Kate Chopin's ‘The Awakening’ as an Idol of American Literature

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‘The Awakening’ is a novel by Kate Chopin that was first published in 1899 and set in New Orleans and on the Louisiana Gulf coast at the end of the 19th century. The plot circles around Edna Pontellier and her struggle between her views on motherhood and feminism. It is one of the earliest American novels that focuses on women's issues without condescension. It is also widely seen as controversial work of early feminism, generating a mixed reaction from contemporary readers and critics. It is written in third person narrative to explore the ideology and thoughts of other characters around the main character, Edna Pontellier. The novel's blend of omniscient narrative, and psychological complexity makes ‘The Awakening’ an idol of American literature.

I have always believed in equality, and that women should have the same rights as men, but that was not the case when the book was published, which is why it faced harsh criticism and controversy. ‘The Awakening’ has been a book that stands out to me as revealing what constraints society puts on women and the difficulties they face. We are quickly introduced to the character Edna, who is a 28-year-old woman whose father is a colonel, and she is also married to a man named Leonor Pontellier and had two kids named Etienne and Raoul, but she is not fully satisfied with her life. Edna's need to be a separate person from her husband, society, and children has had an impact on my mindset towards women in a very positive way. It made me think about the amount of men who are possessive and controlling, and the same men still being upset about their women not wanting a relationship with them anymore, and it's true that some men believe a woman must obey them whenever they want, for example, when Leonce saw Edna sitting on the porch outside at night, it was almost unnatural for Edna to deny her husband's request of coming back inside, and Leonce saw it as a way of disrespect towards him. I am happy that more and more women stand up and express their opinion, meaning that women have started to become less intimidated by men which is something that should have always been a part and an act of human rights because we are all equal.

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Women suffered crucial losses because of inequality, but it also makes the women who truly care and want to make a change in the world shine the most out of everyone else. Viola Desmond is an example of a self-empowered woman who faced inequality due to her skin color and gender, but fought her way through court and had made a respectable name for herself. In ‘Dark Paradise’, Auntie Glor possesses a nature that is tainted by the death of her grandson and her husband. Despite living through hardships, she endures and holds on to her faith in Jesus, believing that he helps those who walk the path of hardship and general inequality and sometimes an unfair life.

Edna spends most of her time with her close friend Adele Ratignolle, who constantly reminds Edna of her role as a wife and mother. At Grand Isle, Edna eventually forms a connection with Robert Lebrun, a charming, sweet, funny young man who actively seeks Edna's attention and affections. The narrative's focus moves to Edna's shifting emotions as she reconciles her maternal duties with her desire for social freedom and to be with Robert.

Robert Lebrun is a very positive person, but the impact he had on Edna was very negative. Edna had finally found a man that interested her while still having a balance of seriousness and humor, and Robert had always had a crush on Edna and sensed that after spending time with her, she had also fallen in love with him. When they fall in love, Robert senses that if he were to be with Edna, trouble is going to happen between Edna and Leonce and obviously Robert is going to be involved as well, so he runs off to Mexico under the impression of pursuing a business venture. But he had not told Edna about this, which explains why Edna had a tough time getting over him. She thought maybe Robert would be different, he was taking her out on boat rides, to different cities and introducing her to new people. She felt comfortable with him and she had always known that Robert liked her, but to hide such an impactful event from Edna is what broke her. Leonce notices the changes that had been occurring with Edna, and confronts her about it, but as expected, he does not get a useful answer that would satisfy his curiosity as to why his wife is acting so strange. The Pontelliers go on a summer vacation to hope it would better the situation, and it somewhat did until it was time they head back to New Orleans.

When summer vacation ends, the Pontelliers return to New Orleans. Edna gradually reassesses her priorities and takes a more active role in her own happiness. She starts to isolate herself from New Orleans society and to withdraw from some of the duties traditionally associated with motherhood. Leonce eventually talks to a doctor about diagnosing his wife, fearing she is losing her mental faculties. The doctor advises Leonce to let her be and assures him that things will return to normal, so Leonce sighs in relief and hopes for the best. He talks about leaving for New York City for a business trip.

When Leonce prepares to travel to New York City on business, he sends his kids to his mother. Being left home alone for an extended period gives Edna physical and emotional room to breathe and reflect on various aspects of her life. While her husband is still away, she moves out of their home and into a small bungalow nearby and begins to explore her desires. We are introduced to a character called Alcee Arobin that Edna had met at a party, who she later begins an affair with, and it ends with them having sex later on. During this part of the book, Edna is a completely different person than when the book first began. Although it is a fictional novel, it is not out of the ordinary for something like this to happen, whether it’s the man or the woman in the relationship, cheating is mainly involved when a partner is not satisfying the other due to miscommunication, or if one is away for a big portion of the other’s life or whatever reason it may be. What Edna had done behind Leonce’s back was a very immature and childish attempt at exploring her desire andor sexuality, and could have been avoided if Edna and Leonce had communicated, but as I mentioned earlier, Leonce is off on business trips more often than not. Even Edna’s closest friend, Adele, believes so as well when she said: “It’s a pity Mr. Pontellier doesn’t stay home more in the evenings. I think you would be more—well, if you don’t mind my saying it—more united, if he did” (Chopin, 115).

