Finding Freedom in Kate Chopin's The Awakening


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Finding Freedom in The Awakening   


The Awakening was shocking to readers in 1899, and would be today if it were published in “Ladies Home Journal”. Even today, women are expected to sacrifice themselves, if not to their husbands, then definitely to their children. I find it interesting that Grand Isle is the setting for the beginning and end of the novel. The story is built around a circle and represents the whirling force that is the energy of Edna’s life. The circle reminds me of Yeats’ “The Second Coming” : “Turning and turning in the widening gyre/things fall apart/the center cannot hold.”

 So often I wanted Edna to act and she didn’t, I suppose that it is Chopin’s purpose to not let us into Edna’s thoughts, or make us omniscient of her actions. This was hard for me while reading. I wanted Edna’s point of view, so I could EASILY figure out what she was going to do, and that’s what was most difficult about this novel, and the reason it is not an easy read. I guess this is Chopin’s purpose. An example is when Edna cannot pinpoint why she is crying - the reader is left just as confused as Edna about the emotions.

The sleep motif is very enlightening, in that key moments of Edna’s awakening are preceded by sleep. Sleep, especially for those who are depressed, is used as a way of escape, but in this novel sleep is used mystically as a way for Chopin to show that many things happen while Edna is sleeping that leads to awakening. In this way, the reader can only guess what occurs during sleep.

I found I related to Harding Davis’ work more in that I can relate to Hugh and Deb’s oppression (politically, economically, class structurally). One thing the two works have in common is that both main characters (Hugh and Edna) actually hold the key to their own oppression, yet Edna’s social condition doesn’t require much sympathy from the reader. Also, if a reader cannot step into that world with Chopin, it is difficult to comprehend that kind of oppression. Perhaps it’s not correct to use the term oppression when writing about Edna, as it seems she only lives a life of obligations. She breaks free of these, however, and realizes: “Every step which she took toward relieving herself from obligations added to her strength and expansion as an individual.

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She began to look with her own eyes...” This as an important point the novella, and for the women who read it.

In the novel, Reisz and Ratignolle can be interpreted to represent the two opposing and oppressive parts of Edna’s self that existed before the “sleeping places of her soul” were awakened. Through her painting (Chopin’s obvious comment on the freedom that comes from creative expression,) Edna awakens to find what’s meaningful in her life. She begins to walk more; to work outside in the garden with her fingers in the earth; to paint (although Ratignolle says Edna has no talent); she desires a “room of one’s own,” etc.

Throughout the work are many references to the sea: “The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is so sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.” Chopin’s words eloquently describe the feelings associated with the sea, and reminds me of the liquid in the womb that surrounds us all in our beginnings, our “awakenings.” It seems in the end, Edna chooses to return to the safety of the sea. I thought it was beautiful the way Chopin had Edna reveal herself to the world and the sea in the end by shedding her wrap and suit: “there beside the sea, absolutely alone ... for the first time in her life she stood naked in the open air, at the mercy of the sun ...”  What a freedom she possesses here, just before her death.  Not many women take the opportunity to be this free in their lifetimes - I wonder if Chopin ever did?
 

 


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