The novel of The Awakening (1899) by author Kate Chopin presents a journey of physical, spiritual and sexual transformation of the protagonist, Edna Pontellier, a middle-class mother and wife in Louisianan society during the late 19th-century. The novel is set in three divergent, distinctive spaces physically represented as an island, linking the mainland of New Orleans and the ocean. New Orleans functions to marginalise Edna as she inhabits the patriarchally controlled society whilst the ocean provides a space away from such oppression. It also portrays Edna’s progression towards freedom through a circular pattern that subverts the bildungsroman genre. As a medium, the island of Grand Isle functions to prompt Edna’s search of identity by providing a choice between confinement or liberation.
The exposition of The Awakening is set in Grand Isle, a vacation destination for affluent families in Louisianan society, and is established as a place of self-realization for the protagonist. Primarily, it is symbolic of Edna’s acceptance of patriarchal societal customs. Edna is first introduced returning from the beach to her husband, Léonce, who is “seated” as he “fixes his gaze” upon her. The verb used to describe Léonce’s gaze demonstrates the staunch circumscription of Edna’s movement and conveys her entrapment as a woman, trapped under the male gaze that reasons men to be dominant and authoritative. This is reiterated through symbolism as Edna “silently reached out” to receive her wedding rings from Léonce. The emphasis on their marriage is described through omission of dialogue from Edna presenting her action as habitual and therefore portraying acceptance of her predefined role as a wife that is delineated by 19th-century patriarchal conventions. Additionally, Léonce’s decisive lack of movement as Edna conforms to society’s conventions by returning to him demonstrates male freedom of movement and the female status as subservient to men. The setting of Grand Isle also functions to develop Edna’s awareness and allows her to acknowledge her compliance and instigates her initial resistance of conservative customs. Edna’s original naivety is juxtaposed when arguing with Léonce as he accuses her of “habitual neglect of the children” before he “went and sat near the open door to smoke [his cigar].” This is further symbolic of Léonce’s employment of freedom of movement and Edna’s status and confinement to the role of mother. Conversely, Edna is filled with an “indescribable oppression” that was “like a mist passing across her soul’s summer day.” This imagery represents Edna’s developing awareness of the confinement of her gender and contrasts her previous actions of subservience. The simile used describes the realization as abnormal and unfamiliar and suggests internal dissatisfaction with her previous compliance. Edna’s internal awareness is then translated into action when Léonce orders her to “come inside the house instantly.” The commanding dialogue can be seen as an act to confine Edna to her role and express Léonce’s control as a male. However, a role reversal between the pair occurs as Edna “settles herself securely in the hammock” and commands Léonce to “go to bed.” The decisive language and imagery of Edna’s actions represent the subversion of male freedom of movement, and her attempt to assert her status as equivalent to her husband. Whilst Léonce does not wholly submit to her, the act of defiance further juxtaposes the image of a passive housewife that is initially presented and develops the setting as a place of advancement from conforming to expectation to objecting it. Altogether, Grand Isle can be seen as a liminal space that offers some opportunity for Edna’s awakening to be instigated yet is still a place mediated by men and patriarchal constructs.
As an island, Grand Isle is surrounded by the ocean which is symbolically portrayed as a place of freedom, away from entrapment by patriarchal society. Originally, the ocean’s significance in Edna’s awakening is foreshadowed as she remembers how she “traversed the ocean of waving grass” when running from a church service as a child. The metaphor symbolises Edna’s escape from patriarchal theology and search for potential. The ocean offers a space of independence and self-assertion that no other setting provides for Edna, shown by her successful attempt at swimming. In the past, she had received instruction of how to swim from numerous others yet an “ungovernable dread” consistently overcame her, preventing her from swimming. However, Edna’s initial lack of control in the ocean, highlighted by the adjective used to describe her trepidation, is contrasted with gain of control over her movement and awareness of potential as she begins to swim effortlessly on her own. This is apparent in the simile explaining that she feels “as if some power of significant import had been given to her,” thus presenting the ocean as a space of sensation and feeling. From a feminist reading, the ocean is therefore a space that does not require language for Edna to express her individuality and therefore does not restrict Edna’s thoughts and desires to a patriarchally governed language that confines her identity to her patriarchally defined role. The act of teaching herself to swim is Edna’s fundamental opportunity to portray independence and conveys the ocean as a place of empowerment and possibility, functioning to enable Edna’s physical awakening. Additionally, when entering the water, it is depicted as maternal through the use of verbs and adjectives as it “enfolds the body in its soft, close embrace,” personifying the ocean as gentle and alluding to the mother’s womb. This demonstrates how the ocean provides the opportunity to return to the basic identity of an individual without predefinition by role in society. Overall the ocean is presented as a metaphysical space of pure experience and sensation presenting Simone De Beauvoir’s concept of transcendence that offers freedom due to the absence of any patriarchal influence causing oppression.
