14 Aug 2012
She heard him moving about the room, every sound indicating impatience and irritation. Another time she would have gone in at his request. She would, through habit, have yielded to his desire; not with any sense of submission or obedience to his compelling wishes, but unthinkingly, as we walk, move, sit, stand, go through the daily treadmill of the life which has been portioned out to us.
Kate Chopin’s The Awakening has much in common with Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. I don’t know enough about Chopin to know if it is intentional but to me The Awakening feels like Chopin saying to Flaubert,
“And what exactly do YOU know about being a woman locked in society’s cage Monsieur? Tell me, when have you ever felt like a slave; or a belonging, only somewhat more valuable than the sofa or a picture on the wall, in your own home? Oh you haven’t? You’ve always had complete and utter freedom? And when you imagine a woman drowning, suffocating, locked away in her salon day after day with no mental, physical, or emotional stimulation, the only reasons you can come up with for her unhappiness is vanity, selfishness, and conceit. Pardon me Monsieur Flaubert but since you obviously know not of what you speak, I must kindly request that you shut it and I will tell you of Madame Bovary’s real misery.”
Compared to Madame Bovary, The Awakening feels much more authentic. It is not overly sympathetic to the main character Edna; the story is told in the 3rd person, like M.Bovary, so it gives some distance that allows you to question Edna. Unlike M.Bovary though, there is no moralizing with a sarcastic undertone and the reader can draw their own conclusions about the main character’s ultimate motivation. Where as in Flaubert’s story it is laid out plainly that M.Bovary is a selfish brat in search of shallow romantic thrills; in The Awakening you can ponder, does Edna have more complex motivations or is it simply sexual independence she is after? What are her true feeling towards the people in her life? Does she really love Robert, does she care at all for Alcee? What about her feelings for her children?
As I said, The Awakening is complex. What gives it that complexity I think is the conflict of Edna’s conscious (public self) and her subconscious (private self). At the beginning of the story Edna is the typical “good” turn of the century wife. As my quote above illustrates, she is used to obeying her husband’s wishes unthinkingly.
At some point in her childhood, one can guess it was when her domineering religious father drove her mother to the grave, Edna subjicated her real self. Her inner and outer selves where split. All her independence, desires, and individuality were buried into the sub-conscience. Edna frequently returns to a childhood memory that marks her last moment of complete self, rebellion and freedom.
“The hot wind beating in my face made me think- without any connection that I can trace- of a summer day in Kentucky, of a meadow that seemed as big as the ocean to the very little girl walking through the grass, which was higher than her waist. She threw out her arms as if swimming when she walked, beating the tall grass as one strikes out in the water. Oh I see the connection now!”
“Where were you going that day in Kentucky, walking through the grass?”
“I don’t remember now. I was just walking diagonally across a big field, My sun-bonnet obstructed the view. I could see only the stretch of green before me, and I felt as if I must walk on forever, without coming to the end of it. I don’t remember whether I was frightened or pleased. I must have been entertained.
“Likely as not it was Sunday, she laughed; “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.”
“And have you been running away from prayers ever since, ma chere?”
When Edna’s subsonscience is awakened, by her desire towards Robert and the exhilaration she feels swimming independently in the sea for the first time, she quickly abandons herself to it. Surprisingly though, even after her awakening I still got the feeling that Edna was not completely in control of her life. She lets her subconscious rule her and seems to be almost unaware of her true desires and the effects of her actions. This is illustrated in many passages where the narrator shares Edna’s thoughts or feelings but then says Edna was not thinking (consciously) of this. Another example of this is in Edna’s actions such as when she she moves out of her “husbands” home into a small cottage that can in no way accommodate her husband or children. And yet, she never admits to herself that she is actively leaving them behind.
So even once Edna asserts her independence, she is still not able to bind her inner and outer selves. It seems through out her life she must choose one or the other; to either let her conscience self or subconscious self rule. She is her own protagonist and antagonist.
***********MAJOR SPOILER AHEAD**************
The end of the story is the ultimate example of Edna’s split. Prior to walking out to the beach Edna’s public self converses with friends, asking them to set her a place for dinner, remarking that she prefers fish but don’t go to any special trouble. As she walks towards the sea though the narrator gives us Edna’s inner feelings, the things that she is not “thinking of” but that are guiding her.
Despondency had come upon her there in the wakeful night, and had never lifted. There was no one thing in the world that she desired. There was no human being whom she wanted near her except Robert; and she even realized that the day would come when he, too, and the thought of him would melt out of her existence, leaving her alone. The children appeared before her like antagonists who had overcome her; who had overpowered and sought to drag her into the soul’s slavery for the rest of her days. But she knew a way to elude them. She was not thinking of these things when she walked down the beach.
When Edna walks out to sea she rejects her public self, the woman society would have her be, and chooses to free herself by complete immersion into the subconscious.