The Power of Painting in Kate Chopin's The Awakening

The Power of Painting in Kate Chopin's The Awakening

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The Power of Painting in Kate Chopin's The Awakening


The Awakening by Kate Chopin displays the struggle a woman goes through in order to break the current status quo. In this novel, Edna Pontellier releases herself to her deepest yearnings, plunging into an immoral relationship that reawakens her long dormant desires, enflames her heart, and eventually blinds her to all else. As she goes through these changes Edna involves herself in many different activities. Painting becomes one of her favorite pastimes and her artwork often depicts an important person in her life. Her impulse to paint is driven by her current emotion; this would explain the passion inserted into each peace of art.

Edna is fascinated by painting and attempts to sketch and paint her friends. She has the opportunity to paint Adele Ratignolle, a woman she claims to be as poised as a Madonna. "Never had that lady seemed a more tempting subject than at that moment, seated there like some sensuous Madonna, with the gleam of the fading day enriching her splendid color" (22). Edna attempts to capture the scene with Adele and replicate it on her sketch pad but falls short. "After surveying the sketch critically she drew a broad smudge of paint across its surface, and crumpled the paper between her hands" (22). Edna in this way is a bit of a perfectionist. She will not accept anything less than faultless. If it does not successfully capture the image in the way that she herself sees it, it is deplorable. Luckily this is a recently acquired outlet and she has accepted the fact that her art might not be as good as it can be. Edna throws away some of her sketches, claiming to be an amateur artist. If she held herself to a higher degree of talent it would more difficult for her to accept these imperfections. This attitude towards her painting relates just as easily to her attitude regarding life. Towards the beginning of the novel, Edna is more passive about the way she is living, the same way she is passive about throwing out her sketches.

As Edna describes her youth and distant life in Kentucky, she paints images in her mind. She desperately wants to paint them, but instead uses the paint of memories.

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As a painter, Edna often uses artwork as her analogies to life. Although this piece of artwork is not physically paint on canvas, it is a metaphysical existence of paint on canvas in Edna's mind and memory. "My sunbonnet obstructed the view. I could see only the stretch of green before me, and I felt as if I must walk on forever, without come to the end of it. I don't remember whether I was frightened or pleased. I must have been entertained" (30). The use of the word "stretch" gives the description of Edna's field an artistic, and almost heavenly feel to the field she is recounting. She still considers herself an amateur artist and this is why she does not even attempt to replicate the field. She holds the memories of this place so true that to paint them would almost be disrespectful to try and reproduce the images she holds so dear.

Madame Lebrun shows Edna pictures of Robert as a young child and claims that he never took any pictures past a certain age. "Oh, Robert stopped having his pictures taken when he had to pay for them himself! He found wiser use for his money, he says..." (78). Edna is bewildered by the idea of Robert not having his picture taken anymore because pictures and paintings are what she vicariously lives through. She cannot physically escape from the things that hold her in, so instead she paints and it allows a release. For Robert to stop having his picture taken is like taking Edna's one passion away from her. It would be like taking the key to her emotional freedom away.

After Leonce leaves the house, Edna brings herself together and tries to discover new outlets in her social life. She looks through her old sketches and sees the problems with her painting and technique. "She could see their shortcomings and defects, which were glaring in her eyes. She tried to work a little, but found she was not in the humor" (90). After reflecting back on her older pieces, Edna has developed enough in her artwork where she can critique her own pieces. The personification of her artwork also shows how dearly she holds the act of painting to her heart. What this quote is saying is that the pieces of art knew that they were not drawn to Edna's full potential and give her a sense of guilt because she knows it as well. After attempting to work on her sketches, Edna packs up her things and leaves for Madame Ratignolle's house. She brings her sketches with her knowing that Adele will give her positive feedback regardless of what she really thinks. "She knew that Madame Ratignolle's opinion in such a matter would be next to valueless, that herself had not alone decided, but determined; but she sought the words of praise and encouragement that would help her to put heart into her venture" (92). Edna must seek this outside optimistic aura because she does not receive it at home. Painting is the one thing she can do whole heartedly. She needed to hear Adele's encouragement just to know that there is someone out there who thinks she can do it. This way she can take the positive feedback and relay it back into her artwork.

