In Kate Chopin’s book The Awakening, the title holds a significant but complex meaning. Throughout the book, the main character, Edna Pontellier, experiences various awakenings in different ways; she has an awakening of herself as an artist when she tries to paint, a realisation that she can appreciate music, a realisation of what love is, along with realisations of who she is and how unfulfilling her life is. Edna also experiences freedom for the first time; she comprehends deeper understanding of how she is her own person and how she is not bound by other people’s expectations.
These understandings are awakenings to Edna, who seems to have lived much of her life without more poignant thought or defiance. Chopin uses this proliferation of awakenings to highlight the lifeless existence of going through the motions that Edna needs to wake up from, and throughout the novel begins to. Chopin opens the novel with images of captivity through the birds that “hung in a cage outside the door” (1). Similar to the birds, people trouble to make sense of Edna; as she rebels against her set roles, her husband begins to seek advice and Robert struggles to understand her.
In like manner, after becoming tired of the birds, Mr. Pontellier moves away to read his paper elsewhere; we see him do a corresponding thing with Edna as he leaves in the evening to spend it without her in the second chapter. Chopin convey’s Leonce’s perception of Edna “looking at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage. ” (3) Furthermore, Edna, like the birds, is ‘caged’ in a sense by the roles she is expected to uptake and bound to, like being a wife, mother, an eloquent woman.
We get glimpses of how Edna’s life is mechanized in the first few chapters; the way in which she would cut a garment because she “did not want to appear unamiable and uninterested” (13). She was bound to being the one to look after the children because “if it was not a mother’s place to look after the children, whose on earth was it? ” (8). These expectations trap Edna into a way of life that doesn’t vitalize her and she begins to realize this near the beginning of the book when she is physically awoken by her husband.
Once Edna has been woken up, she struggles to return to slumber and cries, though “she could not have told why she was crying” (9). It seems that during this time Edna has an awakening within herself as she realizes she is experiencing an “indescribable oppression, which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar part of her consciousness,” (9). This physical and mental awakening opens the door to more ‘awakenings’ throughout the novel. In chapter six Edna begins to realize her “position in the universe and develops a greater sense of herself and how she is an individual. (19)
For Edna “A single light was beginning to dawn dimly within her,” (19) and she starts to understand the night that she spent crying and how “It moved her to dreams, to thoughtfulness, to the shadowy anguish,” (19) The light that dawns could symbolize the awakening in Edna, the “light” represently a movement out of the dark and the “dawn” as waking up or a new day. However, Chopin also contrasts this light with “shadowy anguish” giving the idea that although Edna seems to have ‘awoken’ from her stupor she is still clouded in many aspects of what she feels.
Continuing throughout the book, Edna remains in a deep thought, which also suggests that she has not fully emerged and still continues to be slightly outside of what is real. In the short length of chapter six Chopin abridges Edna’s most significant spiritual awakening throughout the book; capturing the wisdom that is slowly descending upon Edna. After chapter six there seems to be a change and over the course of her time in Grand Isle her reticent character seems to erode.
She exposes a stronger sense of herself through her relationship with Robert; his insouciant flirting seems to inspire Edna to reveal herself more to others. Despite this, she still seems to be living a “dual life-the outward existence which she conforms, the inward life which she questions” which could refer back to her mechanized way of life. It becomes evident that as Edna experiences her awakening she begins to blur the lines of these dual lives.
This interlacing is shown, most clearly, through her attitude towards her husband and friends and the way in which her social interactions begins to alter. Edna is frequently experiencing things for the first times in the book in a way that awakens her; from living by herself to learning to swim. Swimming for the first time symbolizes a rebirth and Edna is described as a “little tottering, stumbling, clutching child who… walks for the first time”(41).
This childlike image that Chopin gives is one of uneasiness and vulnerability, which coincides with the beginning of her awakening and the oncept of rebirth. In contrast, Edna also “wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swam before,” (41) portraying how rapidly her confidence build up. Swiftly, Edna’s perception of herself as a ‘beginner’ is thrown aside; this daring aspect seems to become more prominent in Edna further on in the book, as she begins to consider things on a more profound level. Moreover, this new found freedom represents her own liberation as she learns to rely on herself. As an awaking, this swim gives Edna the stronger clarity in her feelings.
Although she seems to realising that her life is not satisfying when she cries in the night and when she has an awakening in chapter six, it is the first swim that gives Edna confidence. This stronger sense of independence gives Edna the courage to truly question things and take bigger risks. Later that night Edna lays out in her hammock and rejects her husband’s pleas for her to come in, despite her husband’s “impatience and irritation” (46). She also rebels in other ways, such as when she goes out on Tuesdays, when she expects to be at home.
Paradoxically, the book closes with another of Edna’s first-times as “She cast the unpleasant, pricking garments from her, and for the first time in her life, she stood naked in the open air,” (177) This description of her final swim is greatly contrasting to the first. Uncertainty and feebleness are expressed through Chopin’s imagery of Edna as a “tottering, stumbling, clutching child” (41) in first swim. In comparison, the imagery in the last scene is more that of liberation and power.
This experience of emancipation and carefreeness is a first for Edna and seems to reflect the change in Edna since the first swim. Likewise, this emancipation is seen in her suicide as Edna feels that death is the only way to free herself of the responsibilities of motherhood and, what’s more, her seemingly frustrating and unsatisfying life. Overall, the final scene expresses the progression of Edna’s emotions and how ultimately, she feels that this is her only way to elude herself of the ‘cage’ that Leonce, society, and even Robert force her into through their expectations and the obligations they come with.
Simultaneously, this liberation could be perceived as a rebirth, “she felt like some newborn creature” (177). As Edna dies she strips away all of the duties she holds-conclusively, she is ‘reborn’ and without any care or obligations. Before Edna’s awakening, she seems to be lost within the expectations put on her and her conflicting desires and curiosities, “she apprehended the dual life that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions” (25).
Promptly after her initial ‘awakening’ in the water Edna turns from her old rituals and realizes “That she was seeing with different eyes” (61). For Edna, the only way to truly awaken herself it seems is to finally end her life, and symbolically, in the same place that she had her first awakening. In conclusion, Chopin does not just expose one awakening within Edna, but several. In the first awakening when Enda sits and cries and is enlightened to the fact she is overcome by an “indescribable oppression, which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar part of her consciousness,” (9).
Though she realises that she wants more from life, in this awakening it seems that she cannot grasp what she wants. In chapter six Enda is awakening more apparently and actively ponders what she is feelings and begins to “recognize her relations as an individual” (19). However, Chopin describes Edna’s new enlightened world as “necessarily vague, tangled, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing” (19) using words that highlight the confusion of what Edna is experiencing.
Vague, tangled, chaotic,” express how rudimentary this awakening is and how it is still very early in development. Edna’s next awakening, when she learns to swim, expresses how Edna is becoming more independent and confident with her new insights. Edna says “Think of the time I have spent splashing about like a baby! ” (42) which seems to reflect how this stage in her awakening has allowed her to go beyond ‘baby steps’ and into a more complex way of thinking. Lastly, Edna experiences a final awakening through the swim that leads to her death.
When Edna “cast[s]”(177) her clothes away she indicates the fearlessness and power that she possesses. The act of abandoning her family and swimming out into the ocean symbolizes her final awakening of her true feelings and reveals the extent of which she wishes to be free. “They need not have thought that they could possess her, body and soul,”(177) though we already know that Edna feels many people in her life force her to be a certain way, it is in this ultimate awakening that she realizes the only way that she will discover freedom in its entirety.