“She grew daring and reckless, overestimating her strength. She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before.” Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) is the story of one woman’s realization of the world and potential within her. In her Journey, Edna Pontellier awakens to three important pieces of her own being. First, she awakens to her artistic and creative potential. This minor but important awakening gives rise to Edna Pontellier’s most obvious and demanding awakening, one which resonates throughout the book: the sexual.
However, though her sexual awakening may seem to be the most important issue in the novel, Chopin actually slips in a final awakening at the end, one that is hinted at early on but not resolved until the last-minute, and that is Edna’s awakening to her true humanity and role as a mother. These three awakenings, artistic, sexual, and motherhood, are what Chopin includes in her novel to define womanhood; or, more specifically, independent womanhood.
What seems to ignite Edna’s awakening is the rediscovery of her artistic inclinations and talents. Art, in The Awakening becomes a symbol of freedom and of failure. While attempting to become an artist, Edna reaches the first peak of her awakening. She begins to view the world in artistic terms. When Mademoiselle Reisz asks Edna why she loves Robert, Edna responds, “Why? Because his hair is brown and grows away from his temples; because he opens and shuts his eyes, and his nose is a little out of drawing.” Edna is beginning to notice intricacies and details that she would have ignored previously, details that only an artist would focus and dwell on, and fall in love with. Further, art is a way for Edna to assert herself. She sees it as a form of self-expression and individualism.
Edna’s own awakening is hinted at when the narrator writes, “Edna spent an hour or two in looking over her own sketches. She could see their short-comings and defects, which were glaring in her eyes” (90). The discovery of defects in her previous works, and the desire to make them better demonstrate Edna’s reformation. Art is being used to explain Edna’s change, to suggest that Edna’s soul and character are also changing and reforming, that she is finding defects within herself. Art, as Mademoiselle Reisz defines it, is also a test of individuality. But, like the bird with its broken wings struggling along the shore, Edna perhaps fails this final test, never blossoming into her true potential because she is distracted and confused along the way.
A great deal of this confusion is owed to the second awakening in Edna’s character, the sexual awakening. This awakening is, without doubt, the most considered and examined aspect of the novel. As Edna Pontellier begins to realize that she is an individual, capable of making individual choices without being another’s possession, she begins to explore what these choices might bring her. Her first sexual awakening comes in the form of Robert Lebrun. Edna and Robert are attracted to one another from first meeting, though they do not realize it. They unwittingly flirt with each other, so that only the narrator and reader understand what is going on. For instance, in the episode where Robert and Edna speak of buried treasure and pirates:
“And in a day we should be rich!” she laughed. “I’d give it all to you, the pirate gold and every bit of treasure we could dig up. I think you would know how to spend it. Pirate gold isn’t a thing to be hoarded or utilized. It is something to squander and throw to the four winds, for the fun of seeing the golden specks fly.
“We’d share it and scatter it together,” he said. His face flushed. (59)
The two do not understand the significance of their conversation, but in reality, the words speak of desire and sexual metaphor. Jane P. Tompkins writes, “Robert and Edna do not realize, as the reader does, that their conversation is an expression of their unacknowledged passion for one another” (23). Edna awakens to this passion whole-heartedly. After Robert leaves, and before the two have opportunity to truly explore their desires, Edna has an affair with Alcee Arobin.
Though it is never directly spelled out, Chopin uses language to convey the message that Edna has stepped over the line, and damned her marriage. For instance, at the end of chapter thirty-one the narrator writes, “he did not answer, except to continue to caress her. He did not say good night until she had become supple to his gentle, seductive entreaties” (154).
However, it is not only in situations with men that Edna’s passion is flared. In fact, the “symbol for sexual desire itself,” as George Spangler puts it, is the sea (252). It is appropriate that the most concentrated and artistically depicted symbol for desire comes, not in the form of a man, who may be viewed as a possessor, but in the sea, something which Edna herself, once afraid of swimming, conquers. The narrator writes, “the voice of [the] sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace” (25).
This is perhaps the most sensual and passionate chapter of the book, devoted entirely to depictions of the sea and to Edna’s sexual awakening. It is pointed out here that “the beginning of things, of a world especially, is necessarily vague, tangled, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing.” Still, as Donald Ringe notes in his essay, “[The Awakening] is too often seen in terms of the question of sexual freedom” (580).
The true awakening in the novel, and in Edna Pontellier, is the awakening of self. Throughout the novel, she is on a transcendental journey of self-discovery. Edna is learning what it means to be an individual, a woman, and a mother. Indeed, Chopin amplifies the significance of this journey by mentioning that Edna Pontellier “sat in the library after dinner and read Emerson until she grew sleepy. She realized that she had neglected her reading, and determined to start anew upon a course of improving studies, now that her time was completely her own to do with as she liked” (122). That Edna is reading Ralph Waldo Emerson is significant, especially at this point in the novel, when she is starting a new life of her own.
