02 Oct 2009

Sample Essay: Kate Chopin : The Awakening

The much-anthologized “The Awakening ” is surely Kate Chopin’s best-known piece of short fiction. Innumerable students, ranging from the very naive to the very sophisticated, must have grappled with the story in discussions and essays. the story itself has become, over the last forty years, one of the most thoroughly examined novels in the American canon.

By deeply analyzing the story, it can be realized that it offers a story within a story, as what Kate Chopin is famous of doing. The initial story revolves around the Grand Isle, in which Edna awakens from her earlier death-in-life existence as a middle-class Creole wife and mother, and a following section in New Orleans, where she attempts to translate her rebirth into the actualities of her life. In Grand Isle, both nature and society appear to endorse the process of self-transformation she will fully undertake in New Orleans. The sea, as the context for the liberating freedom and sensuality Edna finds in the act of swimming, both “speaks to the soul” and “enfolds the body in its soft, close embrace” (15) – images of understanding between nature and Edna’s rapidly increasing sense of self. The social climate of the Grand Isle summer colony appears to complement the symbolic implication of the sea that Edna can forge a new identity out of her awakening. Mr. Pontellier is absent most of the week; the relaxed social code of a summer resort permits easy associations and movement; and in Mademoiselle Reisz’s passionate artistry at the piano and Robert Lebrun’s increasing interest in her she find instances of the liberating emotional intensity of art and love and thus the possibility of using them as vehicles for the confirmation of her personal identity. In short, Edna has awakened not only to the truth of her own stifled selfhood but also to the seeming possibility of finding expressive means for discovering and affirming who she is in the natural and social worlds she inhabits.

But even at Grand Isle, an apparently ideal matrix for Edna’s act of redefinition of her identity, her natural and social worlds also send clear messages, ignored by her at this time that she will find her efforts to establish a fully independent and self-expressive life circumscribed and eventually thwarted by the conditions in which she must live. Edna’s friend and confidant, Addle Ratignolle, is clearly a foil to Edna in that she glories in the role of “mother-woman” (10). Despite Edna’s rejection of this role, the overwhelming similarity between the two figures is that they are both women and mothers – that though Edna may reject (to briefly adopt the proper critical jargon) the socially-constructed role of a mother’s total absorption in her children, she has not escaped the biologically essentialist act of giving birth to children and thus finding within herself the protective emotions of a mother.

It is very clear that Chopin is rejecting some of Darwin’s ideas about women’s passivity and she is accepting the basic principles of Darwinian natural and sexual selection. Central to these is Darwin’s belief in the evolution of what he called the “social instincts”–the capacity of human beings for sympathy and love.

The distinction between an instinct derived from mankind’s evolutionary past and the contemporary social endorsement of the instinct is not discernible in absolute form in The Awakening. Who is to say when Edna feels an overwhelming sense of responsibility toward her children whether she is responding to a biological imperative or is unconsciously accepting a social norm? What is clear, however, is that Chopin depicts Edna as capable of rejecting the model of the social norm of motherhood provided by Addle yet as incapable of resisting emotions of obligation toward her children. This contrast strongly suggests that Chopin is indeed echoing Darwin’s distinction.

As feminist critics of The Awakening have often noted, women’s biological role as mothers can serve in a male-dominated society not only as a means of overt glorification of the role but also, more covertly, as a means of maintaining male power and dominance. There are clear indications of this second use in an early scene in The Awakening when Pontellier berates Edna, for his own selfish ends, for not attending a sick child, and, later as well, in Dr. Mandelet’s implication, in his comments to Pontellier, that Edna’s quest for independence is no doubt an instance of female hysteria. But these uses of women’s biological role as mothers by a patriarchal society to maintain the power of the patriarchy do not diminish the biologically-based, necessitating truth that women bear the children in our species and, it was commonly believed in Chopin’s day, have as an inseparable corollary of that function instinctive nurturing and protective feelings about their children.

