The Awakening: An Overview

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Published in 1899, Kate Chopin's novel The Awakening is considered to be one of the cornerstone texts of both American realism and the feminist movement. Modern critics praise The Awakening for its daring treatment of traditional gender roles as they were defined at the turn of the century, and for its exploration of a woman's search for self-fulfillment. However, when Chopin's novel first appeared, it met with harsh criticism. Reviewers objected to the unwholesome content of the novel, and although many considered the writing style outstanding, most critics dismissed the book as trash because they perceived its protagonist as an immoral woman. One reviewer, commenting on Edna Pontellier's lack of moral substance, remarked in Public Opinion that "we are well satisfied when she drowns herself."

The harsh reviews that The Awakening received have led to a common misconception concerning the effect of its critical reception. The first biography of Kate Chopin by priest Daniel Rankin, reports that Chopin was shunned by society and that The Awakening was banned by many libraries, including those in her native St. Louis. These reports circulated widely for several decades, and until 1990, were accepted as factual accounts. Emily Toth's authoritative biography of Chopin, which appeared in 1990 and was subsequently nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, refutes Rankin's claims. Toth offers evidence that although The Awakening was reviled in some circles, the book was never officially banned, nor was it removed from library shelves during Chopin's lifetime. While Chopin lost a pre-existing contract for a collection of short fiction which would have appeared after The Awakening, Chopin was not a social outcast as a result of writing the controversial novel.

Despite the fallacies surrounding the initial publication of Chopin's novel, the mixed critical reception that the novel received led Chopin's publishers to allow it to pass out of print soon after its initial publication. From 1906, the date of the second printing of the novel, until 1969, when Norwegian scholar Per Seyersted began studying Chopin's fiction and produced a volume of the writer's Complete Works, only a few of Chopin's short stories remained in print. The appearance of Seyersted's biography precipitated scholarly study of Chopin's texts, and much of this study has focused on The Awakening Feminist critics, in particular, have looked at The Awakening with renewed interest, and have successfully included Chopin's works in the core group of texts that constitute the basis of American literature. Since Chopin's rediscovery in 1969, her writings have remained in print continuously and have gained popularity at a rapid rate. When Chopin's works began to be reprinted, they represented a marginal example of the Southern local color school. Three decades later, The Awakening is a classic of American literature that is read more frequently than Herman Melville's Moby Dick.

In The Awakening , Chopin adopts the point-of-view of a third-person, omniscient narrator. The narrator primarily reports the thoughts, actions, and feelings of both the main character, Edna Pontellier, and occasionally of some minor characters, such as Leonce Pontellier and Robert Lebrun. An important departure from this point-of-view occurs in chapter six, when the author pointedly intrudes into the novel. It is at this point that the reader is introduced to the internal turmoil that is the source of Edna's unrest and which causes her to act "capriciously." Chopin interjects her own voice into the narrative to tell the reader that Edna is discovering her "relations as an individual to the world within and about her" and that she is experiencing the dawning of a light which "showing the way, forbids it." Chopin takes great pains to...

(This entire section contains 1983 words.)

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assure that the reader does not miss the importance of this "beginning of things" that is taking place inside Edna's head, as it represents Edna's first steps on the road toward self-discovery and away from the restrictions of the gender roles which were prescribed for turn-of-the-century women. Chopin makes use of repetition, often of entire sentences or paragraphs, to point out important events in the narrative. She also very often uses oddly-constructed sentences to highlight key points in the action of the story.

The Awakening is most often read in the context of feminist criticism. While a variety of sub-schools exist within the feminist movement, much of the feminist critiques of literary texts focus on the ways that women are treated. Feminist literary texts illustrate the types of oppression that women experience and the ways in which they struggle to break free from this oppression, realizing that they are worthwhile individuals with something meaningful to contribute to society. Accordingly, feminist readings often discuss the "jobs" that are traditionally assigned to women, such as tending a home, caring for a husband, and bearing children, and the ways in which these jobs are used to keep women in a powerless position. Female sexuality, and the way that a patriarchal system—a societal system in which men are the authorities and control the power structure—controls that sexuality are also common themes in feminist criticism. The Awakening deals with many of these traditionally feminist concerns. For example, much of the plot of The Awakening binges on Edna's dissatisfaction with her role as a wife and mother. She feels oppressed by it and tries many avenues to escape from its restrictions.

