Kate Chopin was a female author of New Orleans. She was notable for writing rather controversial short stories and a highly controversial novel, The Awakening. Growing up, Chopin knew very well about the “etiquette” that women had to follow in the 19th-century, mainly because she lived in this time period. She wrote the novel The Awakening to show some of these “social norms” that women had to follow and how many of them may have struggled with the thought that they should not have to go through these norms. The novel follows a protagonist, Edna, a mother who grows tired of the social etiquette that women had to follow during this time period. To express her weariness, she begins to rebel against these norms, but in the end of the novel, she eventually gains freedom in a very unexpected and controversial manner. Chopin uses Edna as an argument that women deserve to live their lives without any conformation to social norms. In my opinion, the novel is not successful in this argument because the tone of the novel and Edna’s character makes it seem like she is unable to progress in her freedom.
In the beginning of the novel, we are introduced to Edna Pontellier. She is married to a man named Léonce and together they take care of their children. Edna is an artist and shares a decent amount of wealth with her family. In other words, she was a middle-class woman who had some advantages over other women of her time period. However, Edna is very conflicted on whether she wants to be a mother, or her own person who can do as she pleases. It is implied that she wants to be independent, but gaining this freedom proves to be more challenging than she may have hoped. In one scene, it shows how Edna might not be successful in freeing herself, because she eventually gives in and returns to the norm that she has to be in bed not long after one o’clock (Chopin 33). In this scene, Léonce orders Edna to return to the house, not sitting out on the porch. Edna rebels, and she “settled herself more securely in the hammock. She perceived that her will had blazed up, stubborn and resistant” (Chopin 33). As Léonce orders Edna to go to bed, Edna refuses and refines her posture in the hammock. However, this does not last for long, and alas “Edna arose, cramped from lying so long and still in the hammock. She tottered up the steps, clutching feebly at the post before passing into the house” (Chopin 34). Edna grew weary of sitting in the hammock, and thus she got up and walked back inside. Notice Chopin’s use of the word “feebly”. This could either imply that Edna was just weakened from sitting in the hammock, or it could imply that she felt feeble for surrendering her authority and giving in to the norm. Even though Edna tried to assert her right to live freely, she eventually gave into the norm in the long run.
Another reason why Edna cannot seem to gain freedom is because she seems conflicted about who she wants to be married to; as the novel goes on, it’s revealed that a man named Robert keeps entering her thoughts. According to Chopin, Robert was a friend of Edna’s who left on a long-term trip far away (Chopin 48). As the novel goes on, it is heavily implied that Edna is in love with Robert. Chopin writes that “Robert’s going had some way taken the brightness, the color, the meaning out of everything” (Chopin 48). Chopin uses words like “brightness” to indicate that Edna’s life changed after Robert left her life. In a later passage, Chopin writes that as Edna was taking a walk one day, “she was thinking of Robert. She was still under the spell of her infatuation. She had tried to forget him, realizing the inutility of remembering. But the thought of him was like an obsession, ever pressing itself upon her” (Chopin 56). Chopin writes this passage in a way that it feels like Robert is haunting Edna’s thoughts. It is heavily implied that she cannot stop thinking about him, even though she is currently married to Léonce.
