Chopin wrote The Awakening in fairly formal prose that conveys a certain sense of gravity to the story. This seriousness is exacerbated by the novel’s point of view—the third person omniscient point of view tends to be much more distant than, say, first person.
But hey: Chopin was breaking down the barriers of what was acceptable female behavior in fiction. She needed to make the tone somber—no one was going to respect a book about a housewife having two affairs and flouting societal expectations if it were silly or glib.
Let’s put it this way: Edna doesn’t get a happy ending.
At the closing of the novel, she either drowns from exhaustion or she dies intentionally. As for the whole "literary fiction" component of The Awakening, the entire novel focuses on chronicling Edna’s psychological journey rather than relating exciting plot details. No dragons, no mad scientists, and not an alien life form to be found.
This one's easy, guys. Chopin wasn't going for a A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius-style head-scratcher of a title. She didn't have time: she was writing a radical book about a woman's sexual and spiritual liberation in the dang Victorian Era.
The Awakening is a phrase which symbolically describes what happens to the main character, Edna Pontellier, as she becomes an aware and conscious human being in the course of this book. What is she conscious of? Mostly the fact that her life has been constrained by her role in her family, and that there’s more to Edna than wife and mother extraordinaire.
Talk about mixed signals. The ending of The Awakening takes the reader on an emotional roller coaster.
As the last chapter begins, there is little sign that Edna intends anything more than some solitary time at Grand Isle. Sure, it's the off-season, and no one's around, but she seems pleasant and chatty with the people she sees. She even asks Victor Lebrun for some dinner and to set up a place for her to spend the night. That's not exactly the kind of behavior we expect from someone who is about to commit suicide.
Finally, Edna pops on down to the seashore, takes off her bathing suit, and feels pretty dang great.
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. (39.24 – 39.25)
This exhilarating gesture of freedom—standing naked on a beach—is compared to a birth, but words such as "strange" and "awful" hint to the reader that something more than naked time is going on here.
As Edna swims out to sea, she becomes overwhelmed by the elements. "[It] was too late," the novel tells us, "her strength was gone." Without coming out and saying it explicitly, the novel strongly suggests that Edna dies.
So, Edna dies, but does she do so intentionally? Does she commit suicide or is it the accidental death of an inexperienced, overwhelmed swimmer?
It depends on what you think is going on in Edna's mind as she swims out to sea. Here are two options:
Edna does not intend to commit suicide. Instead, she embraces, a little too enthusiastically, Mademoiselle Reisz's feeling that the artist needs the "courageous soul that dares and defies," lines she remembers as she swims out.
She wants to push herself, do something extreme, in much the same way that people bungee jump or skydive for kicks. By flouting social convention and starting up life as a sexually and artistically independent woman, she has already experienced a kind of social death. To the rest of society, she no longer exists because she doesn't conform to any social roles, like wife or mother.
This "death" has enabled her rebirth into the free woman she now is. The physical death she experiences at sea is really just a shadow of the first social death. Her swimming out to sea is her final gesture of defiance at the world, the final assertion of her individual spirit. It's just that she gets carried away—literally, out to sea.
Edna does intend to commit suicide. The childhood memory that dominates the last scene is a memory that returns from the first part of the novel. It's a memory that includes the mysterious cavalry officer who was her first romantic obsession.
This romantic obsession is placed next to some parting words from Robert: "He did not know; he did not understand. He would never understand," Edna thinks. Edna commits suicide because she realizes that there is no place in this world for a woman who asserts her erotic needs and her independence from society.
So what do you think? Was it intentional or not? Or would you rather revel in the ambiguity?
The temporal setting is important because of the restrictive society in which Edna lives. Edna’s story wouldn’t make much sense if it took place in a society where divorce is possible, or artistry is supported regardless of gender.
As for the importance of setting the story in the Bayou State, the Creole lifestyle plays a key part in awakening Edna to the joys of being open and passionate. Even more importantly, Edna’s vacation at Grand Isle is also a key part of her awakening. Her constant dips into the ocean awaken Edna in a very physical way (and not just sexually).