One of the major outlets that Edna pursues as she attempts to escape from her prescribed role is the development of her sexuality. In fact, some critics have argued that Edna's awakenings are little more than a series of passionate encounters with men who are not her husband. While Edna experiences a variety of awakenings that transcend the physical or sexual, her experiences with passion play a major role in her decisions to disregard her husband's wishes, to conduct indiscrete affairs, to leave her husband's home, and ultimately to swim to her death in the sea.

Edna's destruction comes about as an indirect result of her attempts to escape, from being her husband's property, both financially and physically. Early in the novel, she is identified as Leonce's property. For example in the first chapter of the novel, as Edna returns from the beach with Robert, she meets with Leonce's disapproval because she has allowed her self to be "burnt beyond recognition," a conclusion which her husband draws as he looks her over as "one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage." We later find out that Leonce spends a good deal of his time admiring his "household goods," and that he numbers Edna among his possessions. However, we should not judge Leonce too harshly for his evaluation of his wife's value, because his attitude was the norm in the U.S. at the turn of the century. In fact, Edna's friends at Grand Isle consider Leonce the model husband, forcing Edna to admit that she knows of no men who treat their families with such consideration. Despite the fact that Leonce is well-to-do and gives his wife every imaginable luxury, Edna is compelled by the seductive voice of the sea to pursue the fulfillment of her inner self, even at the cost of her material possessions, her friends, and ultimately, her life.

Adele Ratignolle, Edna's close friend at Grand Isle, is a foil (or opposite) to Edna. Adele is the consummate mother-woman, who dotes on her husband, adores her children, and produces a new baby at regular intervals. Adele often pressures Edna to conform to societal standards, arguing with Edna about what a mother's responsibilities are and urging her to "think of the children" when she fears that Edna may take a rash action that would adversely affect her two small boys. Despite prompting from all sides to follow the expected path, Edna is incapable of conforming. All of her life, she has instinctively understood the "dual life" that was necessary for a woman of the late 1800s, a life which consists of "that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions." However, as the summer at Grand Isle progresses, Edna becomes increasingly incapable of keeping the inward life from spilling into, and eventually completely consuming, her outward existence.

Edna's inability to reconcile her inner and outer lives precipitates her final swim in the sea. Throughout the novel, Edna is inexplicably drawn to the sea. At first, she only splashes around, as she can not master even the most basic swimming strokes. Following her first epiphany, however, she begins to swim effortlessly. The sea is connected with many of her awakenings: Chopin invokes the sea in chapter six, describing it as "whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander," as a seductive enchantress which is "seductive, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace." Edna's final awakening, as she stands at the edge of the sea, invokes these same lines. These lines mark the starting and ending points of Edna's search for a different type of life. She is initially drawn to the sea, and finally is drawn into it permanently because of the freedom that it represents.

Scholars argue over the particulars of Edna's suicide, attempting to determine whether her death is intentional or accidental, and, by extension, whether Edna is a successful character or not. The text of The Awakening is ambiguous on each of these points. The text seems to support the conclusion that Edna intends to commit suicide. She strips naked before her swim; she swims very far away from the shore without once looking back; and she is in a state of despair when she arrives at Grand Isle, incensed that her husband and children presumed that they could "drag her into the soul's slavery for the rest of her days." However there is an equal measure of evidence that supports the argument that Edna drowns accidentally. For example, she discusses her meal and sleeping arrangements with Victor at some length before she goes to the beach, and the narration tells us that in spite of the blow that she has suffered at Robert's departure she is "not thinking of these things as she walked to the beach."

