Kate Chopin’s novel, The Awakening, presents the struggle of an American woman at the turn of the century to find her own identity. At the beginning of the novel, the protagonist, Edna Pontellier, seems to define her identity in terms of being a wife, a mother and a member of her community. As the story progresses, Edna seeks to define herself as an individual. The turning point in her struggle can be seen clearly in a scene in which Edna realizes for the first time that she can swim. Having struggled to learn to swim for months, she realizes in this scene that it is easy and natural. This discovery is symbolic of Edna’s break from viewing herself in terms of what society expects her to be, and her new awareness of herself as an autonomous human being.
Prior to this scene, Edna does have some awareness of the duality of her existence. The narrator tells us that “[e]ven 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 that questions” (14). As Edna grew older, that awareness was pushed aside. Chopin makes a comparison between Edna’s religious faith and how she conducts her secular life. She describes how, as a child, Edna once ran away from church and wandered aimlessly through a field of tall grass. She was simply following her impulses and her desires unthinkingly. As Edna grew older, her feelings towards religion changed: “During one period of my life religion took a firm hold upon me,” she states, “after I was twelve and until--until--why, I suppose until now, though I have never much thought much about it--just driven along by habi...
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...as a sexual being for the first time following her experience in the water. She begins to glory in the beauty of her own body and begins a romantic liaison with a man who is not her husband. For the first time in her adult life, Edna begins to live according to her own desires, not those of her husband or society.
The discoveries that Edna Pontellier made in the water that night represent her true “awakening.” The scene demonstrates her awareness of herself as an individual, as well as her realization that she is connected to a larger, greater universe. Whether this epiphany brings her happiness and a greater understanding of the world around her, or only abject misery, isolation and a sense that her life is without worth, is still being debated.
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. 1899. Ed. Margo Cully. New York: Norton, 1994. 3-109.
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