The Awakening, published in 1899, is Chopin’s masterpiece but also the work that in fact ended her literal career although it was expected to be success. The title of the novel is a metaphor for the protagonist Edna Pontellier’s gradual acquisition of self-knowledge.
The novel shares elements of the local colour genre. It was written between 1897 and 1899 when Chopin lived in St. Louis. The narrator is anonymous and mostly objective, although sometimes we can feel the sympathy for the main character and her struggle for independence. It seems that the narrator is Chopin herself.
The protagonist of the book is Edna Pontellier, an unconventional and independent married woman and mother, whose self-realization is not fulfilled by marriage and motherhood. Thus, she tries to find her own ways to be happy and satisfied. The focus of the tale is Edna’s transformation or more accurately, evolution, from a traditional woman of the 19th century to an individualistic rebel. Through series of awakenings, she finally finds herself and becomes who she wants to be but during these times, she has to face many problems. Unfavourable circumstances eventually lead to a decision Edna had to ultimately make.
In an essay “Kate Chopin’s The Awakening: A Critical Reception,” Russ Sprinkle claims:
Choked by the cloistering, moralistic garb of the Victorian era, yet willing to give up everything - even her own life – for the freedom of unencumbered individuality, Edna Pontellier epitomized the consummate New Woman of the late nineteenth century. She embodied the social ideals for which women of that era were striving. She was individualistic- a maverick; she was passionate; she was courageous and intrepid – she was the definitive persona which thousands of women during the late nineteenth century exalted as a role model. This, combined with the fact that Chopin was already an established author, seemed an indicator that The Awakening was destined for success. (1)
The story begins on Grand Isle, where Edna, her husband and their two sons spend summer holiday together with other wealthy Creoles. Here Edna experiences her first series of awakenings that completely change her life.
A green and yellow parrot, which hung in a cage outside the door, kept repeating over and over: “Allez vous-en! Allez vous-en! Sapristi!5 That’s all right! ” He could speak a little Spanish, and also a language which nobody understood, unless it was the mockingbird that hung on the other side of the door, whistling his fluty notes out upon the breeze with maddening persistence. (1)
The first sentences of the novel are symbolic. They bring a picture of two caged birds seemingly talking to each other and at the same time, making lots of noise and disturbing Mr. Pontellier’s reading. The parrot can speak Spanish and the language, which is understood by nobody except the mocking-bird hanging on the other side of the door.
The parrot sending Mr. Pontellier away appears to embody awakened Edna, caged in an unfulfilling marriage to a materialistic Creole husband and wishing to get out of cage. The cages evoke isolation and oppression and in my opinion mirror not only the patriarchal marriage but also especially the place and role of women in the society full of oppressing stereotypes.
The fact that the parrot and the mocking-bird speak the same language and understand each other could symbolise the commonly shared women’s perception of the cage as something humiliating and constraining. The “caged” understand each other.
The noise the birds make is unpleasant. It disturbs Mr. Pontellier’s comfort and he finds the experience irritating. He does not want to be subjected to it and leaves the place. “Mr Pontellier had the privilege of quitting their society when they ceased to be entertaining” (1).
Mr. Pontellier’s departure is also symbolic – the birds want to be free, extend their wings and fly whenever they wish. That is why they make so much noise. Flying is natural but being caged is not. Nobody should have the power to limit somebody else’s space. But Mr. Pontellier’s insensitive reaction was a typical reaction of a 19th century man to the women’s demands for rights.
The symbolic meaning of “caged women” is typical for women in the Victorian society. Just like caged birds, they had no rights and almost no choice. The amount of their freedom was mostly dependent on their husbands or fathers. When they were beautiful, amusing and obedient, everybody liked them. If boring, clever, disobedient or asking for their rights and trying to get out of the cage, they were not favourable any more. On the other hand, there were women who liked being caged and felt that such life was their mission as can be illustrated by the character of Edna’s friend Madame Ratignolle.
Edna’s Process of Awakening
Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relation as an individual to the world within and about her. This may seem like a ponderous weight of wisdom to descend upon the soul of a young woman of twenty-eight–perhaps more wisdom than the Holy Ghost is usually pleased to vouchsafe to any woman. But the beginning of things, of a world especially, is necessarily vague, tangled, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing. How few of us ever emerge from such beginning! How many souls perish in its tumult! (13)
The above-mentioned lines describe the beginning of Edna’s process of awakening and self-realization. Edna’s awakening allows her to see herself in a new way; as a human being with needs and desires. However, the society does not grant her the freedom to fulfil them.
Circumstances for Edna’s Awakenings
Edna is one of those “birds” who little by little managed to get out of the cage and fly. However, she was careless and wanted to fly too high.
Edna’s process of awakening and self-discovery begins due to several circumstances and these crucial moments in her life are interconnected.
The circumstances are:
Edna’s motherless childhood.
Friendship with a woman – mother Adele Ratignolle.
The choice of Leonce Pontellier as Edna’s husband and the emptiness of their marriage.
The fact that Edna spends time with her family on Grand Isle where she is surrounded by Creole women. She learns from them to express her feelings openly.
The meeting with Robert Lebrun who becomes her fatal love.
The power of the ocean and Edna’s first swim.
I dare to speculate that the Alpha and Omega of Edna’s future choices and decisions lie in her motherless childhood and the choice of her husband. They are the reasons for her feeling of unfulfillment resulting in her awakenings. Both, the influence of her childhood and her marriage, had a fundamental impact on Edna’s following life.
I believe that if the conditions during her childhood were different and if she married somebody else, her life journey would not result in the awakenings or they might not be that radical.
It has been proved by many researches that childhood has a big effect on an individual’s life. Nevertheless, not only our childhood in general but particularly our position in the family, so called “birth order”6 is something that has a significant influence on the forming of our personality and on the way we accept our life. Whom we become is prejudiced by our position in the family. Some psychologists consider “birth order” to play more important role than our DNA or education (Jiřina Prekopová)7.
When we look at Edna’s position of the middle child, we can see her prediction for the future. The middle position of siblings is considered to be the position of the most neglected child, either too small (when comparing to the oldest) or too old (in comparison with the youngest). Most of these middle children are independent, competitive, and imaginative and often take risk. However, the same children are also stubborn, cynical, suspicious, and rebellious and hate confrontation. The middle children often choose careers that allow them to be creative such as: sales, art, advertising, or a career that requires negotiating. Many middle ones do not do well with a hierarchy system and do not like strict rules. They prefer to work at their own pace, and to make things more creative than needed. (Murphy, “The Effect of Birth Order on Personality” – nechat jen jméno + odkaz do bibliography)
This is one way how we can see awakened Edna: on the halfway. She wants to be independent and free and makes some steps to achieve her ambitions. However, she does not fully reach her goals because she cannot stop thinking about her children, but in spite of that, she neither is nor wants to be a mother – woman living only for them either. Moreover, she is not able to liberate herself from her love to Robert and live on her own as for example Mrs. Reitz.
She is still somewhere in the middle, as she was among her sisters; neither oldest nor youngest, neither fully independent as Mrs. Reitz is, nor a devoted mother as Mrs. Ratignolle.