Edna's death also begs the question of whether she is a success or a failure. Many critics have argued that because she dies, she is by definition a failure. After all, she is dead. However, given the options open to women at the turn of the century, it can also be argued that death was the only viable alternative that Edna had not experienced. She could no longer survive as merely a wife and mother, and she did not find fulfillment in art or in casual affairs. The man that she loved had deserted her, and she quickly came to the realization that his departure did not mean much, as the day would come when "the thought of him would melt out of her existence." Her only alternative was the peace and freedom that would come with a painless death. Death represented one aspect of her life that she could take complete control over. While these questions will undoubtedly be debated at length for some time to come, no clear-cut answers are to be found in the text. Chopin's ending is ambiguous, and it would appear to be intentionally so.

The Awakening offers a stirring glimpse into the psyche of a woman, giving contemporary readers insight into both the social structures and the effects that these structures have exerted over generations of women. This novel also offers a female protagonist with whom we can identify, and for whom we can have a great deal of sympathy. Edna Pontellier's escape strikes a cord in many readers, in large part because she had the strength to act, to take control of her destiny. It is this very act, this empowerment, which has made The Awakening a mainstay in the American literary canon.

Source: Suzanne D. Green, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1998. Green is the co-author of Kate Chopin: An Annotated Bibliography of Critical Works.

The Female Artist in Kate Chopin's The Awakening: Birth and Creativity

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Many recent critics of The Awakening fail to see Edna's growing sense of power and control as signs of progress toward a new self-definition. They view her as a woman deluded by romanticism who is unable to make a conscious choice, such as the decision to become an artist, because her instincts are regressive.…

In this essay I will argue that Edna's memories of her childhood, her immersion in the sea, and her search for a mother figure are emblems of regression in the service of progression toward an artistic vocation. Rather than returning to the dependency of childhood, she goes forward to a new conception of self, a definition of herself as artist. Further, I will suggest that Edna's romanticism is positive because it catalyzes her imaginative power. As the final step forward functioning as an autonomous human being, moreover, she sees through the delusion of romantic love after confronting the horror of giving birth.

Edna's artistic birthing is shown through the contrasting characters of two women, Adèle Ratignolle, a "mother-woman," and Mme. Reisz, a pianist. As Per Seyersted has observed [in Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography, Louisiana State University Press, 1969], "the novel covers two generations and births … a finely wrought system of tensions and interrelations set up between Edna's slow birth as authentic and sexual being and the counterpointed pregnancy and confinement of Adèle." Adèle embodies female biology, always talking of her condition, for she has a baby about every two years. Adèle's opposite, Mme. Reisz, a serious artist, is unmarried. She exemplifies the solitary life of the dedicated artist.

A third influence on Edna's artistic development is Robert LeBrun, a young Creole man who, because he has not yet assumed the masculine values of his society, can be a friend to Edna as her husband cannot. He teaches her to swim, furthering her autonomy, and with his easy way of talking about himself, encourages her self-expression. Because he has aroused sexual desire in her, she eventually has an affair with another man, Alcée Arobin, an affair which functions as a rite of passage to sexual autonomy.

Each of these three figures has positive and negative qualities that help and hinder Edna's struggle to be creative. Adèle Ratignolle, a sensuous woman, awakens Edna to the sensuality of her own body. Also Adèle's candor in talking about such subjects as her pregnancy helps Edna to overcome her reserve. Furthermore, Adèle encourages her to express thoughts and feelings she had kept hidden, even from herself. For example, at Adèle's urging to say what she is thinking as they sit together by the sea, Edna recalls "a summer day in Kentucky, of a meadow that seemed as big as the ocean to the very little girl.…"

In these early scenes by the sea Chopin also establishes the sea as a central symbol for Edna's birthing of a new self. The connection in her mind between the grass and the sea foreshadows the autonomy she achieves by learning to swim, as well as her final walk into the sea at the book's end. Symbolically, the sea is both a generative and a destructive force in The Awakening; it represents danger inherent in artistic self-expression—losing oneself in unlimited space—as well as the source of all life, facilitating rebirth, so that Edna in her first moments of being able to swim feels like a child who has learned to walk. The ocean has also been seen as a symbol of woman or the mother in both her benevolent and terrible aspects. Madame Ratignolle, in association with the sea, represents the benevolent mother who nurtures Edna and even inspires her to paint. Adèle seems to her, as she is seated on the beach, like "some sensuous Madonna," and she paints her picture.

