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The Lady in Black and the Lovers in The Awakening
Kate Chopin's The Awakening is a terrific read and I am hardly able to put it down! I am up to chapter XV and many of the characters are developing in very interesting ways. Edna is unfulfilled as a wife and mother even though she and her husband are financially well off. Her husband, Leonce Pontellier, is a good husband and father but he has only been paying attention to his own interests. At this point he is unaware of the fact that his wife's needs are not being met. Robert and the other characters are equally intriguing but something else has piqued my interest. Some of Chopin's characters are not fully developed. I know that these are important characters because they are representative of specific things; they are metaphoric characters. In particular, I've noticed the lovers and the lady in black. I'm fascinated by the fact that both the lovers and the lady in black are completely oblivious to the rest of the world. They are also in direct contrast with each another. For this week's reader response I am taking a different approach. Rather than analyzing the main characters, I will examine the lovers and the lady in black.
The lady in black is first mentioned in Chapter I. Mr. Pontellier is surveying the cottages when he notices that a lady in black is walking demurely up and down, with her beads (468). In this example the rosary beads suggest that the lady in black is religious. I believe that this character is a symbol of religion. While everyone else is relaxing, she is busy praying. It is also worth noting that there are several passages which suggest that Edna is rebelling from her religious upbringing. For example, just after we meet the lovers, Edna shares a memory with Madame Ratignolle. She describes herself walking through a meadow as a young girl. She says, "Likely as not it was Sunday... and I was running away from prayers, from the Presbyterian service, read in a spirit of gloom by my father that chills me yet to think of it" (480). Similar to the description of her fathers service, the lady in black is serious and serene.
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The lovers however, represent something entirely different. I believe that Chopin uses the lovers to contrast the relationship between Edna and her husband. The first time the lovers are mentioned is just shortly after we've learned that Mr. Pontellier is "the best husband in the world," although Edna is "forced to admit that she knew of none better" (472). Edna and Madame Ratignolle are at the beach when they notice the lovers. Chopin writes, "Two young lovers were exchanging their hearts' yearnings beneath the children's tent, which they had found unoccupied"(479). This is the beginning of Edna's awakening. The lovers are young, beautiful, and hopeful to the future. Chopin may have decided not to fully developed the lovers because they are in the infatuation stage of love, which is fleeting. I believe that this is the implication of Robert's answering "of course not" to Mariequita's asking him if the two lovers are married (494). They represent the beginning of Edna's relationship with her husband, a fantasy which did not turn out the way she had hoped.
After their initial introduction the lovers and the lady in black are always juxtaposed. Chopin doesn't mention the lovers without then speaking of the lady in black. Coming back from the beach the lovers are "leaning toward each other as the water-oaks bend from the sea. There was not a particle of earth beneath their feet" and the lady in black was creeping Behind them (483). In another example, The lovers, on their way to mass are, "already strolling along toward the dwarf," while "the lady in black, with her Sunday prayer book, velvet and gold-clasped, and her Sunday silver beads, was following them at no great distance" (492). In yet another example Chopin writes, "The lovers were all alone. They saw nothing, they heard nothing. The lady in black was counting her beads for the third time" (493). Having them juxtaposed underscores the ways in which they contrast one another. The lovers and the lady in black are only stick figures even though they represent important themes. I feel that by keeping them undeveloped Chopin emphasizes that young love and strong religious commitment are stages that Edna has passed beyond. The infatuation of new love inevitably fades and with regard to religion, Edna says, "during one period of my life religion took a firm hold upon me" (480). These stick figures are important characters which Chopin uses brilliantly in order to stress some important themes in The Awakening.
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. Nina Baym, et. al., Eds.. The Norton Anthology of American Literature, 5th ed. Vol. 1. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 2000.