Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening”, focuses on the revolt of the main character, Edna Pontellier, against her role and position in society. As Edna awakens to her body, her senses, and her role as a woman in late nineteenth century America, she begins to challenge societal “laws” and traditions. Not only does she neglect her obligations to friends and family, but also she ignores society’s expectations of her as a woman of wealth and stature.
Edna senses the forces that ultimately drive her to the sea after a disagreement with her husband, Leonce, early in the novel. When Leonce demands that Edna come in from outside to retire, Edna begins to understand that he regards her as an object of possession. Though Edna refuses to appease her husband “an indescribable oppression, which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar part of her consciousness, filled her whole being with a vague anguish.” Edna, however, does not yet realize she is awakening. “A certain light [will begin] to dawn dimly within her,–the light which, showing the way, forbids it.”
Madame Reisz’s musical performance in Chapter 9 triggers Edna’s first true awakening. Her intense physical reaction to the sound of the keys of the piano, including trembling, choking, and crying, are paralleled by the arousal of passion within Edna’s soul. Chopin suggests that this “was the first time [Edna] was ready, perhaps the first time her being was tempered to take an impress of the abiding truth.” Later this same evening, Edna soars beyond the limits fear imposes upon her in an attempt to capture a sense of independence as she swims far out into the sea alone.
To Edna, the sea is the place where the individual is free from both the evils and the responsibilities of communal life. This perhaps explains the “feeling of exultation” and the sense of power to “control the working of her body and soul” that overtake Edna. While reflecting on her experience in the sea and Madame Reisz’s music, Edna remarks, “A thousand emotions have swept through me tonight. I don’t comprehend half of them. . .I wonder if any night on earth will ever be like this one.” From this point on, there is no turning back for Edna. Her awareness continues to grow until her final return to the sea.
The newfound strength and individuality that learning to swim alone in the sea affords Edna enables her to release her sexual nature. Edna’s friendship with Robert Lebrun takes on new meaning for her as she sits alone with him after her swim: “No multitude of words could have been more significant than those moments of silence, or more pregnant with the first felt throbbings of desire”. Perhaps it is more accurate to call this a romantic awakening than it is to call this a sexual awakening. It seems more appropriate to assume Edna is beginning to yearn for love and human connection with the opposite sex, not some lustful encounter, since she has not yet awakened to her physical self.
As Edna sails to a neighboring island called Cheniere Caminada with Robert the next day, she identifies a sense of freedom within herself–freedom from the constraints her duties as a wife and mother impose upon her. Later this day Edna becomes aware of her body and its natural beauty after Robert compels her to rest at a friend’s house. Edna, left alone to sleep, removes most of her restrictive clothing and begins to closely observe her body. Though Edna’s return to the Grand Isle is a return to domesticity–which Edna, at this point, associates with burdening responsibility,–“she was seeing things with different eyes and making the acquaintance of new conditions in herself that colored and changed her environment.”
Robert’s move to Mexico in Chapter 15 forces Edna to recognize the “symptoms of infatuation” for the first time. Edna longs for Robert throughout his absence, but she lusts for another man when she returns to New Orleans at the end of the summer. Alcee Arobin “pleased her at last, appealing to the animalism that stirred impatiently within her.” This awakening to sexual desire is followed by an awakening to sexual fulfillment when Edna actually becomes physically involved with Alcee. “The first kiss of her life to which her nature had really responded,” however, “was not the kiss of love which had inflamed her, because it was not love which had held this cup of life to her lips.”
After months of Edna’s anticipation Robert returns home from Mexico and the two are finally able to proclaim their love for one another. “There was no human being whom [Edna] wanted near her except Robert; and she even realized that the day would come when he, too, and the thought of him would melt out of her existence, leaving her alone.” Edna becomes convinced that human connection is not possible for her. As Edna’s awakening progresses throughout the novel, she becomes increasingly aware of her solitude. The people she cares about, even Robert continually leave her alone.
Edna comes to realize that her aloneness is a product of her desire for spiritual emancipation. She is not willing to sacrifice self-fulfillment in order to uphold the traditions and expectations of society. “Every step which she took toward relieving herself from obligations added to her strength and expansionism as an individual.” But Edna knows that complete control over her own life will only come through total relief from social commitments. Thus, she returns to the comforting “touch of the sea” that “enfold[s] the body in it soft, close embrace.” As Edna removes her clothing and enters the sea, she is reborn into a world free of constraints, the world she has longed to encounter throughout The Awakening – a very prominent masterpiece written by Kate Chopin.
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