Fatherly Influence in The Awakening
Length: 1604 words (4.6 double-spaced pages)
"The Awakening" by Kate Chopin recounts the struggle of an end of the century New Orleans housewife to conform to a paternal society and the epiphany which ultimately leads to her grave. Born in Kentucky, Edna Pontellier has unconsciously defied the patriarchal society in which she was raised by avoiding her Presbyterian religion. Once grown, she marries Leonce Pontellier, a wealthy man from New Orleans. A vacation on Grand Isle surfaces her true self whom deeply desires independence. One night she takes a risk and learns to swim, this night marking the first of her several awakenings. She confides in her close friend and secret beau, Robert Lebrun that she feels as if she is an entirely new person. Returning to New Orleans, Edna begins the process of obtaining complete independence, eventually moving into a house of her own. To celebrate her newfound independence she hosts a small, intimate dinner party. Once awakened Edna experiences polar emotions of bliss and depression. Despite her many acquaintances Edna struggles to cope with these unstable emotions and perpetual loneliness that now engross her life. Finding no other solution, Edna returns to Grand Isle and drowns herself in the ocean. Why do Edna’s patriarchal surroundings lead a fateful suicide? Chopin shows how Edna finds the idea of a patriarchal society chokingly preposterous, instigating her to form an amiable interrelationship with the sea, inevitably resulting in a fatal swim for freedom.
Edna holds a set of firm feministic beliefs and views paternal customs as suffocating and unnecessary. “Even as a child, she had lived her own small life all within
herself. At a very early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life—that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions.” (14). Chopin shows this dual life many times throughout the book accentuating Edna’s inner-struggle. The very fact that Edna has held this dual life since childhood shows her exceptional maturity and convincing ability to think for herself. Only once Edna smothers her true-self and rational thoughts into her sub-conscious does this become a clear problem, in which she creates a larger false self. It is fitting that she is awakened at such an abrupt time in her life, perhaps quite late, as these sub-conscious thoughts are bound to seep into the mind eventually.
“’Likely as not it was Sunday,” she laughed; “and I was running away from prayers, from the Presbyterian service, read in a spirit of gloom by my father that chills me yet to think of...But do you know…sometimes I feel this summer as if I were walking through the green meadow again; idly, aimlessly, unthinking and unguided.” (17). Edna’s “running away from prayers” shows her indisposition of the patriarchal presence in her life. She gains a fair amount of unpronounced opposition, which becomes pushed into the sub-conscious as well. When feeling restrained by her Presbyterian surroundings, traditionally patriarchal, Edna turns to nature to be her salvation. The image of looking to Mother Nature is repeated many years later as she attends mass at the Cheniere off of the Grand Isle.
“A feeling of oppression and drowsiness overcame Edna during the service. Her head began to ache, and the lights on the altar swayed before her eyes. Another
time she might have made an effort to regain her composure; but her one thought was to quit the stifling atmosphere of the church and reach the open air.” (34-35).
When it is said that “another time she might have made an effort to regain her composure”, Edna’s thought process can now be compared to that of her childhood, untainted and free. As a wealthy New Orleans housewife she was conditioned to stay poised and firm throughout most situations, but now Edna realizes it is time to acknowledge her needs. She feels the need to “quit the stifling atmosphere of the church and reach the open air”; exactly the solution she found adequate and satisfying as a child. Her escape from the repression of the patriarchal church remains as it did as a child, to surround herself with nature. She views this paternal concept as an exit-less room in which she must quickly find a way out.
Alone in her abyss of contemplation, Edna finds a refreshing breath of life within the sea.
“First of all, the sight of the water stretching so far away, those motionless sails against the blue sky, made a delicious picture that I just wanted to sit and look at. The hot wind beating in my face made me think—without any connection that I can trace—of a summer day in Kentucky, of a meadow that seemed as big as the ocean to the very little girl walking through the grass, which was higher than her waist. She threw out her arms as if swimming when she walked, beating the tall grass as one strikes out in the water.” (16).
This is Edna’s first sense of self as a child. She remembers feeling free and powerful and begins to crave that feeling once more. She views it as a distant, yet shockingly lucid memory. She longs for that freedom that the meadow once gave to her and finds this within the sea. The sea becomes a catalyst for the blinding fury she buries down inside. As Edna dares to take that first swim out into the mysterious depths of the ocean, she is overwhelmed with ecstasy.
“A feeling of exultation overtook her, as if some power of significant import had been given her soul. She grew daring and reckless, overestimating her strength. She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before…but intoxicated with her newly conquered power, she swam out alone. She turned her face seaward to gather in an impression of space and solitude, which the vast expanse of water, meeting and melting with the moonlit sky, conveyed to her excited fancy. As she swam she seemed to be reaching out for the unlimited in which to lose herself.” (27-28).
After being repressed for so long, Edna grows accustomed to the limited choices and limited emotions. Unexpectedly, this distinct power reaches out to her and removes the blindfold over her eyes. She is no longer numb, she can feel; she feels free. The sea triggers Edna’s mind back to that spacious, satisfying childhood emotion of valiance. No longer bound by society’s constraints, she finds inner-peace and recognizes her true self once more. After Robert leaves for Mexico, Edna loses an important confidant, and relies upon the sea to keep her fresh independent thoughts alive. It becomes her best friend as well as her liberator. The sea is a baptismal experience, which allows Edna to embrace her feministic beliefs. It provides an escape into her world of fantasy, offering lustful opportunities and freedom from repression.
Offering such boundless possibilities to Edna, the sea becomes her bastion and executioner. “There were days when she was unhappy, she did not know why, -- when it did not seem worth while to be glad or sorry, to be alive or dead; when life appeared to her like a grotesque pandemonium and humanity like worms struggling blindly toward inevitable annihilation. She could not work on such a day, nor weave fancies to stir her pulses and warm her blood.” (56). The unfortunate side to Edna’s freedom is the all-encompassing depression that hits her for periods at a time. The truth is hard to deal with, especially when everyone around turns their heads the other direction and ostracize with burnt tongues. The sea delivers Edna this amazing, euphoric answer, but all the while
handing her a large dose of raw truth. “ The voice of the sea is seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander in abysses of solitude”. (108). The same voice that tempts her to jump into the water the night that she learns to swim, is back again, tempting with relentless vigor. More inviting than any other aspect of her life, the sea feels like those green meadows she so vivaciously romped.
“ The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace…She did not look back now, but went on and on, thinking of the blue-grass meadow that she had traversed when a little child, believing that it had no beginning and no end…She heard the barking of an old dog that was chained to the sycamore tree. The spurs of the cavalry officer clanged as he walked across the porch. There was the hum of bees, and the musky odor of pinks filled the air.” (109).
The sensuous touch and close embrace unify the matriarchal desires that Edna expresses. Edna feels the safest in the arms of the ocean, in the arms of Mother Nature. In the close embrace of Mother Nature Edna does not feel frightened, she feels safe enough to remain looking in front of her. As she continues to look forward, she sees her home; she hears the insects and she smells the sweet smell that home seems to always carry.
The Awakening is the story of Edna Pontellier’s battle against the paternal positions fastened into society’s standards. The sea offers Edna an alternative route from this oppression. After being awakened to the foreboding truth, she finds a permanent escape from constant conflicting emotions. The sea, which once brought her to life, is now her undulating coffin.