Edna reaches out to Mademoiselle Reisz, a pianist whose playing is renowned but maintains a very average, healthy life. Her playing had moved Edna profoundly earlier in the novel, resembling what Edna was starting to look for: independence. Mademoiselle Reisz focuses her life on music and herself instead of on society's expectations, and she is also a mutual friend of Adèle Ratignolle, who encourages Edna to conform. Reisz is in contact with Robert while he is in Mexico, receiving letters from him regularly. Once Edan had found out that Reisz and Robert were in constant contact, she started begging Reisz to tell her about what are in those letters, and she does, revealing and solidifying that Robert has been in love with Edna this entire time and he had only left purely to not start any problems with Edna’s marriage.

Edna was not shown affection very often when she was young, she and her sister had always fought and it always left Edna sad or even angry that a healthy relationship with her sister may never happen. This made me understand why Edna is too easily attached to people, Kate Chopin also said: “There were days when she was unhappy, she did not know why —when it did not seem worthwhile to be glad or sorry, to be alive or dead; when life appeared to her like a grotesque pandemonium and humanity like worms struggling blindly toward inevitable annihilation. She could not work on such a day” (Chopin). This quote helped me understand Edna’s perspective on why she feels the way she does, and I know a lot of teenagers, especially high-schoolers, also get this sense of feeling down and not being able to process what is going on around them as I had gone through this myself, so it connects with reality in ways that make you feel like you are not alone; although it is a fictional character, still makes you feel like someone is by your side.

Per Seyersted wrote in 1969 near the beginning of the literary revival that ricocheted off of ‘The Awakening’ into its present place of importance in American literature, mentioned that part of what makes the novel not feel so outdated, although it was written in the late 19th century, is Edna Pontellier’s realization that “the physical component of love can stand apart from the spiritual one, that sensuous attraction is impersonal and can be satisfied by a partner she does not love”.

The actual awakening that occurs with Edna is a metaphor for exploring her desires and what she truly wants versus what she already has, and it is caused by society as well as nature since Edna always spoke about the sea being a peaceful place and almost like a ritual to awaken your inner self. It is a symbol of escape from current issues, but it is also a symbol of freedom where it allows you to express your true emotions with no judgement and criticism from other people. In a quote she says: “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. ... And, moreover, to succeed, the artist must possess the courageous soul” (Chopin, 27).

Another symbol in Kate Chopin’s literary masterpiece that I have found interesting were Edna’s kids, and I have found out from research that people do not write or speak about them being almost like chains, grabbing Edna by her legs and forcing her to make sure they are always safe, well fed, and raised properly so they could figure out their lives. Edna’s love for them is shown frequently throughout the chapters, but Edna herself knows that she does not love them as much as she should, and she fully understands that they are an unavoidable part of her life. In one of the earlier chapters, Edna says: “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” (Chopin, 69-70).

“Mrs. Pontellier 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” (Chopin, 33). The significance of this quote ties in with her relationship and how she feels about her children. She knows as long as they are alive, she can never truly become herself since they are like chains, ready to hold her down whenever she tries to escape from them. I expected the ending would be different, perhaps she would go back to her old lifestyle and try to forget about Robert and her unsatisfied desires, but Edna fully committed to changing into a persona that she always wanted to be.

This ‘new persona’ of Edna stays with her until she commits suicide towards the end of the book, but she had already started a new life of her own, a life that will give her what she had desired. Ultimately, Kate Chopin’s ‘The Awakening’ is a book about a woman who tries to find her freedom and to explore the notion of desire, whether its sex, or emotional physical daily needs that she could not find in her husband and lovely kids, and going back on the symbol of her children as chains is also proven in this quote: “She sees no way for a mother to keep the freedom of her soul - no way, that is, except to dissolve her attachment to her children” (Chopin, 101). She understands that the kids are a burden that will always hold her back from achieving what she had always wanted because she understands how important a mother’s role is towards her children, but Edna did not get what she wanted so she chose her only way that she will find freedom and peace without and shackles or chains to hold her back, and that is by committing suicide and leaving all that she had once knew, behind her. She sinks in the sea, the same place that she had always found peace in, was the place that she had decided to take her life in.

Bibliography

  1. Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. Penguin Classics, 2018.
  2. Chopin, Kate, The Awakening, PBS Electronic Library, 2006.
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Kate Chopin’s ‘The Awakening’ as an Idol of American Literature. (2023, March 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 17, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/kate-chopins-the-awakening-as-an-idol-of-american-literature/
“Kate Chopin’s ‘The Awakening’ as an Idol of American Literature.” Edubirdie, 01 Mar. 2023, edubirdie.com/examples/kate-chopins-the-awakening-as-an-idol-of-american-literature/
Kate Chopin’s ‘The Awakening’ as an Idol of American Literature. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/kate-chopins-the-awakening-as-an-idol-of-american-literature/> [Accessed 17 Jun. 2024].
Kate Chopin’s ‘The Awakening’ as an Idol of American Literature [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2023 Mar 01 [cited 2024 Jun 17]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/kate-chopins-the-awakening-as-an-idol-of-american-literature/
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