In contrast, the setting of New Orleans is presented as a zone of male control where Edna is strictly bound by her domestic role and duties as a wife and mother. Upon returning from Grand Isle aware of the societal entrapment she endures, Edna feels physically trapped in her house and her desire to escape her socially prescribed role is conveyed through her actions as she “began to walk to and fro” in “her room.” This stresses Edna’s inability to continue to discover her identity as a result of the internality of setting. Moreover, Edna’s bourgeois status is established and evident fulfilment of her material wants is demonstrated by the extensive use of adjectives that describe the house as “charming”, “rich and tasteful” and “dazzling.” As a result, Edna’s dissatisfaction and desire to escape emphasises her active search for a spiritual and imaginative awakening of which can only be provided by “a room of one’s own.” From a feminist reading, women cannot freely explore themselves without a psychosocial space absent of patriarchal control. Therefore Edna cannot experience her full potential in “her room” as, according to Napoleonic Code followed in 19th-century Louisianan society, “all a wife’s accumulations…were the property of their husband.” Aiming to remove herself from the surroundings that are provided and dominated by Léonce Edna moves to the “Pigeon House.” This action portrays Edna’s emergent freedom of movement, indicating her independence and offering her a place of her own to explore her individual identity. However, symbolically, Edna is still presented to be trapped, despite escaping the gilded cage that is Léonce’s house, her only choice is to move into a different cage, the “Pigeon House”, which limits her independence by social and economic realities of the setting of New Orleans that symbolically delineate it as a space of immanence or inability to experience autonomy and reach transcendence.
Throughout the novel, the setting structurally functions to develop a circular narrative whilst also subverting the bildungsroman genre. The opening and concluding paragraphs have a cyclic essence and represent a journey of initial separation through to final recapitulation. Repetition of the language that describes the sea as “seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander in abysses of solitude” directly links the exposition to the conclusion. The circularity of the novel represents the transformative journey that the character of Edna experiences and is stereotypical of the bildungsroman genre. However, the return to the ocean, the setting previously established as a space away from society, subverts the genre that traditionally concludes with the transformed individual returning and positively contributing to society. Whilst Edna has gained knowledge and redefined herself, as portrayed by the simile she “felt like some newborn creature”, there is an absence of societal acceptance of her transformed self. Instead, she rejects society as “the foamy wavelets…coiled like serpents about her ankles” alluding to Aphrodite, the Greek Goddess of passion, known for her independence thus portraying Edna to undermine traditional societal constructs reflected in Chopin’s subversion of the traditional genre. The return to the ocean and neglection of society in the conclusion of the novel develops its circularity and emphasises its subversion of the conventional bildungsroman genre.
Although acknowledged as a “brilliant piece of writing,” the novel was rebuked for Chopin’s “lack of a solution” presented by the circular pattern of setting. The symbolism of the ocean as a place of transcendence in contrast to the societal oppression and state of immanence Edna faces in New Orleans creates an ambiguous ending. The novel presents an anti-bildungsroman conclusion that portrays Edna as a heroine of herself rather than the community yet causes the reader to question whether Edna is ever entirely awakened or can ever reach full transcendence, symbolic of how emancipation is inevitably paired with risk which in this case is Edna’s death.