American novelist Kate Chopin (1850-1904) eloquently wrote The Awakening, which was published in 1899. Some of her most notorious work, such as The Awakening, focuses on the lives of sensitive, intelligent, and independent-seeking women. In particular, The Awakening, takes readers through a journey of a woman named Edna Pontellier and her transformation from being a traditional wife and mother to expressing and exploring her feminism and independence.
Considering the time in which the novel was published, Chopin received many awful reviews for acknowledging the true subject of passion and women’s urge for their own self-identity, expression, and sexual liberation that even ended her career. However, the revitalization of The Awakening in the early 1970s around the time of the Second Wave Feminism marked Kate Chopin as a modern writer and pioneer in intellectually revolting against authority and tradition while sharing her awareness of the licentious treatment of sexuality and the complexities of freedom.
While vacationing at Grand Isle, a creole resort in the Gulf Coast, Edna Pontellier transforms from being the obedient wife of Leonce Pontellier and traditional mother of two sons to creating her own identity, independence, and sexual liberation. During her summer vacation, she feels physically empowered and in control of her own body when she learns how to swim. As a result, her emotional and mental awakening is stimulated. “But that night she was like the tottering, stumbling, clutching child, who of a sudden realizes its powers, and walks for the first time alone, boldly and with over-confidence. … ] A feeling of exultation overtook her, as if some power of significant import had been given her to control the working of her body and her soul. She grew daring and reckless, overestimating her strength. She wanted to swim far out, where no other woman had swum before” (Chopin 46). She becomes aware of her physical presence in the world. “She stretched her strong limbs that ached a little. She ran her fingers through her loosened hair for a while.
She looked at her round arms as she held them straight up and rubbed them one after the other, observing closely, as if it were something she saw for the first time, a fine, firm quality and texture of her flesh. She clasped her hands easily above her head, and it was thus she fell asleep” (Chopin 58). Chopin’s use of anaphora in the preceding quote (“She [verb] … “) emphasizes the movements and self-reflection of Mrs. Pontellier. This emphasis helps readers infer that this is the first time Mrs. Pontellier examines and pays attention to herself.
This quote signifies her awareness of herself as an individual rather than her traditional identity as a mother/wife and foreshadows her journey to find herself. Edna also becomes intimately close with a wealthy, charming man named Robert Lebrun, who leaves for Mexico before they are able to fully pursue their romantic interest for each other. However, soon after Mrs. Pontellier returns home to New Orleans from Grand Isle, she is courted by a man named Alcee Arobin, who she has an attraction for but no true feelings of love.
While in New Orleans, Edna continues to make her way through her journey of finding herself, which is evident through her abandonment of her motherly and wifely duties/responsibilities, newly acquired passion for music and art, and expression of independence by moving into a house of her own. Eventually, Robert returns to New Orleans. He professes his love for Edna and desires to marry her. However, Edna is filled with despair with the thought of marriage and the social, emotional, physical, and mental toll it brings upon women like her. Robert leaves before finishing their conversation, which unfortunately results in the heartbreak and resumable suicide of Edna Pontellier.
Mrs. Pontellier’s transformation from being a traditional wife and mother to boldly expressing and exploring her sexuality and independence contrasts with the novel’s setting. The Awakening takes place at Grand Isle, a creole resort in the Gulf Coast, and in New Orleans, Louisiana around the same time the novel was published, which was in 1899. During this time in the late nineteenth century women were slaves of a restrictive society, much like how Edna Pontellier is portrayed by Chopin in the novel.
In particular, Louisiana law during the late 1800s stated that wives were the property of their husbands, which Chopin reveals while depicting the flawed marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Pontellier throughout the text. “He thought it was very discouraging that his wife, who was the sole object of his existence, evinced so little interest in things which concerned him, and valued so little his conversation” (Chopin 17). Chopin also uses the environment and surroundings of Grand Isle to symbolize the transformation and rebirth of Edna.
For example, the walk to the beach and the beach itself are symbols that represent Mrs. Pontellier’s journey to freedom and are produced by Chopin by utilizing imagery, especially in the following quote. “The two women went away one morning to the beach together, arm in arm, under the huge white sunshade. Edna had prevailed upon Madame Ratignolle to leave the children behind, though she could not induce her to relinquish a diminutive roll of needlework, which Adele begged to be allowed to slip into the depths of her pocket. In some unaccountable way they had escaped from Robert.