At this beginning point in her artistic development Edna thinks of herself as a "dabbler." However, though Edna has had no formal training, Chopin establishes the fact that she is talented for "she handled her brushes with a certain ease and freedom which came not from a long and close acquaintance with them but from a natural aptitude." We also see early on that Edna has the capacity for self-criticism as "after surveying the sketch critically, she drew a broad smudge of paint across its surface and crumpled the paper between her hands." Later when Edna's critical faculties are turned against conventional values of home, husband, and family in the direction of autonomy, Adèle will show the negative side of her mothering qualities. By constantly reminding Edna of her duty to her children, she binds her to society's rules and impedes her creative growth.

In these early scenes at Grand Isle where Edna's struggle to be an artist is beginning, Robert is another source of imaginative power. As she paints Adèle's portrait, he encourages her with "expressions of appreciation in French." While this may simply be Creole flattery, it is more encouragement than she has ever received from her husband. Like Adèle, he is sensual, and as she paints he rests his head against her arm. He also speaks about himself freely, telling her of his plans to go to Mexico. Under his influence she speaks to him about her life, and it is he who awakens her to the passions of her body. A few weeks after the painting scene on the beach, Chopin again uses the sea as a symbol of growth, and again in connection with Robert. One evening he proposes a night swim and we see him lingering behind with the lovers, "and there was not one but was ready to follow when he led the way." Robert's appearance is associated frequently with lovers; he becomes Cupid who awakens Edna to the force of Eros. This evening she learns to swim and feels herself "reaching out for the unlimited in which to lose herself." Loss of boundaries suggests orgiastic union which foreshadows Edna's final merging with the sea. Significantly, that evening as she lies in a hammock, an image of lovemaking, she feels herself "pregnant with the first felt throbbing desire" for Robert.

When her husband returns later she refuses to go inside when he asks her to. By now she has achieved mastery over her body by learning to swim and mastery over her environment by challenging his authority. She now has to achieve mastery over her imagination, but at this point can only "blindly follow whatever impulse moved her." Next morning, without much thought, she asks a servant to tell Robert she wishes him to take the boat with her to Cheniere for mass. Walking to the wharf, there are, as always when Robert appears, lovers who already stroll "shoulder to shoulder." Edna's imagination is subsumed by the romance phase of her creative growth as she spends an idyllic day with Robert.…

The woman who represents a structured form of art is Mme. Reisz, the true artist Edna wishes to become. While Madame Ratignolle plays the piano solely for the pleasure of her family, Mme. Reisz plays Frederic Chopin with great feeling and art. Before hearing Mme. Reisz play, music had evoked pictures in Edna's mind. After listening to her play, Edna's passions are aroused. But like such nineteenth century female artists as Emily Dickinson Mme. Reisz is unmarried, childless, eccentric in manner and in dress, and alienated from society. She cannot serve as a role model for Edna. Nevertheless, Edna's creative development continues. After the family's return to New Orleans, she takes up her painting once more in spite of her husband's admonishment that she "not let the family go to the devil" while she paints. She works with "great energy and interest" though she feels she is not accomplishing anything.…

