Birth, whether of children or desires, plays a strong motif throughout The Awakening. The four components of childbirth, which Edna—the novel’s main character—recalls as she witnesses her friend Madame Ratignolle give birth, represent major themes Chopin emphasizes throughout her novel. These four components are “ecstasy of pain, the heavy odor of chloroform, a stupor which had deadened sensation, and an awakening to find a little new life” (133). In childbirth, the first three components are necessary to achieve the fourth: the awakening to find a new life. The same is true of Edna’s thematic self-discovery, only the sequence is slightly reordered. It begins instead with chloroform but ends the same: with an awakening or, for Edna, the discovery of her own desires.
The first thematic component, the heavy odor of chloroform, represents the oppressive expectations and limitations society places upon women, particularly Edna. Chopin’s use of the descriptor “heavy” lends the expression an oppressive connotation. Then, chloroform leads to the next stage of childbirth—a stupor of deadened senses—and social oppression leads Edna to believe she was initially “deadened” to her desires. By continuously of fulfilling others’ desires, she originally never even realized she possessed desires of her own. Edna notes this phenomenon following the departure of her husband and children at one point in the novel: “She realized that she had neglected her reading, and determined to start anew upon a course of improving studies, now that her time was completely her own to do with as she liked” (96). Before she was left to her own devices, Edna had allowed herself and her time to be posses...
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...oroform, a sensation-deadening stupor, the ecstasy of pain, and an awakening—mark Edna’s self-discovery throughout The Awakening. Still, in the end, Edna follows through with what she told Madame Ratignolle she would and would not be willing to do: “I would give up my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself” (69). She gives up her life because she is unwilling to give up her self—her desires, her cravings, and her passions to do what she wants selfishly and without regard for any other being’s wishes. She cannot escape motherhood, nor can she ever hope to find her idealized lover. Thus, she leaves these dissatisfactions behind her as she enjoys her final moments of empowerment and solitude wrapped in the folds of the sea, the hum of bees, and the smell of pinks’ musk.
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000.
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