A feeling of exultation overtook her, as if some power of significant import had been given her to control the working of her body and her soul. She grew daring and reckless, overestimating her strength. She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before. (10. 7)
In cliché terms, swimming empowers Edna. The sea teaches her to gain control of her movements and of her body, rendering it harder for her to obey when Mr. Pontellier acts like he owns her body.
From the first page of The Awakening, Kate Chopin establishes her stylistic control over her words; she follows the formal rules of grammar. Her sentences are sharp and exact, and her word choice is always precise. Here’s a typical Chopin paragraph – this one comes right at the end of Chapter One:
“Coming back to dinner?” his wife called after him. He halted a moment and shrugged his shoulders. He felt in his breast-pocket; there was a ten-dollar bill there. He did not know; perhaps he would return for the early dinner and perhaps he would not. It all depended upon the company which he found over at Klein’s and the size of “the game.” He did not say this, but she understood it, and laughed, nodding good-by to him.
Chopin alternates between being very specific and somewhat vague in her narration; for instance, she may use several paragraphs to describe one object or one specific moment, or she may use one short sentence to sum up a lengthy, complicated event. We can assume, since we know Chopin’s a master stylist, that she gives lots of details in order to emphasize an event or an object’s underlying importance, and that she quickly summarizes the insignificant stuff so we don’t waste much time thinking about it.
Several types of birds appear repeatedly in The Awakening. We’ll break it down for you.
At the start of the book, the parrot shrieks and swears at Mr. Pontellier. Now, we’ll take a wild guess and say that the parrot represents Edna – or, more specifically, that it gives voice to Edna’s unspoken feelings. Also, it’s in a cage, which is a form of literal imprisonment that highlights Edna’s figurative imprisonment.
The mockingbird, also caged, likely represents Mademoiselle Reisz with its odd markings and the whistling notes it produces. Moreover, we learn at the start of the novel that the mockingbird is perhaps the only one who’s capable of understanding the parrot’s Spanish. It’s a stretch, but by the end of the novel, Mademoiselle Reisz is the only one capable of understanding Edna.
Caged birds in general are representative of women during the Victorian Era, who expected by society to have no other role besides that of wife and mother. It’s reasonable to think of the women as living out their lives in gilded cages – present for decoration, given every comfort, and banned from any real freedom.
She says to Edna that "the bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings." In other words, you need courage to defy society.
As Edna is about to walk into the ocean, she sees "a bird with a broken wing . . . beating the air above, reeling, fluttering, circling, disabled, down, down to the water." This bird could represent Edna’s failure to find freedom – her failure to "soar above the plain of tradition." The bird has a broken wing, yet Mademoiselle Reisz said it would need to have strong wings. Similarly, Edna clearly lacks those strong wings as she drowns in the sea.
Another interpretation is that Edna’s plunge into the water is a defiant rejection of Victorian womanhood and that the bird represents the destruction of that irksome ideal.
On one hand the sea is a symbol of empowerment in The Awakening. In the sea, Edna learns to swim (and, by extension, learns that she does in fact have control over her own body). The sea also functions as a lover. Chopin writes: "The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace."
On the other hand, Edna drowns in the sea.
How are we supposed to read this apparent contradiction? Did Edna get (figuratively) too drunk off of empowerment and die? Or is this a deliberately circular choice by Edna, as in, she wanted her life to end where it truly began?
Cigars appear over and over in The Awakening as a symbol of masculinity and traditional manhood. Victorian women were not allowed to smoke at all, and certainly not cigars. Interestingly, Kate Chopin herself defied this restriction by smoking often in public. She was ostracized for her behavior.
What is going on with the narration? Often it seems completely objective:
They formed a congenial group sitting there that summer afternoon.
Other times it focuses in on Edna’s thoughts:
Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her.
There’s no way a narrator pretending to be a fly on the wall would know that. What takes this text from third person limited to third person omniscient, however, are the scenes where Edna is not present.
Let’s take a closer look at the scenes lacking Edna: the opening scene with Mr. Pontellier (and the parrot), the scene where Adele warns Robert to stay away from Edna, the scene where Mr. Pontellier seeks medical advice, and the last chapter with Victor and Mariequita’s points of view.