The walk to the beach was no inconsiderable one, consisting as it did of a long, sandy path, upon which a sporadic and tangled growth that bordered it on either side made frequent and unexpected inroads. There were acres of yellow camomile reaching out on either hand. Further away still, vegetable gardens abounded, with frequent small plantations of orange or lemon trees intervening. The dark green clusters glistened from afar in the sun” (Chopin 31-32). At the beach, Edna is free from her motherly and wifely duties/ responsibilities and able to progress towards independence as an individual.
It is as if Kate Chopin wrote The Awakening as an outcry towards the oppression of women in society during the late nineteenth century by depicting to readers a character who makes it her sole mission to rise from oppression caused by immoral societal structures and seek a life where one can be free. The main character, Edna Pontellier, is a dynamic character who experiences many epiphanies and awakenings throughout the novel that contribute to her transformation from being the representation of a repressed housewife to being the representation of an empowered feminist and self-liberator.
In the novel, Kate Chopin presents Edna Pontellier and Adele Ratignolle as character foils. Adele Ratignolle is an ordinary woman who follows the traditional role of a woman. She is a true example of a caretaker, nurturer, and mother. Chopin characterizes Mrs. Ratignolle as one of the mother-women at Grand Isle who “idolized their children, worshipped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels” (Chopin 21).
In contrast, “Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother woman” (Chopin 21). Instead of devoting her time to her children, she makes it her mission to explore her individuality. This character foil between Mrs. Pontellier and Mrs. Ratignolle is made apparent in chapter four when Mrs. Ratignolle begins to sew winter wear for her children. “Mrs. Pontellier’s mind was quite at rest concerning the present material needs of her children, and she could not see the use of anticipating and making winter night garments the subject of her summer meditations” (Chopin 22).
Rather than being concerned with the present material needs of her children like Mrs. Ratignolle, Mrs. Pontellier is more focused on enjoying her summer vacation. Chopin presents a man with a playboy reputation named Alcee Arobin and a young man who is attracted to married women named Robert Lebrun as handsome and charming men, who both have a romantic interest in Edna Pontellier. Edna and Robert have true feelings of love for each other, which is developed throughout the novel.
However, Alcee is merely Robert’s replacement shortly after Robert leaves for Mexico and Edna returns to New Orleans. He is a pawn in Edna’s life and is an outlet for her to explore her sexuality, inner urges, and physical pleasures, which is evident when Edna and Alcee engage in a kiss. “It was the first kiss of her life to which her nature had really responded. It was a flaming torch that kindled desire” (Chopin 116). Alcee gave her a unique kind of passion and pleasure that she desired from Robert and never experienced with her husband.
Mademoiselle Reisz, a amazingly talented pianist, is an important figure in Edna’s life, embodying the qualities of independence (due to her lacking a husband) and free expression that Mrs. Pontellier longs for and aspires. Mademoiselle Reisz is mostly accountable for helping Edna stimulate her inner emotions and develop her expression and inner passion for the arts. “Edna was what she herself called very fond of music. Musical strains, well rendered, had a way of evoking pictures in her mind.
She sometimes liked to sit in the room of mornings when Madame Ratignolle played or practiced. [… ] The very first chords which Mademoiselle Reisz struck upon the piano sent a keen tremor down Mrs. Pontellier’s spinal column. It was not the first time she had heard an artist at the piano. Perhaps it was the first time she was ready, perhaps the first time her being was tempered to take an impress of the abiding truth. She waited for the material pictures which she thought would gather and blaze before her imagination.
She waited in vain. She saw no pictures of solitude, of hope, of longing, or of despair. But the very passions themselves were aroused within her soul, swaying it, lashing it, as the waves daily beat upon her splendid body. She trembled, she was choking, and the tears blinded her” (Chopin 44). The preceding quote, which encompasses imagery and personification, provides readers with an understanding of Mademoiselle Reisz’s influence on Mrs. Pontellier and how she helps Edna develop her artistic expression and inner passions.