Edna's fickle mood dictates her ability and desire to paint. Sometimes she feels down and does nothing. Other times, the sun shines and she paints everything in her sight, freely and at will. When Edna is in a somber mood, she seeks her friend Mademoiselle Reisz to discuss art and painting. She tells her of her desires to paint and become an artist. Mademoiselle Reisz tells her that an artist must have a courageous soul. "I do not know you well enough to say. I do not know your talent or your temperament. To be an artist includes much; one must possess many gifts--absolute gifts--which have not been acquired by one's own effort. And, moreover, to succeed, the artist must possess the courageous soul" (106). The difference between Mademoiselle Reisz's advice on Edna's longing to become an artist and Adele's is that Reisz's is true and honest. Reisz is not trying to fill Edna's head with false hope, while Adele is trying to just be a good friend and tell Edna what she wants to hear. This is why after leaving Reisz's home Edna has a sense of relief in emotions.

Alcée Arobin desperately wants to see Edna's work - her paintings. She puts off this request for a long time because she is not yet ready to welcome him into that part of her world. Her artwork and painting is extremely important to her and seems to be a portion of her identity, for anyone who knows her wants to see her work. In a conversation between Edna and Alcée, it is obvious that Edna is just not ready to share that part of her with him (127-128):

."..I've got to work when the weather is bright, instead of--"

"Yes; work; to be sure. You promised to show me your work. What morning may I come up to your atelier? Tomorrow?"

"No!"

"Day after?"

"No, No."

Her paintings are a large part of her. They are something she does not show to anyone who is the slightest bit interested. She does not show them to Leonce or her children. She showed her sketches to Adele and Reisz because they are people she holds very dear to her. Their opinions matter to her, while opinions from people like Alcée do not.

When Edna sees Robert again, it is at the home of Mademoiselle Reisz. He arrives, unexpected by Edna, and shocks her with his presence in New Orleans. He sees her work and one of the sketches of the head of Alcée Arobin and becomes angry. He doesn't understand why she would paint that man. Her painting becomes a reason to argue, instead of a reason to celebrate. "Alcée Arobin! What on earth is his picture doing here?" (165). Edna is already full of an overwhelming amount of emotion that Robert's comment about Alcée does not even seem to faze her. The fact that Edna did not object to Robert skimming through her sketches is evidence enough that she has reached her ultimate joy. Edna has been reunited with the only man that she has ever loved and this outpour of emotion is evident. She is so happy that she does not need to paint; all she needs to do is look around her. With Roberts return brought a new sense of beauty to her once hum-drum lifestyle. "The morning was full of sunlight and hope. Edna could see before her no denial--only the promise of excessive joy" (171). The diction of this quotation is of utmost optimism. The use of words like "sunlight" and "hope" are so rare when describing the way Edna feels about her life. She now has the ultimate painting of perfection back in her life and Edna finally feels complete.

In conclusion, it is evident that painting becomes one of Edna's outlets very quickly. Though it started as a day-by-day hobby, it turned into a potential career. However, this career was solely fueled by Edna's emotions. After Robert leaves her, Edna seems to float around without any real core. "Edna walked on down to the beach rather mechanically, not noticing anything special except that the sun was hot. She was not dwelling upon any particular train of thought. She had done all the thinking which was necessary after Robert went away, when she lay upon the sofa till morning" (188). Edna has no point left in her life. She cannot experience more emotions; she has lost the only love she has ever known, and because of this, she cannot paint anymore. Without emotions such as love, Edna will lose her creative edge. This is what drives her to end her life. Without her one release from the every day grind she is captured and forced to live under laws that she does not believe in. Without painting Edna cannot truly be herself.

Works Cited and Consulted

Chopin, Kate. The Awakening: An Authoritative Text Biographical and Historical Contexts Criticism. Ed. Margo Culley. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 1994.

Dawson, Hugh J. "Kate Chopin's The Awakening: A Dissenting Opinion." American Literary Realism 26.2 (1994):1 18.

Leder, Priscilla. "An American Dilemma: Cultural Conflicts in Kate Chopin's The Awakening." Southern Studies 22.1 (1983) : 97 104.
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