Moral Degradation in The Awakening Kate Chopin’s master novel, The Awakening, takes the modern reader to an earlier time while still provoking the questions of morality and self-sacrifice that exist in the present age. Edna Pontellier, the protagonist of the story, places herself as the individual against society from the onset of the novel. Throughout initial chapters, her sporadic characteristics and actions worthy of rebuke lead to a breakdown of her moral integrity. These behaviors permit her eventually to become a woman that not only her Creole culture, but civilization in general no longer accepts. Edna’s plight thoughout the entire novel perfected her status as the individual against society. From the inception of the story, her uncommon reserve toward her children placed her in abnormal standing. Her behavior, not necessarily of neglect, rather of apathetic involvement in their lives contrasted the ideal motherly figure of the age. Her friend, Madame Ratignolle, on the other hand, showed quite a reverse position towards her children and husband. She possessed the dependent attitude which the Creole society not only encouraged, but in some aspects required. But, this approach toward domestic responsibilities was something Edna was not able to foster. Although she loved her children dearly, and in spells needed them with fervor, she was more accustomed to leaving them with the nanny or a friend rather than looking after their needs herself. As she proved, she would give everything she had for her children, but she would not give herself. In an age of expected domestic dependence, Edna’s rejection towards obligation as mother and wife went against the tacit rules of the world she lived in. While in the beginning Edna was outwardly performing the duties of her life, her heart was occupied with other thoughts. Over the course of the summer, she fell in love with the local lover who followed her around, Robert Lebrun. Although he had previously established his “third wheel” status in the families at Grande Isle, this was another aspect of her life that pitted her against her surroundings. As Robert fell in love with Edna, and she with him, her independent longing was inflamed, and her passions began to overpower her self-control. Seeing that her husband, Leonce was in love with the idea of a wife for him and mother for his children rather than Edna herself, it became easier for Edna to let go of her morals. When Robert suddenly bolted for Mexico on a business excursion, Edna became despondent and unfocused. Perhaps through the severe longing for him and grief at his removal she became intensely connected to herself. When she started painting again, trying to express her inner passions, she began to feel life once more. In her visits to Madame Reisz’s piano concerts she was moved to tears at the music that touched her soul. She appreciated nature all the more; she valued the glory of the ocean with improved vigor. When Leonce was away on a trip, Edna finally cut the outer strings of enslavement to her duties as a wife and mother. She gathered her belongings and moved out of the house. After throwing one last party, she proceeded to wait for Robert’s return, which she had learned about in his letters to Madame Reisz. In the meantime, however, after becoming involved with Alscee Adonwin, Edna realized that her values and choices in her life were no longer acceptable in the society that she lived. Although her friend, Madame Ratignolle told her just to live the life she was called to lead, she could not do it. In her last days when she saw the family doctor, he reflected her thoughts best by saying, “The trouble is…that youth is given up to illusions. It seems to be a provision of Nature, a decoy to secure mothers for the race. And Nature takes no account of moral consequences, of arbitrary conditions which we create, and which we feel obliged to maintain at any cost.” Often in life we never see the consequences of our actions. We are never given the chance to see how our lives might be had we made different decisions . But, the story of Edna Pontellier, the wife, mother, hostess and friend, showed all too clearly a woman who was really a lover, a painter, an outcast, and a soul who knew to well what might have been. Upon telling Robert goodbye after a serendipitous meeting in a secret garden, Edna returned to the sea. She swam out to the place where she once felt fear….and then she kept going, swimming her way to the only answer she knew to her inner desire for independence –death.
The Importance of the Sea in The Awakening
The Importance of the Sea in The Awakening
Throughout her novel, The Awakening, Kate Chopin uses symbolism and imagery to portray the main character’s emergence into a state of spiritual awareness. The image that appears the most throughout the novel is that of the sea. “Chopin uses the sea to symbolize freedom, freedom from others and freedom to be one’s self” (Martin 58). The protagonist, Edna Pontellier, wants that freedom, and with images of the sea, Chopin shows Edna’s awakening desire to be free and her ultimate achievement of that freedom.
Edna’s awakening begins with her vacation to the beach. There, she meets Robert Lebrun and develops an intense infatuation for him, an infatuation similar to those which she had in her youth and gave up when she married. The passionate feelings beginning to overwhelm her are both confusing and exciting. They lead to Edna beginning to ponder what her life is like and what she is like as a person. The spell of the sea influences these feelings which invite “the soul . . . to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation” (Chopin 57). Edna begins to fall under the sea’s spell and begins to evaluate her feelings about the life that she has.
During the summer of Edna’s awakening, the sea’s influence increases as she learns how to swim, an event which holds much more significance that her fellow vacationers realize. “To her friends, she has accomplished a simple feat; to Edna, she has accomplished a miracle” (Showalter 114). She has found a peace and tranquility in swimming which gives her the feeling of freedom. The narrator tells us that as she swims, “she seem[s] to be reaching out for the unlimited in which to lose herself” (Chopin 74). She sees the freedom t…
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…ms out into the ocean for the final time, she finds her ultimate freedom.
In the end, the sea symbolizes freedom for Edna. It will never treat her as a possession like her husband has for so many years. It will not demand all of her time and attention as her children do. It will never abandon her as Robert does. It will enfold her “in its soft, close embrace” (Chopin 176) and allow her to experience the vast array of feelings that her life has forbidden her to do. The sea will allow her to be free.
Works Cited and Consulted
Chopin, Kate. “The Awakening.” 1899. The Complete Works of Kate Chopin. Ed. Per Seyersted. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1969. 881-1000.
Martin, Wendy, ed. New Essays on the Awakening. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988.
Showalter, Elaine. “Tradition and the Female Talent: The Awakening as a Solitary Book.” 1993