Finally readers are some seriously overdue thoughts on Kate Chopin’s exquisite novel, The Awakening. My excuse: a lack of leisure.
The Awakening: A story of unrequited love; one woman’s journey to find her identity; a hopeless tragedy? The Awakening should not be categorized as such, but should be read as a timeless piece of Romanticism, in which Chopin eloquently illustrates the relationship between human longing, Nature, and the codes and customs of society and its effect on a troubled soul.
The original title Chopin chose, A Solitary Soul, while perhaps more apt, would certainly lend a different interpretation to a narrative which “follows Edna’s consciousness to its extinction.” (Robinson xvi). From a feminist perspective, focusing on Edna’s awakenings implies that there is a sense of enlightenment or progress, and possibly there is, but in a grim sense; “perhaps it is better to wake up after all, even to suffer, rather than to remain a dupe to illusions all one’s life” ( Chopin 147). While it is true that her summer spent in Grand Isle was a period of self-discovery, critics also argue that Edna experienced regression; that her infatuation with Robert was nothing greater than her earlier, distanced infatuations.
Edna’s variety of anguish is certainly specific to her class position. Edna is a woman of wealth; she receives assistance in the rearing of her children; she does not want for material things, and she is at liberty to pursue her interests. Her husband, who has minimal expectations for her domestically, is certainly not domineering or patriarchal, and rather more likely to make excuses for his wife’s ill behavior. Chopin does not place Edna as a victim in a patriarchal society; rather she has “created the least onerous situation imaginable for Edna, one that is leisured and without coercion, ready to accommodate her choices (Robinson xii). Instead Edna’s anguish arises from the the stirring of her soul: her acute sensitivity to art and beauty; her sense of disillusionment and hopelessness with her marriage and motherhood. In the end Edna deems her situation so insufferable that she walks out to sea.
Edna continually pushes the constraints of social norms and it becomes clear that she will not be satisfied until those constraints are broken. Those around her, including Robert, possess the ability to feign misbehavior, while Edna “understands that a game is being played by those about her, but refuses to understand what the game is, or why its rules must not be broken nor its essential artfulness forgotten” (Robinson xv). Edna yearns for a freedom that she realizes cannot be attained in living, and so she exits life.
Whether we sympathize with or abhor the sequence of decisions Edna makes, the reader gets a sense that Edna’s disillusionment symbolizes something greater than oneself; that her dilemmas are real human dilemmas.
Below are some book club questions/discussion topics (some gleaned from the internet).
1. Some critics view Edna’s suicide at the end of the novel as a failure to complete her escape from convention—an inability to defy society once stripped of the motivation of a man by her side. Others view her suicide as a final awakening, a decision to give herself to the sea in a show of strength and independence that defies social expectation. Which interpretation do you find more compelling, and why?
2. Two of the strongest characters in the book are women, Madame Ratignolle and Madame Reisz. Contrast their roles as women in the late nineteenth century to Edna’s character.
3. Describe how Edna’s encounters with “nature” in sensuous and fecund Grand Isle lead to her transformation (not to mention enrich the text).