Symbolism is one major literary technique used in Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening. Irony is another. Throughout the book, Chopin uses irony in ways that surprise us, open our eyes, or make us think. Examples of the use of irony in this book include the following:
- In Chapter I, Edna’s middle-aged husband, speaking of her new young friend Robert LeBrun, walks off to his club, but not before telling Edna concerning Robert,
"Well, send him about his business when he bores you, Edna . . .”
It doesn’t seem to occur to Léonce at this point (although it has certainly begun to occur to the reader), that it may be Léonce himself, rather than Robert, who has begun to bore Edna.
- In Chapter III, after the somewhat self-centered Léonce has returned home from a night of drinking and gambling, he awakens Edna from a deep sleep and then is annoyed when she doesn’t pay him immediate and rapt attention:
He thought it 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.
The idea that Edna is the “sole object” of Léonce’s existence is especially ironic (and even comical) in the present context.
- At the very end of Chapter III, after Léonce has displayed a good deal of boorish behavior, he sends treats to Edna, who shares them with other women. The narrator then wryly reports that
the ladies, selecting with dainty and discriminating fingers and a little greedily, all declared that Mr. Pontellier was the best husband in the world. Mrs. Pontellier was forced to admit that she knew of none better.
These two sentences are brimming with irony, especially since we have already begun to realize that Léonce is not in fact “the best husband in the world,” although it may ironically be true that Edna does indeed know of “none better.”
- In Chapter IV, Madame Ratignolle is already, ironically, sewing winter clothes for her next child, even though it is presently the middle of a hot Louisiana summer.
- In Chapter VI, the narrator, speaking of Edna’s awakening, comments that
A certain light was beginning to dawn dimly within her,—the light which, showing the way, forbids it.
Here the words following the dash are quite clearly ironic and are used to emphasize the paradoxes and complications of Edna’s situation.
- Finally, at the very end of Chapter VI, the narrator remarks that
The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.
At first these words sound appealing, but by the very end of the book their irony will also be obvious. As the novel concludes, Edna has indeed literally been enfolded into the sea, either by accident or by suicide. The sea, which is in so many ways the main symbol of life and vitality in this book, ironically by the end of the novel also becomes the main symbol of death.
Irony, then, pervades The Awakening. Hardly a chapter goes by without containing at least one instance of irony – sometimes more, indeed sometimes many more. Chopin had a very keen eye for irony, and she uses her talent for irony repeatedly in this work.