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She put it on, leaving her clothing in the bath-house. But when she was there beside the sea, absolutely alone, she cast the unpleasant, pricking garments from her, and for the first time in her life she stood naked in the open air, at the mercy of the sun, the breeze that beat upon her, and the waves that invited her.
How strange and awful it seemed to stand naked under the sky! how delicious! She felt like some new-born creature, opening its eyes in a familiar world that it had never known.
The foamy wavelets curled up to her white feet and coiled like serpents about her ankles. She walked out. The water was chill but she walked on. The water was deep, but she lifted her white body and reached out with a long, sweeping stroke. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.
The Awakening, Chapter XXXIX, Page 160.
The novel “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin tells the story of Edna Pontellier, a woman, who is held in chains by the social conventions common to the late nineteenth century, where the story takes place. One day Edna awakens out of the role given to her by society and begins to listen to her inner wishes and feelings which guide her to her “self”. From now on Edna developes to an independent and liberate young woman, who lives her life for herself, not for her husband and not for her children as it would have been expected of a woman out of this time. She gives up her old life to start a new one. It seems as if Edna closes every door behind her, so that there will not be a way back into her past life even if she wanted to take it.
The passage above shows Edna at the end of her self-discovery journey. It shows her back at the place where the story had begun: at the beach of Grand Isle. After the reader has accompanied Edna through the whole novel, the story has come full circle now. The protagonist reached a point where there is no way back. But even the social conventions are too strong to be broken through by a progressive woman Edna Pontellier stands for. Although
it can not be proved textual, the reader understands that Edna at the end commits suicide and drowns herself in the sea.
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The language Kate Chopin uses in this passage is very pictoral and romantic. She makes use of many adjectives and comparisons to create a vivid story that catches the readers attention, for example: “[...] The foamy wavelets [...] coiled like serpents [...]” (line 8). Chopin also uses methaphors to intensify the figurativeness of this passage such as in line 4 “[...] the mercy of the sun [...]” and in line 10 “[...] the touch of the sea [...]”. But especially the last three sentences are different from the whole passage. Chopin begins every one of them anaphorically with the article “The”. Furthermore they share the same syntax, which indicates the importance of this passage for the whole novel, since these sentences reflect the last perceptions of the protagonist.
Kate Chopin effectively uses the the third person narrator allowing the reader to see the world as Edna Pontellier experiences it while at the same time to see her through the eyes of a god-like creature who already knows her destiny. No one could portray Edna more reliable than the third person narrator does. There is also a shift from the omniscient to the limited point of view towards the middle of the passage, where the third person narrator focuses on the thoughts and feelings of the protagonist which is the only non-reliable information the reader gets. Nontheless it is no useless information since it helps the reader to empathize with Edna
( line 6 ).
Edna finding her bathing suit seems to be a simile whereas the bathing suit stands for the social conventions out of the time the story takes place in. First she put it on, but as she arrived at the beach Edna “[...] cast the unpleasant, pricking garments from her [...]”, just as she got rid of the unpleasant, pricking conventions which captured her inner “self”. After Edna has freed herself she feels “[...] strange and awful [...]” but also happy to have taken
this path. Also her first steps as an independent person have been staggering and insecure, yet she developed to a self-confident young woman. The expression “[...] She felt like some new-born creature, opening its eyes in a familiar world that it had never known [...]” (line 6f.) points to the fact that Edna has reached the aim of her journey. Edna seeing herself as a “new-born creature” shows the helplessness of this young woman who acquited herself of the social conventions she can neither live with, nor live without. She has to realize that the time is not ripe for young woman who want to lead a self-determined life. Since Edna does not want to sacrifice her soul for her children, her husband or any other person there is only one way for her to save her inner freedom: suicide. Everything the reader learns about Ednas death he/she learns from the last sentence of this passage: “[...] The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.” (line 10f.) Chopin leaves it open whether Edna drowned accidentally or intentionally, which is a clever solution, since suicide was as proscribed as being an independent woman by a nineteenth century society.
Kate Chopin: The Awakening, Cambridge University Press, 1996.