Later in the novel, Edna goes on a drive with her friend to the suburbs. There, she finds Robert, who is very surprised to see her. The dialogue seems to imply that he wants her to keep away. Chopin writes this conversation between her and Robert; “‘Why have you kept away from me, Robert?’ [Edna] asked, closing the book that lay open upon the table. ‘Why are you so personal, Mrs. Pontellier?’ Why do you force me to idiotic subterfuges?’ [Robert] exclaimed with sudden warmth” (Chopin 107). This seems to imply that Robert is not upset to see Edna at all, but Edna isn’t buying it. Chopin sets up Edna’s dialogue to express her anger; “‘You are the embodiment of selfishness,’ she said. ‘You save yourself something—I don’t know what—but there is some selfish motive, and in sparing yourself you never consider for a moment what I think, or how I feel your neglect and indifference. I suppose this is what you would call unwomanly; but I have got into a habit of expressing myself. It doesn’t matter to me, and you may think me unwomanly if you like.’” (Chopin 107). Edna is clearly upset with Robert because he left her all those years ago, leaving her emotionally scarred. Robert eventually reveals to Edna that he left her because he knew what kind of conflict she was dealing with back at home with Léonce. According to Chopin, Robert says that “‘Now you know,’ [Robert] said, ‘Now you know what I have been fighting against since last summer at Grand Isle; what drove me away and drove me back again.’ ‘Why have you been fighting against it?’ she asked. Her face glowed with soft lights. ‘Why? Because you were not free; you were Léonce Pontellier’s wife,” (Chopin 108). Robert tells Edna that he had left her because he wanted to help her be free. Being married to anyone would only rob her of her freedom, and Robert was only trying to help her accomplish that sense of freedom.
The ending of the novel is the final piece of evidence on how Chopin’s argument was conveyed in an unsuccessful manner. One night, Edna decides to go out to the gulf one last time. There, she took off her clothes and stepped into the water. Chopin writes how “strange and awful it seemed to stand naked under the sky! how delicious! She felt like some new-born creature, opening its eyes in a familiar world that it had never known” (Chopin 116). The novel implies that Edna is finally getting a sense of freedom. This could give a sense of accomplishment, but then comes the tricky part. Edna “walked out. The water was chill, but she walked on. The water was deep, but she lifted her white body and reached out with a long, sweeping stroke.… She went on and on…. She thought of Léonce and the children. They were a part of her life. But they need not have thought they could possess her, body and soul.… the shore was far behind her, and her strength was gone” (Chopin 116). Edna has taken on the route of freedom in a much different sense; she has freed herself from life. She was enraged with everyone using her, so she drowned herself in the open sea. This passage has heavy emphasis on Edna’s strength giving out as she swims out to sea. Even as everyone she knows and loves enters her mind, she continues because she is exasperated.
Another point of interest during Edna’s suicide is the repetition of a quote by Robert; “‘Good-by—because, I love you.’” (Chopin 116). In the preceding chapter, Edna is quite distraught to find a note on her couch left by Robert after he came to visit; it says those words on the note (Chopin 113). Chopin writes that “Edna grew faint when she read those words. She went and sat on the sofa. Then she stretched herself out there, never uttering a sound. She did not sleep. She did not go to bed” (Chopin 116). Chopin uses imagery to imply that Edna was devastated by this note. After thinking she wanted to end up with Robert, he ended up abandoning her in the end yet again. It appears that Robert is very adamant on Edna gaining her freedom, therefore he refuses to take her as his partner. When this quote repeats in her mind during her suicide, it implies that Robert’s second abandonment of her was the final blow after everything she went through. She had enough, and whether or not she had anything left was irrelevant. She wanted her freedom and was now going to get it. However, she took the path of “Freedom” in a much darker and more chilling sense. She escaped life, leaving behind everything she loved for an eternal freedom.
With all of this information in mind, it appears that Edna has not progressed in character as much as the novel seems to build up at first. Even though Edna tried to fight against Léonce, she eventually gave up and left her position on the hammock. The scene where Edna walks the streets could be a sign of internal conflict. Regardless if Edna wants to be her own independent person, she seems to be conflicted on whether she truly wants that, or if she wants to be with Robert. However, being with Robert could be giving up her freedom if she wants to give up the label of a “woman-mother”. Robert’s actions haunt Edna to the point where she becomes emotionally scarred. The scene at the gulf where Edna drowns herself does not convey the idea of freedom. In a way, it only adds to the old stereotype that women were nothing but motherly figures, and not their own independent persons. Whether or not they wanted to be independent, the etiquette set up for women before the 20th-century trapped them to be nothing but “women-mothers” for as long as they live. While the fact that Edna resorted to drowning herself to find freedom could be argued as character progression in a much darker sense, it could also be argued as a regression of her character. After she tried to find her own identity for so long, it personally feels jarring for her to suddenly give up with one note she found on her sofa that would crush her hopes.
