The Awakening is an outstanding, existential and challenging novel about solitude. It challenges a whole tradition of novel writing by and about women in 19th C. American literature. Kate Chopin’s novel triumphs as a work of art, though diverting in approach from some major novels like “Madame Bovary” by Gustave Flaubert and “Anna Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy. It is quite outstanding in its intensities of feeling, and the subtlety of its analysis of the position of the married woman in a highly conventional society.
Kate Chopin in her bold novel presents before us a woman who had never been properly “awake”. Being a woman, she had very little or absolutely no sense of her own “self” and the newly discovered solitude suggests altogether new grounds and means of activity. This sensuous text tells of a woman’s rejection of her family, her seduction, and her awakening to passions and desires that impend to devour her. Edmund Wilson has praised the novel as “beautifully written.” Willa Cather explained its peculiar style as “exquisite,” “sensitive,” “profound” and “iridescent.”
The novel clearly shows the social constraints of women in the Victorian era. They were then expected to be docile and domestic— to raise children and submit to their husbands. The period of 1820-1860 witnessed the upsurge of an ideology of feminine conduct in America and an ideal of womanliness that has come to be known as the “Cult of Domesticity” or “Cult of True Womanhood.”
“Women can either become wives and mothers…or exiles” (Papke, M.E.)
“Nature” as well as “Society” work together like forces to shape Edna Pontellier into a woman that they approve her and expect her to be, however only by way of her suicide. As the story develops, she increasingly feels that the identity afforded to her by marriage within Creole society is a false identity and something she did not desire. Determination to depart from ways of the society had driven like a death wound into her tender soul. The imagery of death and wounding indicates that her ‘new self’ is destined to be destroyed.
Edna Pontellier is finally capable of escaping their grasp in the end. Léonce along with society tend to possess her spirit, telling her to be passive, submissive and compliant, love her children unconditionally, to manage house, and maintain appearances. However, Raoul and Etienne, her children, are a constant reminder of her filial duty that a society expects from a “mother” They probably captivated her physical body, endeavoring to be reminiscent of the torture of childbearing that nature demands of her. Nature kept her adoring and tendering her children and proclaiming that she would give up everything for both of them, but it was her innate yearning for self-definition, individualism and independence that eventually guided to her “deadly rebirth”.
“For the first time in her life she stood naked in the open air…a familiar world that she has never known.”
In this the ultimate assertion is the universality of motherhood, her self-realisation through death is also a kind of rebirth. Almost nine months had passed from the time when she enjoyed enlightening summertime in Grand Isle; her “fetus- self” was completely prepared to be delivered.
“all her beautiful hair…drawn back and plaited. It lay in a long braid on the sofa pillow coiled like a golden serpent.”
The allusion to serpent can refer to two things first, It can be thought of as an imagery vibrant with ideas of the natural world secondly, it can be Edna Pontellier’s aversion to that world and its conventions. Another possibility is that the serpent may have references to The Bible, as serpent was the evil creature that beguiled and misled Eve to transgress against the law of almighty. It is due to the serpent’s persuasion, that God penalizes Eve by swearing that, “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Genesis 3:16).
The bitter paradox lies in the fact that she has realized that she can preserve the strength and purity of her newly discovered freedom only by destroying it. Its fate is inevitable and predestined by the societal conventions, and by the fact that she is a “woman”. Edna Pontellier, the protagonist is at last free to make choice, but only as long as she chooses to die.
Edna’s suicide is not a voluntary and conscious choice arrived at through her achievement of self- awareness and realization of her self-worth. While “she walked down the beach”, she was “not thinking” at all. She responds to the call of the sea while she was gripped in unconsciousness. The moment she enters the sea, she discards all her obligations.
“The voice of the sea is seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander in abysses of solitude”.
Sea is seductive and always calling. It is representative of possibilities which women constituted by patriarchy cannot think of or enjoy. It is malleable, and the waters allow Edna to give her own shape to the sea as she drowns. This is indicative of a sense of agency she acquires, finally.
Her significant act of stripping her clothes off cannot be thought of a gesture of self-liberation, rather it is indicative of a regression to “animality of infancy.” The climactic event of learning swimming, where the sea waves, melody, and her desire seemingly unite, captures the ambivalence of Mrs. Pontellier’s experience towards her solitude.
Her experience of birth as a new awakened self is directed backward to the womb, and not forward to a new life.
The solitude is actually intoxicating in every aspect, as it is when Edna is left solitary on Chênière Caminade to rest in immortal silence. (“She looked at her round arms…quality and texture of the flesh”). Also, when she is left alone after her Mr. Pontellier departs for New York, solitude becomes her final resort.
It is specifically in these flashes of elation, excitement, and exhilaration that she realizes her self, her liberty, her willpower, and her body. However, for this 19th C. woman, childbirth occurred in the silhouette of death; birth of Edna Pontellier’s new life occurs in the “abyss of solitude” i.e. sea which brings along with it associated idea of death.
We see various delightful moments in the novel that prove her charmingly courageous even in her solitude. She adores her “solitary self”. We also glimpse the delight and bliss of the discovery of “power of self” and strong denial to adjure that very power.
Chopin boldly states that woman cannot come into her own in a patriarchal society and if she tries, she will be looked at skeptically and be alone. She would necessarily be “solitary”. Awakened woman has no solace of companionship in Kate Chopin’s world.