This new life is signaled by a “sleep-waking” metaphor, one which, as Ringe points out, “is an important romantic image for the emergence of the self or soul into a new life” (581). A seemingly excessive amount of the novel is devoted to Edna sleeping, but when one considers that, for each time Edna falls asleep, she must also awaken, one begins to realize that this is just another way of Chopin demonstrating Edna’s personal awakening.
Another transcendentalist link to awakening can be found in the inclusion of Emerson’s theory of correspondence, which has to do with life’s “double world, one within and one without” (Ringe 582). Much of Edna is contradictory. Her attitudes toward her husband, her children, her friends, and even the men with whom she has affairs. These contradictions are encompassed within the idea that Edna was “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” (33).
So, Edna’s true awakening is to the understanding of herself as a human being. But the awakening goes further still. She also becomes aware, at the end, of her role as woman and mother. At one point, early in the novel and before this awakening, Edna tells Madame Ratignolle, “I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children but I wouldn’t give myself. I can’t make it more clear; it’s only something which I am beginning to comprehend, which is revealing itself to me” (80).
William Reedy describes Edna Pontellier’s character and conflict when he wrote that “Woman’s truest duties are those of wife and mother, but those duties do not demand that she shall sacrifice her individuality” (Toth 117). The last awakening, to this realization that womanhood and motherhood can be a part of the individual, comes at the very end of the book. Toth writes that “Chopin makes the ending attractive, maternal, sensuous” (121). Edna meets with Madame Ratignolle again, to see her while she is in labor. At this point, Ratignolle cries out to Edna, “think of the children, Edna. Oh think of the children! Remember them!” (182). It is for the children, then, that Edna takes her life.
Though the signs are confused, they are throughout the book; with a broken-winged bird symbolizing Edna’s failure, and the sea concurrently symbolizing freedom and escape, Edna’s suicide is in fact a way of her maintaining her independence while also putting her children first. It is ironic that the point in her life when she realizes a mother’s duty, is at the moment of her death. She does sacrifice herself, as she claims she never would, by giving up the chance at all she could have in order to protect her children’s future and well-being.
Spangler explains this when he says, “primary was her fear of a succession of lovers and the effect such a future would have on her children: ‘to-day it is Arobin; tomorrow it will be some one else. It makes no difference to me, it doesn’t matter about Leonce Pontellier – but Raoul and Etienne!’” (254). Edna gives up the newly found passion and understanding, she gives up her art, and her life, to protect her family.
The Awakening is a complex and beautiful novel, filled with contradictions and sensations. Edna Pontellier journeys through life, awakening to the transcendental beliefs of individuality and connections with nature. She discovers sensual joy and power in the sea, beauty in art, and independence in sexuality. However, though some critics claim the ending to be the novel’s downfall, and what keeps it from top status in American literary canon, the fact is that it wraps up the novel in as beautiful a way as it was told all along. The novel ends in confusion and wonder, as it is told.
Edna spends her life, since the awakening, questioning the world around her and within her, so why not remain questioning to the end? Spangler writers in his essay, that “Mrs. Chopin asks her reader to believe in an Edna who is completely defeated by the loss of Robert, to believe in the paradox of a woman who has awakened to passional life and yet, quietly, almost thoughtlessly, chooses death” (254).
But Edna Pontellier is not defeated by Robert. She is the one making choices, as she has determined to do all along. Her death was not thoughtless; in fact, it seems almost pre-planned, a “coming home” to the sea. Edna strips off her clothes and becomes one with the very source of nature which helped to awaken her to her own power and individualism in the first place. Further still, that she goes quietly is not an admission of defeat, but a testament to Edna’s ability to end her life the way she lived it.
Each decision that Edna Pontellier makes throughout the novel is done quietly, suddenly. The dinner party, the move from her home to the “Pigeon House.” There is never any ruckus or chorus, just simple, impassioned change. Thus, the novel’s conclusion is a statement to the enduring power of womanhood and individualism. Chopin is affirming that, even in death, perhaps only in death, one can become and remain truly awakened.
Adam W. Burgess, “The ‘Awakenings’ of Edna Pontellier.” Adam Burgess, Writer 03 Aug. 2018. https://adamburgesswriter.com/2018/08/03/the-awakenings-of-edna-pontellier/.
Kate Chopin, The Awakening. New York: Dover Publications,1993.
Donald A. Ringe, “Romantic Imagery in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening” American Literature 43 (January 1972) 580-88.
George M. Spangler, “Kate Chopin’s The Awakening: A Partial Dissent,” Novel 3 (Spring 1970): 249-55.
Jane P. Tompkins, “The Awakening: An Evaluation,” Feminist Studies 3 (Spring-Summer 1976): 22-9.
Emily Toth, Kate Chopin. New York: Morrow, 1990.