There are factors beyond Edna's control, however, which limit her development [Sandra] Gilbert and [Susan] Gubar [in The Madwoman in the Attic, Yale University Press, 1979], in a discussion of the woman writer in patriarchal society, describe "the loneliness of the female artist, her feelings of alienation from male predecessors coupled with her need for sisterly precursors and successors, her urgent need for a female audience." Certainly this describes Edna's situation as she seeks out her two contrasting women friends for validation, Mme. Reisz and Adèle Ratignolle. She brings her paintings to Adèle even though she knows in advance, "her opinion in such a matter would be next to valueness … but she sought the words of praise and encouragement that would help her to put heart into her venture." Adèle, true to her character as a "mother-woman," tells her that her talent is immense, and Edna is pleased even though she recognizes "its true worth." She receives a much harsher judgement of her artistic capacity from Mme. Reisz. In reply to the question of what she has been doing, Edna tells her "I am becoming an artist" and her friend says, "Ah! an artist. You have pretensions, Madame." Sensing the insecurity which keeps her from total commitment to art, Mme. Reisz warns, "To be an artist includes much; one must possess many gifts—absolute gifts—which have not been acquired by one's own effort. And moreover, to succeed the artist must possess the courageous soul."

Two events occur almost simultaneously at the novel's climax, events which portray the forces that finally defeat Edna's search for artistic wholeness. One is her witnessing of Adèle's suffering in childbirth and the other is Robert's admitting that he loves her and wants to marry her. Edna has gone to Adèle, leaving Robert just after he tells her he has dreamed of marrying her if her husband will free her. She has replied that she is no longer one of Mr. Pontellier's possessions to be given away. When she returns from Adèle's he is gone, having explained in a note that he has left not because he doesn't love her but because he does. Robert has been deeply connected to her sexual growth, which in turn affected the growth of her imagination. Through him she has begun to transfer the authenticity of her romantic vision to her paintings. Now, romantic illusions shattered, she loses the catalyst for her art.

The other illusion that is shattered is that of childbirth being a moment of joy. Edna does not remember her own pain when she gave birth, since she was chloroformed. Now, seeing Adèle's pain, she recognizes that she cannot rebel against nature. Adèle's parting words "think of the children" remind her of her mother-role which conflicts with her new-found freedom. Chopin was far ahead of her time in exposing the myth of bearing children as a woman's ultimate fulfillment, calling Adèle's "acouchement" a scene of torture. Almost a century later Sylvia Plath was to use the same image in The Bell Jar by describing the delivery room as "some awful torture chamber."

The next morning Edna returns to Grand Isle and walks to her death in the sea. Is her suicide triggered by Adèle's suffering in childbirth? By the knowledge that it is futile to rebel against biology? Does she kill herself because Robert has left her? Or because she has failed to become an artist? Edna drowns herself because she cannot live as a conventional wife or mother any longer, and society will not accept her newfound self. The solitude she enjoys makes for artistic growth, but she is bound to children, home, social duty. She will not sacrifice her new autonomy because, as Anne Jones points out [in Tomorrow Is Another Day: The Woman Writer in the South, 1859-1936, Louisiana State University Press, 1981], "she will not relinquish the core of her vision, which is not finally romance, but rather her own autonomous being … so she freely goes to the sea, losing her life. But she does not lose her self."

By beginning and ending The Awakening with the sea Chopin gives the book a wholeness that Edna cannot find in her life. Furthermore, Chopin's themes of sea/mother, love/lover, self/birth, sexuality/creativity are joined as Edna's birth of a new self is juxtaposed against Adèle's giving birth to another. In a moment of liberty she stands naked on the beach feeling like "some new-born creature" before entering the sea which becomes the universal Great Mother. To be sure, Chopin uses one image of defeat, the "bird with the broken wing," which Edna sees "reeling, fluttering, circling, disabled down down to the water " This was the image used by Mme. Reisz when, as if predicting Edna's fall she said, "it is a sad spectacle to see the weakling bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth." But how strong must a woman be at this time in order to maintain her artistic vocation without any support from community?…

Yet Edna's final moment is one of autonomous sexuality, as the world of her imagination resonates with fertility—"There was the hum of bees, and the musky odor of pinks filled the air." Chopin repeats the description of the sea which describes Edna's first swim, "The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace," and with this symbolic closure portrays Edna becoming whole in the only way she can, by immersion in the universal sea of love. But how can Edna's death be positive? Many critics think it is not.… Nevertheless, Edna Pontellier succeeds in giving birth to a new self even though the fact that she can not live on earth as this new self is tragic. The triumph of The Awakening lies in Chopin's depicting, when others did not, the conflicts faced by women who wish to become artists. Courageously, she built in her novel a bridge from past to future so that women might find their way across. Like her heroine, she too was a pontellier, a bridgemaker.

