In Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening, written approximately one hundred years ago, the protagonist Edna Pontellier’s fate is resolved when she “deliberately swims out to her death in the gulf”(Public Opinion, np).Her own suicide is indeed considered as a small, almost nonexistent victory by many, nevertheless there are those who consider her death anything but insignificant. Taking into consideration that “her inability to articulate her feelings and analyze her situation unattainable happiness results in her act of suicide…”(Muirhead, np) portrays Edna as being incapable of achieving a release from her restricted womanhood as imposed by society. Others state that the final scene of the novel entirely symbolizes and realizes Edna’s victory on a “society that sees their women’s primary value in their biological functions as wives and mothers”(Kate Chopin, np).
In short, The Awakening is the tragic story of a woman who in a summer of her twenty-eighth year, found herself and struggled to do what she wanted to do; be happy. Although “from wanting to, she did, with disastrous consequences”(Recent Novels 96). For those who wanted it to be a truly, and ironically, life achieving instead of life ending end, it was. But those who disagreed with Chopin’s choice ending found themselves losing
some sleep over another magnificent author gone wrong (96). Various readers and reviewers alike found the ending to be sold short and unsatisfactory since it did not deliver the promise of a rewarding happy life to the protagonist who so valiantly endured her obstacles throughout the novel.
Had she lived by Prof. William James’ advice to do one thing a day one does not want to do in Creole Society, two would perhaps be better, flirted less and looked after her children more, or even assisted at more accouchements- her chef d’auvre in self denial- we need not have been put to the unpleasantness of reading about her and the temptations she trumped up for herself. (96)
Irony plays an inexplicable and majestic part in the conclusion of The Awakening. One can say with confidence that in a story a protagonist, or heroin in this case, is expected to fulfill a happily ever after ending not only from a repetitious guarantee but from the incisive determination by such character, whom through hardships, earned it. Edna Pontellier fails at this although her hardships were anything but insignificant. Furthermore, this irony plays in a different manner since it is clearly engraved as a harsh reality that “women’s chances for spiritual fulfillment are sadly limited in a society…” (Kate Chopin, np) where they are reduced to the value of mere material possessions. Such as the Creole Society was at the time. Kate Chopin’s The Awakening carries this relatively clear social implication through its ironic ending.
Using this scenario of social implications, Edna’s choices are obviously limited. Not all pointing to certain death yet unpromising of spiritual fulfillment, the decisions which Edna faces might have made more sense in the end but also might have delivered more negative reactions. As explained by Carley Rees Bogard:
Chopin…had…shown the only…choices…available-consuming life of Adele Ratignolle or the lonely existence of Mlle. Reiz. For Edna these choices are equally impossible; they are compromises of the radical vision she has conceived. She has not the patience or masochism for the former or the ascetic discipline for the latter.(np)
The battle of the sexes takes part here. For instance, in the respective situation of a male hero, he is expected by all means to make the choice which Mlle. Reiz has accepted. Yet a heroine is by all means expected to succumb to her weakness, come to her senses, and reenter her the lifestyle of marriage and motherhood in which she would accept her duties “like a man”, at least as far as their character development (Bogard, np). “Edna will choose neither of these alternatives, and that is precisely the point of the book.”(Bogard, np).
The ending, as stated earlier, can also be viewed as Edna’s triumph in the sense that she “returns to the gulf to recapture the sense of freedom that exhilarated her by signaling her independence when…she learned to swim.”(Eichelberger, np) earlier in the novel. As she swims out away from shore, Edna, like the bird with the broken wing, steadily loses her strength. At this point she is well aware of being “flawed by her own mortality” (Eichelberger, np). Memories of her early childhood as well as that of Lonce and the children appear in sudden chapters through her mind, but to no avail. “Assuming the role of the courageous soul, one who dares and defies, she indicates no desire to return
or to be rescued” (Eichelberger, np). Realizing that the freedom and happiness she so desperately desired had made her endeavors in vain due to its unavailability as a mortal brings to light her final phase of her awakening (Eichelberger, np).
