Edna’s Symbolic Swim in The Awakening
Reading through The Awakening for the first time, a passage in chapter X intrigued me: Edna’s first successful swim. I begin my close reading halfway through page 49, “But that night she was like the little tottering, stumbling, clutching child, who of a sudden realizes its powers, and walks for the first time alone, boldly and with over-confidence.” Her success is sudden and in spite of assistance from “the men and women; in some instances from the children” throughout the summer. Robert himself had devised a system of lessons. But her triumph does not result from any such assistance, but from her own abilities. By comparing the experience to a child’s first steps, it conjures imagery she herself must have experienced with her own children, which is emphasized by referring to “the” child rather than “a” child. Before her triumph, she totters, stumbles, and literally clutches at any “hand nearby that might reach out and reassure her,” always requiring the assistance or reassurance of others. But on this night, her powers, which by virtue of the strength of such a word choice suggests its relevance to far more than swimming, overtake her. It is significant she does it alone, and her over-confidence possibly foreshadows the conclusion.
“A feeling of exultation overtook her, as if some power of significant import had been given her to control the working of her body and her soul” implies the tremendous joy that encourages her to shout, as well as underscores the significance of the experience in terms of the greater awakening, for the experience actually does provide Edna with the ability to control her own body and soul for the first time. Her “daring and reckless” behavior, her overestimation of strength, and the desire to “swim far out, where no woman had swum before” all suggest the tragic conclusion that awaits Edna. Whether her awakening leads her to want too much, or her desires are not fully compatible with the society in which she lives, she goes too far in her awakening. Amazed at the ease of her new power, she specifically does not join the other groups of people in the water, but rather goes off to swim alone. Indeed, her own awakening ultimately ends up being solitary, particularly in her refusals to join in social expectations. Here, the water presents her with space and solitude, with the “unlimited in which to lose herself.