Source: Carole Stone, "The Female Artist in Kate Chopin's The Awakening: Birth and Creativity," in Women's Studies, Vol. 13, Nos. 1 & 2, 1986, pp. 23-31.

A Forgotten Novel: Kate Chopin's The Awakening

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The claim of [The Awakening] upon the reader's attention is simple. It is a first-rate novel. The justification for urging its importance is that we have few enough novels of its stature. One could add that it is advanced in theme and technique over the novels of its day, that it anticipates in many respects the modern novel. It could be claimed that it adds to American fiction an example of what Gide called the roman pur, a kind of novel not characteristic of American writing. One could offer the book as evidence that the regional writer can go beyond the limitations of regional material. But these matters aside, what recommends the novel is its general excellence.…

In a way, the novel is an American Bovary, though such a designation is not precisely accurate. Its central character is similar: the married woman who seeks love outside a stuffy, middle-class marriage. It is similar too in the definitive way it portrays the mind of a woman trapped in marriage and seeking fulfillment of what she vaguely recognizes as her essential nature. The husband, Léonce Pontellier, is a businessman whose nature and preoccupations are not far different from those of Charles Bovary. There is a Léon Dupuis in Robert Lebrun, a Rodolphe Boulanger in Alcée Arobin. And too, like Madame Bovary, the novel handles its material superbly well. Kate Chopin herself was probably more than any other American writer of her time under French influence. Her background was French-Irish; she married a Creole; she read and spoke French and knew contemporary French literature well; she associated both in St. Louis and Louisiana with families of French ancestry and disposition. But despite the similarities and the possible influences, the novel, chiefly because of the independent character of its heroine, Edna Pontellier, and because of the intensity of the focus upon her, is not simply a good but derivative work. It has a manner and matter of its own.

Quite frankly, the book is about sex. Not only is it about sex, but the very texture of the writing is sensuous, if not sensual, from the first to the last. Even as late as 1932, Chopin's biographer, Daniel Rankin, seemed somewhat shocked by it. He paid his respects to the artistic excellence of the book, but he was troubled by "that insistent query—cui bono?" He called the novel "exotic in setting, morbid in theme, erotic in motivation." One questions the accuracy of these terms, and even more the moral disapproval implied in their usage. One regrets that Mr. Rankin did not emphasize that the book was amazingly honest, perceptive and moving.

The Awakening is a study of Edna Pontellier, a story, as the Nation criticized it, "of a Southern lady who wanted to do what she wanted to. From wanting to, she did, with disastrous consequences." Such a succinct statement, blunt but accurate so far as it goes, may suggest that a detailed retelling of the story would convey little of the actual character of the novel. It is, of course, one of those novels a person simply must read to gain any real impression of its excellence. But the compactness of the work in narrative, characterization, setting, symbols and images gives meaning to such an imprecise and overworked expression. Some idea of the style may be conveyed by quoting the opening paragraphs:

A green and yellow parrot, which hung in a cage outside the door, kept repeating over and over "Allez vous en! Allez vous en! Sapristi! That's all right."

He could speak a little Spanish, and also a language which nobody understood, unless it was the mockingbird that hung on the either side of the door, whistling his fluty notes out upon the breeze with maddening persistence.

Mr. Pontellier, unable to read his newspaper with any degree of comfort, arose with an expression and an exclamation of disgust. He walked down the gallery and across the narrow "bridges" which connected the Lebrun cottages one with the other. He had been seated before the door of the main house. The parrot and the mockingbird were the property of Madame Lebrun and they had the right to make all the noise they wished. Mr. Pontellier had the privilege of quitting their society when they ceased to be entertaining.