How the setting of the entire novel delivers an array of moods in which the reader is never allowed to wander away far from the water’s edge. “The way the scene, mood, action, and character are fused reminds one not so much of literature as an impressionist painting, of a Renoir with much of the sweetness missing.”(Eble, np). According to Kenneth Eble:
It is not surprising that the sensuous quality of the book…by incidents and symbolic implications…would have offended contemporary reviewers. What convinced many critics of the indecency of the ending…was that the author obviously sympathized with Mrs. Pontellier. More than that, the readers probably found that she aroused their own sympathies….(np)
In the conclusion of the awakening, Edna Pontellier takes her feeling of despondency and molds it into indifference, in turn making her life take on a new feeling of unreality (Bogard, np). Consequently she gives up, with the response of futility, and in the end turns her back to her second conscious awakening; through her own withdrawal at first which then led to her suicide. Her struggle throughout the novel is not melodramatic, nor is it a childish fancy, nor fragile in nature. Throughout the novel it is existent and touching. Kenneth Eble states that “when she walks into the sea, it does not leave a reader with the sense of sin punished…”(np) and the it is her own redefined sense of self-awareness which gives her face and significance. Carley Rees Bogard in contrast makes the strong argument :
Because she is so totally alone in the end, because no one understand her desire to redefine herself outside traditional societal roles for women, because no one is meeting her newly felt needs, because she is unwilling to compromise, because she has not yet had time to develop her inner resources to sustain her through such alienation, she is defeated… (np.)
Edna Pontellier in the end does surrender to her utter inability to mold the world around her, instead of the compromising molding of herself, is indeed a obvious defeat. But it was through realization of the life she lived in that she fought for true happiness and found her answer. It, her freedom, was by all means unattainable in the physical world. But through her efforts she reached a subconscious level in which she discovered that her desire was the cause of her suffering and what kept her from being truly happy. Many philosophers agree that life is suffering eased by moments of happiness which they merely speck our lives when a desire is met only to be replaced by another desire. Edna found a release from desire which in her mentality and awareness was the only truly way out. In respect to the novel’s controversial ending, it is best put by Clayton L. Eichelberger when he said “Whether the denouement of the novel is read literally as the renunciation of the unacceptable restrictions of moral life or interpreted as a symbolic extension of the quest for ultimate freedom, the existential choice of self-determination is implicit.” (np.).
“A Review of The Awakening.” Public Opinion Vol. XXVI, No. 25 (22 June 1899): n. pag. Online. Galenet. 4 April 2001. Available FTP: www.galenet.com
Muirhead, Marion. “Articulation And Artistry: A Conversational Analysis of The Awakening.” The Southern Literary Journal 33.1 (2000): n. pag. Online. Internet. 4 April 2001. Available FTP: http://muse.jhu.edu/demo/slj/33.1muirhead.html
“Kate Chopin.” Gale Group (1999): n. pag. Online. Galenet. 4 April 2001. Available FTP: www.galenet.com/servlet/SRC
“Recent Novels: The Awakening.” The Nation Vol. LXIX, No. 1779 (3 Aug. 1899): 96 pp. Online. Galenet. 4 April 2001. Available FTP: www.galenet.com/servlet/LitRC
Bogard, Carley R. “The Awakening: A Refusal To Compromise.” The University of Michigan Papers in Women’s Studies U Vol. II, No. 3 (1977): pp. 15-31. Online. Galenet. 4 April 2001. Available FTP: www.galenet.com/servlet/LitRC
Eichelberger, Clayton L. “The Awakening: Overview.” Reference Guide to American Literature 3rd ed. (1994): n. pag. Online. Galenet. 4 April 2001. Available FTP: www.galenet.com/servlet/LitRC
Eble, Kenneth. “A Forgotten Novel: Kate Chopin’s The Awakening.” Western Humanities Review No. 3 (1956):pp. 261-69. Online. Galenet. 4 April 2001. Available FTP: www.galenet.com/servlet/LitRC