Last Updated on June 4, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1215
A key aspect of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening is its narrator. The novel is written from a third-person omniscient point of view and employs a literary technique known as free indirect discourse, which allows the narrator to relay the thoughts and feelings of all characters. The Awakening has an unreliable narrator in that she often gives judgements that are in agreement with the views of a patriarchal society.
Edna’s awakening is framed within the societal constraints of the Gilded Age South. The unreliable narrator highlights the novel’s irony. When these patriarchal viewpoints are put in context and contrasted with Edna’s awakening, it only emphasizes the ridiculous nature of the narrator’s views.
- For example, the narrator describes how Edna begins to see herself as an individual with a place in the world around her. The narrator then claims that to view one’s self as an individual is a “ponderous weight” for a woman.
In other instances, the narrator shows the perspective of Edna’s husband, Léonce. By providing access to Léonce’s thoughts, readers are shown Léonce’s selfishness and inability to understand Edna. Léonce expects Edna to adore and idolize him, and when Edna does not do so, he becomes upset. These other perspectives in the novel offer insights into Gilded Age societal conventions and opinions while simultaneously arguing for women’s individuality, freedom, and control over their own destinies.
Setting and Historical Context
Setting is important within The Awakening because different locations reflect Edna’s constraints as well as her search for freedom. However, as her identity shifts, Edna begins redefining even the restrictive spaces in her life. For instance, she uses Léonce’s home for her dinner party and goes to win money from the horse races. These acts of rebellion within oppressive spaces highlight Edna’s search for autonomy.
The Awakening describes in detail the setting and local culture of Grand Isle and New Orleans in Louisiana, adhering to a literary style called regionalism. Regionalism stems from both realism and Romanticism, and explores the local customs and cultures of particular settings.
- For example, both settings are home to Creole people whose customs, language and culture differ from other residents there. Each setting also represents parts of Edna’s journey. Grand Isle stands as a place that is free from societal constraints, where Edna becomes aware of her identity and place within the world. It is also where she dies at the end of the novel after realizing that she never wishes to be owned by her husband, children, or another man again.
The middle of the novel takes place in New Orleans, where Edna lives with her family in a large home, which Léonce owns and has full control over. All of Edna’s married life has been spent there, where she attends to the duties expected of her as a wife and mother. Léonce’s house in New Orleans stands as a place of oppression and constraint for Edna. But New Orleans is also home to places where Edna feels free. Mademoiselle Reisz’s house, for example, is where Edna learns of Robert’s love for her. Furthermore, the old garden that Edna finds is a place of peace set apart from society, while Edna’s “pigeon” home represents her individuality and autonomy.
The Awakening is set at the turn of the 20th century, a period often called the Gilded Age. The Gilded Age is known for its strict division between the public and private spheres:
- Men were a part of the public sphere, participating in politics and engaging in business.
- Women, on the other hand, attended to the private sphere of the home by caring for their children, their husbands, and the household in order to uphold moral standards.
These gender roles are the core subject matter of The Awakening. Edna Pontellier actively works against her role in society once she becomes aware of the constraints placed upon her.
Women in the Gilded Age were expected to embody not only familial devotion but also Christian values. A famous poem written by Coventry Patmore called “The Angel in The House” captures this idea of women as pure, religious, and devoted to their families. The concept of “angel in the house” can be found within The Awakening when the narrator describes how Gilded Age women “idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels.” Yet Edna Pontellier is not this type of woman: she is unable to give herself wholly and religiously to her husband and children, yearning instead for individuality.
When Kate Chopin published this novel in 1899, the women’s rights movement was gaining momentum, and the “New Woman” was replacing the so-called angel in the house. Many consider The Awakening a key feminist text because of its criticisms of traditional gender roles during a transformative period for women’s rights.
Symbols in The Awakening
There are several key symbols within The Awakening: the ocean, swimming, and music.
The ocean is a salient but complex symbol within the novel, representing both liberation and fear for Edna. The narrator often describes it as sensuous and seductive, which reflects Edna’s epiphanies regarding her oppression and subsequent sexual awakening. The ocean as a source of fear stems from Edna’s inability to swim. When she does learn how to swim, it feels liberating to her until she swims out too far and is overcome with fear of drowning. Edna’s fear represents her inability to be truly liberated from her marriage, her children, and the broader societal expectations of women. Despite this fear, Edna establishes her independence when she goes back to New Orleans.
When Robert Lebrun leaves her after they confess their love to each other, Edna is devastated. She returns to the ocean, which was a source of joy and liberation when she visited Grand Isle, and swims out again. Having lost control of everything in her life, and seeing no other ways in which she can continue to be independent in such a restrictive society, Edna chooses to take her own life. Sshe ignores her fears and swims out as far as she can before allowing herself to drown in the ocean. Although this has been a contentious topic among critics of the novel, Edna’s suicide is most often seen as a final exertion of control over her own circumstances.
Another important symbol in the novel is music. Edna comes to appreciate music more when she becomes close friends with Mademoiselle Reisz, a pianist. Edna feels a deep, emotional connection to Reisz’s music and weeps when she hears it. Although the others who hear Reisz play simply enjoy the sound of the music, Edna comes to a greater understanding of her life circumstances. When Edna visits Reisz in New Orleans, Reisz plays for Edna again, this time while Edna reads a letter written by Robert. Edna is emotionally moved by the music for a second time, but now the music represents both her awakening and her love for Robert.
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