This is Mr. Pontellier. He is a businessman, husband and father, not given to romance, not given to much of anything outside his business. When he comes to Grand Isle, the summer place of the Creoles in the story, he is anxious to get back to his cotton brokerage in Carondelet Street, New Orleans, and he passes his time on Grand Isle at the hotel smoking his cigars and playing cards. When he is on the beach at all, he is not a participant, but a watcher.

He fixed his gaze upon a white sunshade that was advancing at snail's pace from the beach. He could see it plainly between the gaunt trunk of the water oaks and across the strip of yellow camomile. The gulf looked far away, melting hazily into the blue of the horizon. The sunshade continued to approach slowly. Beneath its pink-lined shelter were their faces, Mrs. Pontellier and young Robert Lebrun.

It is apparent that a triangle has been formed, and going into the details of the subsequent events in a summary fashion would likely destroy the art by which such a sequence becomes significant. Suffice to say that Robert Lebrun is the young man who first awakens, or rather, is present at The Awakening of Edna Pontellier into passion, a passion which Mr. Pontellier neither understands nor appreciates. Slowly Edna and Robert fall in love, but once again, the expression is too trite. Edna grows into an awareness of a woman's physical nature, and Robert is actually but a party of the second part. The reader's attention is never allowed to stray from Edna. At the climax of their relationship, young Lebrun recognizes what must follow and goes away. During his absence, Mrs. Pontellier becomes idly amused by a roué [a man devoted to sexual pleasure], Arobin, and, becoming more than amused, more than tolerates his advances. When Robert returns he finds that Edna is willing to declare her love and accept the consequences of her passion. But Robert, abiding by the traditional romantic code which separates true love from physical passion, refuses the offered consummation. When he leaves Mrs. Pontellier, she turns once again to the scene of her awakening, the sand and sea of Grand Isle:

The water of the Gulf stretched out before her, gleaming with the million lights of the sun. The voice of the sea is seductive, never ceasing whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander in abysses of solitude. All along the white beach, up and down, there was no living thing in sight. A bird with a broken wing was beating the air above, reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water.

Edna had found her old bathing suit still hanging, faded, upon its accustomed peg.

She put it on, left her clothing in the bath house. But when she was there beside the sea, absolutely alone, she cast the unpleasant, pricking garments from her, and for the first time in her life she stood naked in the open air at the mercy of the sun, the breeze that beat upon her, and the waves that invited her.

How strange and awful it seemed to stand naked under the sky! How delicious! She felt like some newborn creature, opening its eye in a familiar world that it had never known.

The foamy wavelets curled up to her white feet, and coiled like serpents about her ankles. She walked out. The water was chill, but she walked on. The water was deep, but she lifted her white body and reached out with a long, sweeping stroke The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft close embrace.…

She looked into the distance, and the old terror flamed up for an instant, then sank again. Edna heard her father's voice and her sister Margaret's. She heard the barking of an old dog that was chained to the sycamore tree. The spurs of the cavalry officer clanged as he walked across the porch. There was the hum of bees, and the musty odor of pinks filled the air.

Here is the story, its beginning a mature woman's awakening to physical love, its end her walking into the sea. The extracts convey something of the author's style, but much less of the movement of the characters and of human desire against the sensuous background of sea and sand. Looking at the novel analytically, one can say that it excels chiefly in its characterizations and its structure, the use of images and symbols to unify that structure, and the character of Edna Pontellier.

Kate Chopin, almost from her first story, had the ability to capture character, to put the right word in the mouth, to impart the exact gesture, to select the characteristic action. An illustration of her deftness in handling even minor characters is her treatment of Edna's father. When he leaves the Pontellier's after a short visit, Edna is glad to be rid of him and "his padded shoulders, his Bible reading, his 'toddies,' and ponderous oaths." A moment later, it is a side of Edna's nature which is revealed. She felt a sense of relief at her father's absence; "she read Emerson until she grew sleepy."

