Setting plays an important role in contributing to the theme of self-discovery in Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening. The novel opens and closes at the seashore, and the ocean is strongly associated with freedom and awakening. This is especially the case when Edna learns how to swim – a skill that symbolizes strength, confidence, skill, and liberation.
Significantly, it is Robert who patiently teaches Edna the skills of swimming, and it is Robert, more than anyone else, who is associated with Edna’s self-discovery. In Chapter 10, Robert’s efforts finally result in success as Edna swims for the first time:
But that night she was like the little tottering, stumbling, clutching child, who of a sudden realizes its powers, and walks for the first time alone, boldly and with over-confidence. She could have shouted for joy. She did shout for joy, as with a sweeping stroke or two she lifted her body to the surface of the water.
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 woman had swum before.
The ocean is an appropriate symbol of freedom and self-discovery because it seems boundless and seems almost entirely beyond human control. When Edna swims, she feels for almost the first time a sense of individual power and personal accomplishment. Of course, the ocean is also an ironic symbol in this book, because it is in the ocean that Edna will eventually drown (whether intentionally or not). In the meantime, however, the ocean is one of various aspects of setting in The Awakening that are associated with self-discovery.
Other settings in the novel serve in much the same way. The room in which Edna paints is one such setting; the apartment of her friend Mlle. Reisz is another; the race-track is yet a third. In all these places, Edna achieves various kinds of freedom and self-discovery; in all of them, she begins to distance herself from the restrictive, conventional life she has lived up until now.
Perhaps the most important of such settings (besides the ocean) is the little house that Edna buys for herself near the end of the book. Her purchase of the house is perhaps the clearest evidence she could have given of her desire to be free from marriage and perhaps even from motherhood. It is in this house that she has her sexual encounter with Arobin, and it is in this house that she makes absolutely clear to Robert her love for him but also her independence from him.
In short, Chopin uses a number of different settings throughout the book to help symbolize Edna’s growing self-discovery. Whether her return to the ocean, in the final chapter, is meant to symbolize self-discovery or self-defeat is very much a matter of debate.