Edna are outsiders which brings them together. Also, Mlle Reisz is the ideal that Edna feels she needs to attain. Independent and immersed in her art, Mlle Reisz also shows the downsides of this existence — she is disliked, lives shabbily and is a castaway of society. Perhaps she was also swept into the dangerous depths of the sea (read: freedom), although less literally than Edna.
Mlle Reisz is also the link between Edna and Robert, as she confirms Robert’s love for Edna. Although, as we later realize, his love is not enough to drive him to break societal norms which envelop him.
The most final of the novella’s themes, I believe this is what leads Edna to reach her end. When she discovers herself, she also discovers that her awakening will isolate her. At first she embraces the solitude. However, as she fails to procure understanding from her friends and even her lover, Edna is pushed towards her decision. Her alternative would be to live out her life like Mlle Reisz, but I think Edna would consider that a defeat in itself. Even though Mlle Reisz is free, she really isn’t because her life continues to be dictated by rules of society (which render her an outcast, again pinning labels). Perhaps Edna thought the only way to “win” in this scenario would be to claim her own freedom and “swim far out, where no woman had swum before”.