In addition to powerfully reintroducing into Edna’s awareness the barrier to having her own way which the “ways of Nature” constitute, the news of Adele’s accouchement that interrupts Edna’s and Robert’s declaration of their love precipitates as well her fuller understanding of the social impediments blocking an achievement of that goal. Robert, despite his initial reluctance on his return from Mexico to renew his relationship with Edna, is overcome at their accidental meeting by his love for her. “Her seductive voice, together with his great love for her, had enthralled his senses, had deprived him of every impulse but the longing to hold her and keep her” (107). But given the respite from Edna’s intoxicating presence provided by her departure to be with Adele, Robert’s social conscience again takes control. He had earlier been shocked when he had expressed to Edna his hope that Pontellier might set Edna free and Edna had replied, “I am no longer one of Mr. Pontellier’s possessions to dispose of or not. I give myself where I choose. If he were to say, `Here, Robert, take her and be happy; she is yours,’ I should laugh at you both'” (106-107). At this reply, Robert’s “face grew a little white. `What do you mean?’ he asked” (107). Edna does not reply, for at this moment she is summoned to aid Adele. But it is clear that Edna has gone far beyond the point that Robert is willing to venture for love – that he is still held by the community belief in the sanctity of the marriage bond and thus the need of the husband to condone any loosening of this bond, and that he is deeply disturbed, despite his love for Edna, to find that she does not accept this belief. And so, instead of awaiting her return, as she had asked, he leaves her a note in which he writes, “I love you. Goodby–because I love you” (111). For Robert, as presumably both for Pontellier himself and for their middle-class Creole community as a whole, love is not unbounded and free in its expression but must rather exist within the social norms and expectations of the community. And one such norm is expressed in Robert’s note. The love that a man of honor has for a woman of his own class should instruct him that he must guard her moral character in the community at large. Hence, in Robert’s mind, his love for Edna requires that he protect her from the excesses that her love is prepared to pursue. In the ironic social dynamic of the novel, he is transformed by the social code he lives by from the role of ardent suitor in a potentially adulterous affair to that of fearful protector of his loved one’s honor.

Thus, despite her belief that she has awakened to a need and a capacity to escape the confining roles of wife and mother, Edna remains trapped in these roles and can only escape them, she believes, in death. As she swims further and further into the Gulf, “she thought of Leonce and the children. They were a part of her life. But they need not have thought that they could possess her, body and soul” (114). They have indeed not “possessed” her in her “awakened” state in the sense of controlling her belief that she has an existence other than that of wife and mother. But they have led to her destruction, as depicted by Chopin, because she has not been able to overcome the hold which the biology of motherhood and the social codes of marriage have had both on her emotions and on the beliefs and actions of others within the areas of life in which she functions.

In conclusion, Kate Chopin – as the author of this story – is successfully in presenting two concepts within just one story.  The first of the concept was the idea of true love and happiness.  She implied in the story that love can be sometimes suffocating to the point that one will feel the strong desire to move out from such love.  The second concept that Chopin is also able to highlight is the idea that what is seen in the outside may be entirely different to what is really in the inside.  That it is important to understand the person inside out. The old adage “do not judge the book by its cover” is perfect to what happened in the story.  What is seen in the exterior is not always parallel to what is really in the interior.  One may look happy when he/she is really sad, or the reason for such happiness may not be what the others thought it would be.

References:

Bender, Bert. The Descent of Love: Darwin and the Theory of Sexual Selection in American Fiction, 187-1926. Philadelphia: U Pennsylvania P, 1966. 214-228.

Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. Ed. Margaret Culley. New York: W. W. Norton, 1976.

Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man. 2 vols. London: John Murray, 1888.

Dyer, Joyce Coyne. “Lafcadio Hearn’s Chita and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening.” Southern Studies 23 (1984): 412-426.

Martin, Wendy, ed. New Essays on The Awakening. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988.

Seyersted, Per. Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1969.

Skaggs, Peggy. “The Awakening’s Relationship with American Regionalism, Romanticism, Realism, and Naturalism.” Approaches to Teaching Chopin’s The Awakening. Ed. Bernard Koloski. New York: Modern Language Association, 1988. 80-85.

Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. “The New Woman as Androgyne: Social Disorder and Gender Crisis, 1870-1936.” Disorderly Canduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America. New York: Knopf, 1985. 245-296.

Thurer, Shari L. The Myths of Motherhood: How Culture Reinvents the Good Mother. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994.

Tichi, Cecelia. “Women Writers and the New Woman.” Columbia Literary History of the United States. Ed. Emory Elliott. New York: Columbia UP, 1988. 596-606.

Walker, Nancy. “Feminist or Naturalist: The Social Context of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening.” Southern Quarterly 17 (1979): 95-103.

The Awakening: Complete, Authoritative Text … and Essays from Five Contemporary Critical Perspectives. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1993.

Place Your Order Now
Academic Writing Services:

Business / Professional Writing Services:

Free Essay Tips / Writing Guides:
Tags:
100% Satisfaction Guarantee

We will revise your paper until you are completely satisfied. Moreover, you are free to request a different writer to rewrite your paper entirely, should you be unhappy with the writing style, level of research, communication, etc.

100% Authentic Research & Writing Guarantee

We guarantee that you will receive a fully authentic, 100% non-plagiarized work. Otherwise, we will just give you your money back.

100% Confidentiality & Privacy Guarantee

No one will ever find out that you have used our service. We guarantee that your personal information as well as any other data related to your order(s) will remain confidential to the extent allowed by law. It will not be shared with any third party unless you provide a written consent.