The Awakening, Kate Chopin’s masterpiece, is a psychologically realistic portrait of a fin de siècle woman’s search for her identity. The novel, which chronicles Louisiana society woman Edna Pontellier’s quiet rebellion against the strictures of a male-dominated society, shocked contemporary readers with its theme and its frank presentation of women’s sexuality, but its compelling presentation of the quest for self-fulfillment has earned it classic status.
On Grand Isle, a Gulf of Mexico resort where she is vacationing with her somewhat dull husband and their two children, Edna becomes aware of “her position in the universe,” and she begins to yearn for an escape from the cage of bourgeois matrimony. She realizes that she wishes to be more than merely one of the “mother-women” who “idolized their children, worshipped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels.”
Edna falls in love with handsome young Robert Lebrun, who reciprocates her feelings but who dares not overstep the bounds of convention with a married woman. After Lebrun leaves for Mexico and her husband leaves on an extended business trip, Edna begins an affair with a young roué, Alcée Arobin, who completes the sexual “awakening” that Lebrun had begun; she also moves out of her husband’s house into a smaller one, where she revels in her newly found independence.
Oceanic imagery suffuses the novel, the shore marking the boundary of the patriarchal mainland. Edna learns to swim, and her education in swimming is also a larger lesson in staying afloat. Her swimming is about survival after getting in over one’s head; it is also a spiritual baptism into a new life. As Edna swims away from the beach while her husband watches, she swims away from the shore of her old life to a female fantasy of paradise—freedom and fulfillment.
At the novel’s end, Edna is overcome by a desire to swim away from the shore, “on and on,” until exhaustion overcomes her and she drowns. Her swim away from the empty summer colony is equated with a retreat from the empty fictions of marriage and maternity, back into her own life and vision. Ultimately, whether or not Edna intentionally commits suicide is a moot point because the ambiguity makes The Awakening a daring vision of a woman’s sexual and spiritual development. Chopin’s contemporaries, however, received the novel with derision, feeling no compassion for Edna’s torment. Not until the feminist movement of the 1970’s revived interest in Chopin’s work was The Awakening appreciated as a masterful exploration of the search for personal fulfillment.