The Awakening: Bibliographic Assignment Guidelines
Like most of Kate Chopin’s stories, The Awakening, set in the late 19th-century Creole society of the New Orleans area, features a strong local ambiance and a richly symbolic texture; but thematically it transcends regional writing. Critics have frequently noted its close connections to the French work of Maupassant and Flaubert, especially Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. The Awakening is the story of a young woman’s quest for freedom; and the discoveries she makes along the way, including the ultimate realization that the complete freedom for which she yearns is not available to her in mortal life, constitute her awakening.
During her summer dalliance with one Robert Lebrun, Edna Pontellier becomes increasingly aware of the restrictiveness of her conventional marriage, and almost by chance discovers, simultaneously with her learning to swim, that the drive toward self-determination should be just as appropriate for women as it traditionally has been for men. It occurs to her that tradition has placed restraints on women by establishing societal modes (the structure of the family, patterns of social conduct) and by dictating concepts of morality (primarily through the church). Acting on her new realization that since tradition has been created by people it can also be set aside by people, she defies her husband and her father, sends her children to the country, moves out of the family home into her own small cottage, and in an illicit relationship with one Alcée Arobin flaunts her rebellion against moral propriety.
At first pleased with her escape from tradition, she soon discovers that she is less free than she had expected to be. Her sensual attraction to Arobin teaches her that sex and love are not equivalent, that sex is a separate, instinctive, fundamental force of nature that attracts men and women to each other and, as Per Seyersted asserts in his Chopin biography, “spurs us blindly on toward procreation.” Edna’s relationship with Arobin, combined with her smoldering love for Robert and her presence at the travail of her friend Adéle, the conventional biblical mother, leads Edna to understand that free love is not free, that the connection between love-making and the pain of childbirth is firmly established within the context of natural law by which all people are bound and from which there is no escape. But although she understands all this and although she feels intensely the loneliness and the sense of separation which inevitably accompany the attempt to create one’s own destiny, Edna is not willing to relinquish her quest.
Still driven by the need for self-determination, by the urgent longing for total freedom, and unwilling to accept the natural role which she sees as an inevitable succession of lovers before her, she returns to the gulf to recapture the sense of freedom that exhilarated her by signalling her independence when, early in the novel, she learned to swim. Alone, ignoring warnings intended for her well-being, she swims out too far and tires. Flawed by her own mortality, like the bird with the broken wing, she falters—”her strength was gone.” Kaleidoscopic images of the past flash through her mind reminding her of cast-off traditional connections, but they do not draw her back. Informed by her recent discoveries, she realizes it is too late for all that—”the shore was far behind her.” Assuming the role of the courageous soul, one who “dares and defies,” she indicates no desire to return or to be rescued. Like Taji in Melville’s Mardi, when he was unable to find ultimate beauty in this world, Edna moves out through “the circumvallating reef” into the unknown regions beyond, thus extending her search into eternity. Her realization that the ideal she so desperately desires is not available to her as a mortal is her final discovery, the final phase of her awakening.
Whether the denouement of the novel is read literally as the renunciation of the unacceptable restrictions of mortal life or interpreted as a symbolic extension of the quest for ultimate freedom, the existential choice of self-determination is implicit.