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
Edna Pontellier and Social Limitations in Kate Chopin’s Awakening
In discussing Kate Chopin’s novel, The Awakening, critic Susan Rosowski categorizes the novel under the heading of “the novel of awakening” and differentiates it from the bildungsroman, the apprentice novel, in which the usually male protagonist “learn the nature of the world, discover its meaning and pattern, and acquire a philosophy of life and ‘the art of living'” (Bloom 43). In the novel of awakening, the female protagonist similarly learns about the world, but for the heroine, the world is defined in terms of love and marriage, and “the art of living” comes with a realization that such art is difficult or impossible; the price for the art is often tragic endings. Rosowski calls this female awakening “an awakening to limitations” (Bloom 43). Rosowski’s reading of the novel emphasizes the role gender plays in shaping a male narrative versus a female narrative. If read as a suicide, then Edna Pontellier’s last swim is a consequence of her awakening to the limitations of her femaleness in a male-dominant society. But on a metaphysical level, especially from the Buddhist perspective, The Awakening’s final scene can be seen as Edna’s ultimate gesture in trying to grasp the essence of her being.
In my research, I found no material that connects Buddhism with The Awakening. There are, however, some things written about the book based on Christian theology. The criticism is that Kate Chopin’s novel glorifies extramarital sexual relationships, relegates humans to the level of amoral animals, and generally denies the supreme importance of Christian doctrines’ role in one’s life. While I shook my head at the idea that religion can be taken so seriously that literature is seen only under the narrow light that a god casts …
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…, and first reincarnation. It is as if Edna is retracing her reincarnations to go back to the empty space from which her first attachments came and created her self. And thus we come to the end of Edna’s spiritual journey.
Bercholz, Samuel, and Shearb Chödzin Kohn, eds. Entering the Stream: An Introduction to the Buddha and His Teachings. Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1993.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Kate Chopin. Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening and Selected Stories. New York: Penguin Books, 1986.
“Nature.” The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. 1993 ed.
Saddhatissa, Hammalawa. Buddhist Ethics: The Path to Nirvana. London: Wisdom Publications, 1987.
Schuhmacher, Stephan, et al., eds. The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion. Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1989.