The non-Edna scenes show us the ways in which Edna is discussed/viewed by those close to her. This third person omniscient business, in other words, helps us understand Edna. In the opening pages of the novel, Mr. Pontellier views Edna as his property. During Adele’s conversation with Robert, we see that Adele views Edna as a traditional woman who will take flirtation seriously. The last two non-Edna scenes, however, show us that Edna’s behavior has become incomprehensible to those around her. Mr. Pontellier is convinced she’s mentally unbalanced, and Victor and Mariequita are confused by her sudden appearance at Grand Isle and subsequent insistence on going for a swim.
While vacationing on Grand Isle with liberal Creoles, Edna realizes that she’s not cut out to be a "mother-woman" who always puts her husband and children first. She begins feeling more and more unfilled in her marriage and in her role as a mother. She turns to art as a way to express herself. She also starts spending a lot of time with a good-looking young man named Robert Lebrun.
Edna has a beautiful, magical night. She attends a party given by Madame Lebrun, swims successfully for the first time, and defies her husband’s orders to go indoors. She’s really starting to loosen up and listen to the Inner Edna.
Robert goes to Mexico, leaving Edna alone. She goes home to New Orleans with her family, but cannot stop thinking about Robert. She spends a lot of time trying to get information on him, but at the same time begins an affair with Alcee Arobin and moves out of her husband’s house.
Robert comes home but avoids Edna. Finally, the two declare their love for each other, but realize they want different things. Robert wants marriage while Edna hates the idea of marriage. Edna is called away but asks Robert to wait for her. When she returns, she finds only a note bidding her good-bye.
Edna lies awake all night, feeling terribly depressed. Soon after, she goes to Grand Isle, walks into the ocean, and drowns.
Loveless marriage. That usually spells T-R-O-U-B-L-E. Edna and her husband Leonce usually live in New Orleans, but maybe this vacation to the Grand Isle will shake things up a bit.
The more time Edna spends with the liberal Creole people on Grand Isle, the more she becomes aware of her (non-existent) feelings for her husband. Sure she feels fond of him, but she also feels irritated with his authoritative manner. Enter Robert Lebrun. Edna and Robert fall in love with each other as Edna's husband continues being dominating and oblivious.
Edna and Robert start having a really good time together, but Robert backs off. He realizes his feelings for Edna are getting out of control, so he runs off to Mexico. Meanwhile, back in New Orleans, Edna becomes increasingly independent. She stops listening to her husband, moves into her own house, and starts an affair. (But she still loves Robert.)
Back in New Orleans, Edna begins to increasingly assert herself. She spends her time painting instead of housekeeping, and she stops making social calls. She makes plans to move out of her husband's house. This is Edna at her pinnacle of self-fulfillment. Edna also starts an affair with Alcee Arobin and experiences sexual pleasure for the first time.
Robert returns from Mexico. He and Edna finally declare their love for each other. This is suspenseful because, while Edna and Robert profess their love, Robert doesn't realize is that Edna has become an independent, sexually confident woman. Will this jibe with Robert's desire for marriage?
Robert mentions marriage, only to be rejected by Edna. She tells him that she isn’t property to be transferred from one man to another. However, they’re still in love with each other. Edna asks Robert to wait while she runs off to help deliver her friend’s baby, but when she returns, Robert is gone. All that’s left is a note: "Good-bye – because I love you." Edna stays awake all night feeling terrible.
Claiming that she needs to rest, Edna goes back to Grand Isle. She arrives in Grand Isle, tells her friends she’ll go for a dip before dinner, then strips down to her birthday suit and goes skinny dipping. She swims further and further out to sea and ends up drowning. This conclusion is rather inconclusive; it gives us no real hints about her motives for suicide and even leave in question whether or not Edna’s death was actually a suicide.
During summer vacation on Grand Isle, Edna is an obedient wife, but spending time with Robert Lebrun and Adele Ratignolle is bringing out her less-than-obedient Inner Edna.
Back in New Orleans, Edna asserts her independence by painting, moving into her own house, and starting an affair.
Robert comes home and winds up breaking things off with Edna. She returns to Grand Isle and drowns at sea.