The Awakening is a novel by Kate Chopin, first published in 1899 (see 1899 in literature). Set in New Orleans and the Southern Louisiana coast at the end of the nineteenth century, the plot centers on Edna Pontellier and her struggle to reconcile her increasingly unorthodox views on femininity and motherhood.
One theme apparent in Kate Chopin's novel, The Awakening, is the consequence of solitude when independence is chosen over conformity. The novel's protagonist, Edna Pontellier, is faced with this consequence after she embarks on a journey of self-discovery. "As Edna's ability to express herself grows, the number of people who can understand her newfound language shrinks" (Ward 3). Edna's awakening from a conforming, Victorian wife and mother, into an emotional and sexual woman takes place through the use of self-expression in three forms: emotional language, art, and physical passion.
She had also ranked her husband among the unessentials that she could do without. When the womanizing Alcee Arobin "leaned forward to kiss her, she clasped his head, holding his lips to hers. It was the first kiss of her life to which her nature had really responded. It was a flaming torch that kindled desire" (p. 80). The satiation of that desire, which this awakened Edna no doubt intended to accomplish, was probably impossible to reconcile with her marriage to Leonce. Further, in the dawn of this new life, Edna had found extra-marital love. "’I love you’ she whispered" to Robert Lebrun in passion on the afternoon before her suicide. "’Only you; no one but you. It was you who awoke me last summer out of a life-long, stupid dream...Now you are here we shall love each other, my Robert. We shall be everything to each other. Nothing else in the world is of any consequence" (p. 103). Thus, she had cast off the veil, the burqua of her married relationship in action and in desire.
A large part of this metamorphosis was to cast off all parts of her old self. As she told her friend Madame Ratignolle, "I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself" (p. 46). Among the first things she resolved to give up were the social benefits that came from having a day each week during which she was to stay home and receive visitors. This convention shackled her to her house one seventh of her life, and she cast it off without remorse. Next, she cast off the house itself. During one of her husband’s extended trips to New York City, she investigated the availability of a very small house nearby her husband’s prominent address. She wrote to inform him of her plans to move herself there but, "Without even waiting for an answer from her husband regarding his opinion or wishes on the matter, Edna hastened her preparations" (p. 80) to move into her own (relatively) humble shelter.
Kate Chopin "broke new ground in American literature. She was the first woman writer in her country to accept passion as a legitimate subject for serious, outspoken fiction. Revolting against tradition and authority; with a daring which we can hardy fathom today; with an uncompromising honesty and no trace of sensationalism, she undertook to give the unsparing truth about woman’s submerged life. She was something of a pioneer in the amoral treatment of sexuality, of divorce, and of woman’s urge for an existential authenticity. She is in many respects a modern writer, particularly in her awareness of the complexities of truth and the complications of freedom."
This book is so innovative because of the rather controversial topic that Chopin explores in it. It was not common in Chopin's time period to find books that discuss the freedom of women and how powerful one woman's escape from society can be. A woman's total control over her life and actions was seen as a novel idea and a very powerful one as well.
it may be helpful to recognize that Edna Pontellier herself understands French and French culture imperfectly. She has only, as the novel points out in Chapter 2, "a small infusion of French which seemed to have been lost in dilution." She is not a Creole; she is not from Louisiana and did not grow up a Roman Catholic; she is out of her Kentucky or Mississippi Presbyterian environment, out of her native element. So to some extent your puzzlement over those French expressions may be similar to hers. There are suggestions in the novel that at times Edna is not fully aware of what's going on around her.
Edna's rediscovery of feelings that she has long repressed underlie her search for freedom, self-expression, and love. Her relationship with Robert Lebrun awakens forgotten physical needs and prompts Edna to think about her life. For the first time, she begins to open up to others. She shares confidences with Robert Lebrun and Adèle Ratignolle and allows herself to be stirred by Mlle. Reisz's music. She learns to swim, further experiencing the power of the connection between mind and body. She finally acknowledges her feelings toward Robert and realizes that she can take action to control her own life. The new Edna results from a marriage of flesh and spirit.
It may be considered one irony of the novel that Edna only comes to the "awakening" that isolation is necessary for the birth of her true self through a series of reactions to relationships with others, most especially Robert Lebrun. Although Edna repeatedly states a desire to be left alone as the novel progresses, were she to be granted her wish entirely, her "awakening" might not have developed as it did.
In this novel, Chopin develops the theme of the true self in a paradoxical way: the more Edna loses herself, the more she finds herself. For example, in Chapter X, when Edna has mastered swimming, she is depicted as "reaching out for the unlimited in which to lose herself." Yet, in so doing, she is taking an important step along the road to her full "awakening." In conventional Christian thought, a faithful follower of Jesus loses him- or herself by denying the self, subjugating the self to God (e.g., Mark 8:34-35). In The Awakening, however, Edna loses, not her true self, but the self she has adopted for the sake of society.
In The Awakening, marriage is a huge barrier to happiness and individual fulfillment because the archetypical marriage had an "I Tarzan, you Jane" dynamic. At the start of the novel, Edna is barely conscious of her habit of simply acquiescing to her husband’s orders, but as the book progresses, she begins to disobey his commands and make her own decisions about how to spend her time and energy. Furthermore, by the end of the book that Edna is so disillusioned by the whole institution of marriage that she doesn’t even want to marry the man that she truly loves.
Edna experiences true independence throughout this novel. She learns that in order to make herself happy, a husband does not have to be in her life. Being a free spirit without a ma, she develops such a stigma toward marriage that she is no longer able to be involved with men that she loves. For Edna her freedom could be seen as " too much of a good thing".
The Awakening is largely about an identity crisis. Dissatisfied with her labels as "wife" and "mother," Edna Pontellier seeks an independence that is hard to come by for Victorian women. The "awakening" that Edna experiences is the awakening of her true self – her real humanity that had lain dormant under a socialized exterior. The unleashing of the Inner Edna in the face of societal convention constitutes the main thrust of the novel.