This novel is very controversial, and not everyone will agree that Chopin fails to convey the idea of freedom. Some critics argue that this novel was a success. Larzer Ziff author of The American 1890s, claims that the message of freedom is not what Chopin was trying to accomplish in this novel. Ziff writes that whether “girls should be educated free of illusions, if possible, whether society should change the conditions it imposes on women, or whether both are needed, the author does not say; the novel is about what happened to Edna Pontellier” (Ziff 216). Ziff claims that Chopin intended to write this novel as a “sympathetic” novel. We as the reader are only expected to sympathize with Edna. However, Ziff also points out that “Kate Chopin sympathized with Edna, but she did not pity her” (Ziff 216). The difference between sympathy and pity he just pointed out could create a red herring. Sympathizing with a character does not necessarily mean we feel bad for them. I personally could sympathize with Edna’s feeling of distraught when Robert left the note on her sofa, but ultimately, I do not think that drowning in the gulf was the best option. Edna’s character development does not justify her suddenly taking her own life in my opinion. In addition, I feel that this argument of “sympathizing with Edna” is a red herring to the overall argument, meaning that it might be a distraction to what is actually being analyzed and evaluated. We are asking if whether or not Chopin proves her argument, not whether or not we should sympathize with Edna.
While I think Edna took her own life because she felt she had no other option, it could be argued that she took her life because she was merely exasperated with how her family was using her as their “mother”. She wanted to abandon everything she originally held dear to her in order to gain her independence. Jules Chametzky, another critic who evaluated Chopin’s novel, claims that the novel is about Edna trying to free herself as an individual being rather than a tool for her family (Chametzky 236). Even though Edna has “middle-class advantages—money and the freedom to pursue a talent—Edna Pontellier, the heroine, is finally unable to overcome by herself the strength of the social and religious conventions and the biological mystique that entrap her” (Chametzky 236-37). Chametzky writes that Edna should be able to overcome her entrapment with all of the advantages. This claim could show that Edna had even less excuse to feel trapped because she was actually in a better position than many women of this time period. Therefore, any sympathy that we might feel for Edna during this scene could be thrown clean out the window when we realize these advantages. With this dilemma comes a question concerning her actual choice: Did she really have nowhere else to turn at the end of the novel, or did her internal struggle overwhelm her to the point where she lost all sense of judgement? It is a possibility that Edna was so focused on how her family used her as nothing but a pawn that she failed to realize how many advantages she had compared to other women of this time period. Regardless of how many options she had, it seems that her desperation to gain freedom got the better of her. So, she took the only option that she thought she had.
In conclusion, Kate Chopin made a valuable effort to make the argument that women have the right to be independent with her novel The Awakening. However, the protagonist Edna is developed in a way that does not feel “progressive” enough to prove the argument. The overall tone of the novel’s ending feels too jarring after all the development and feels like a “regression” in her character. This arc only shows that women of this time period felt “trapped” and that there really was no freedom in sight for them. While it could be argued that Edna’s suicide was more of an act of triumph, for she finally gained freedom, her middle-class advantages makes it more difficult to sympathize with her. The lack of sympathy makes it harder to justify her choice in the long run. It is important to view these character traits and the overall development to get a full understanding on whether an argument is truly successful.
- Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. Chopin and Culley, pp. 4-116.
- Chopin, Kate and Margo Culley, contributors. The Awakening: An Authoritative Text, Biographical and Historical Contexts, Criticism. Norton Critical Edition, 3rd ed., W. W. Norton, 2018.
- Chametzky, Jules. “Edna and the ‘Woman Question’.” Chopin and Culley, pp. 236-37.
- Ziff, Larzer. “The American 1890s: Life and Times of a Lost Generation.” Chopin and Culley, pp. 214-16.