Kate Chopin’s The Awakening
Kate Chopin was born Katherine O’Flaherty on February 8th, 1850. After her father’s death, she developed a close relationship with both her mother and great-grandmother. Kate’s mother, grandmother and great-grandmother were all widowed at a young age and never remarried. The women in her family provided a powerful example of womens strength and independence. She attended the Academy of the Sacred Heart Catholic School where she was encouraged by the nuns to journal and write. In 1869, at the age of 19, Kate met and married Oscar Chopin and they settled in New Orleans. By 1879 Oscar’s cotton brokerage had failed and they, along with their 6 children, moved to Cloutierville, LA to manage several small plantations and a general store. A couple of years later Oscar died, leaving Kate in debt. She eventually moved back to St. Louis to live with her mother. A year after arriving in St. Louis her mother passed away. Shortly thereafter Kate suffered a nervous breakdown and her doctor recommended that she write as a way of calming herself. By the late 1890s Kate’s shorts stories and articles were featured in local publications. Their literary qualities were overlooked and were generally considered regionalist work, meaning that they had little literary value beyond the portrayal of the local culture. In 1899 her 2nd novel and best known work, The Awakening, was published. The Awakening, a story of an unsatisfied wife, drew heavy criticism based on moral and literary standards. Kate Chopin died August 22nd, 1904 at the age of 54. She was considered the forerunner of feminist authors of the 19th century.
The story of The Awakening is set in the 1890’s. The main character, Edna Pontellier, along with her husband and two young sons are vacationing for the summer on Grand Isle off the coast of Louisiana. Other families are vacationing there as well. Edna is befriended by Robert Lebrun, the son of the hostess who is two years younger than her and known for becoming harmlessly devoted to some unavailable woman every summer. Through their friendship, Edna begins to investigate who she is, independent of her identity of wife and mother. Unbeknownst to either of them, Edna and Robert begin to fall in love. Without warning, Robert announces that he will be leaving to travel to Mexico that very evening. Becoming distraught at the news of his departure, Edna recognizes her feelings of infatuation for Robert. Upon her return home from summer vacation, Edna continued her journey of self-discovery. She begins to reject social and household duties, preferring to invest her time in sketching and pursuing a friendship with a moody pianist she met on Grand Isle. During this time she often reflects back on her time she spent with Robert. Her husband takes an extended business trip to New York and her children go off to visit his mother. Soon she discovers that Robert is returning from Mexico and becomes obsessed with continuing where they left off. She excitedly makes arrangements to move from the house she shares with her husband, abandoning him and their children. Upon Robert’s return to the city he does not immediately seek her out. When their paths cross, Robert is reserved. She is confused as it is not the lover’s reunion she had envisioned. So one evening when Robert walks her home she seizes the opportunity; she kisses him and confesses her love, which he admits in return. Before she can explain herself, she is called away. When she returns Robert is gone but she finds a note he left behind. It simply says, “I love you. Good-by—because I love you.” Distraught, she returns to Grand Isle to visit the beach where they spent many of their days together. Edna puts on her bathing suit, then casts if off. Naked, she walks out into the water. She swims out into the ocean growing increasingly tired but she refuses turn back. Though it isn’t specifically stated, the reader understands that she has drowned herself.
The theme in Chopin’s The Awakening is that of a woman’s rediscovery and reclamation of herself. We watch Edna’s transformation from a sleepy, dispassionate wife and mother to an empowered woman who redefines her life.
Prior to her summer vacation, Edna was indifferent about her marriage. It was neither exciting nor unbearable. Her days were filled with the standard responsibilities of a woman of that era: accepting callers on her reception day and handling the affairs of running the household. Though she loved her boys, she would not be described as a “mother-woman”. Chopin describes a “mother-woman” as one who “fluttered about with extended, protected wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened their precious brood”. During their summer vacation, Edna’s husband leaves her company to play billiards at a local hotel. When asked if he will be returning for dinner, he shrugs his shoulders. Edna seems indifferent as to whether he returns to join her or not. The reader can see that Edna’s domestic life lacks passion and is not a source of pleasure for her.
Alone after a late night confrontation with her husband, Edna begins to cry. Such an incident normally wouldn’t have bothered her. Questioning why now, Edna realizes that “an indescribably oppression, which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar part of her consciousness, filled her whole being with a vague anquish”. This is the first time that Edna begins to suspect that there is something deep stirring within her soul. Later on, when pressed by Robert to go for a swim, Edna feels “a certain light was beginning to dawn dimly within her, --the light which, showing the way, forbids it.” The reader can see that unfamiliar feelings and emotions are beginning make themselves known.
One afternoon while reflecting on her life, Edna admits to herself that shortly after marrying her husband she realized that she has no passion for him. And when she recalls her children visiting family one summer, “she did not miss them, except with an occasional intense longing.” She feels a relief of responsibility by their absence. It is here in this passage that Edna consciously acknowledges to herself that she is unhappy in where her life has led her.
As Edna begins to explore her newfound desires, she asserts herself, especially toward her husband. One evening Edna decides she wants to lay in the hammock, much to her husband’s dismay. He said to her, “I can’t permit you to stay out there all night. You must come in the house instantly.” Previously she would have obeyed his command. Not this night. Edna tells him, “Go to bed. I mean to stay out here. I don’t wish to go in, and I don’t intend to. Don’t speak to me like that again; I shall not answer you.” Never before would she have spoken to him like that. Edna is beginning to declare her independence.
Edna’s final display of empowerment is when she decides to move out of the home, abandoning her husband and children. She has saved money which she won through playing the horses. She also developed her artistic talents enough to sell some of her sketches. And with this money she had enough to rent a modest 4 room house, giving her the freedom and independence she desired. Edna is no longer a wife, mother and socialite. Instead she has transformed herself into an artist with the freedom to pursue her desires.