Characterization was always Mrs. Chopin's talent. Structure was not. Those who knew her working habits say that she seldom revised, and she herself mentions that she did not like reworking her stories. Though her reputation rests upon her short narratives, her collected stories give abundant evidence of the sketch, the outlines of stones which remain unformed. And when she did attempt a tightly organized story, she often turned to Maupassant and was as likely as not to effect a contrived symmetry. Her early novel At Fault suffers most from her inability to control her material. In The Awakening she is in complete command of structure. She seems to have grasped instinctively the use of the unifying symbol—here the sea, sky and sand—and with it the power of individual images to bind the story together.

The sea, the sand, the sun and sky of the Gulf Coast become almost a presence themselves in the novel. Much of the sensuousness of the book comes from the way the reader is never allowed to stray far from the water's edge. A refrain beginning "The voice of the sea is seductive, never ceasing, clamoring, murmuring,…" is used throughout the novel. It appears first at the beginning of Edna Pontellier's awakening, and it appears at the end as the introduction to the long final scene, previously quoted. Looking closely at the final form of this refrain, one can notice the care with which Mrs. Chopin composed this theme and variation. In the initial statement, the sentence does not end with "solitude," but goes on, as it should, "to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation." Nor is the image of the bird with the broken wing in the earlier passage; rather there is prefiguring of the final tragedy: "The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft close embrace." The way scene, mood, action and character are fused reminds one not so much of literature as of an impressionist painting, of a Renoir with much of the sweetness missing. Only Stephen Crane among her American contemporaries, had an equal sensitivity to light and shadow, color and texture, had the painter's eye matched with the writer's perception of character and incident.…

It is not surprising that the sensuous quality of the book, both from the incidents of the novel and the symbolic implications, would have offended contemporary reviewers. What convinced many critics of the indecency of the book, however, was not simply the sensuous scenes, but rather that the author obviously sympathized with Mrs. Pontellier. More than that, the readers probably found that she aroused their own sympathies…

Greek tragedy—to remove ourselves from Victorian morals—knew well eros was not the kind of love which can be easily prettified and sentimentalized. Phaedra's struggle with elemental passion in the Hippolytus is not generally regarded as being either morally offensive or insignificant. Mrs. Pontellier, too, has the power, the dignity, the self-possession of a tragic heroine. She is not an Emma Bovary, deluded by ideas of "romance," nor is she the sensuous but guilt-ridden woman of the sensational novel. We can find only partial reason for her affair in the kind of romantic desire to escape a middle-class existence which animates Emma Bovary. Edna Pontellier is neither deluded nor deludes. She is woman, the physical woman who, despite her Kentucky Presbyterian upbringing and a comfortable marriage, must struggle with the sensual appeal of physical ripeness itself, with passion of which she is only dimly aware. Her struggle is not melodramatic, nor is it artificial, nor vapid. It is objective, real and moving. And when she walks into the sea, it does not leave a reader with the sense of sin punished.… How wrong to call Edna, as Daniel Rankin does, "a selfish, capricious" woman. Rather, Edna's struggle, the struggle with eros itself, is farthest removed from capriciousness. It is her self-awareness, and her awakening into a greater degree of self-awareness than those around her can comprehend, which gives her story dignity and significance.

Our advocacy of the novel is not meant to obscure its faults. It is not perfect art, but in total effect it provokes few dissatisfactions. A sophisticated modern reader might find something of the derivative about it. Kate Chopin read widely, and a list of novelists she found interesting would include Flaubert, Tolstoy, Turgenev, D'Annunzio, Bourget, Goncourt and Zola. It is doubtful, however, that there was any direct borrowing, and The Awakening exists, as do most good novels, as a product of the author's literary, real, and imagined life.

How Mrs. Chopin managed to create in ten years the substantial body of work she achieved is no less a mystery than the excellence of The Awakening itself. But, having added to American literature a novel uncommon in its kind as in its excellence, she deserves not to be forgotten. The Awakening deserves to be restored and to be given its place among novels worthy of preservation.

Source: Kenneth Eble, "A Forgotten Novel: Kate Chopin's The Awakening," in Western Humanities Review, No. 3, Summer, 1956, pp. 261-69.


Critical Overview