In Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, the author frames the notions of freedom and responsibility by contrasting them within an opposing dichotomy portrayed through the main character, Edna Pontellier, and through her subconscious denial of Creole responsibility while attaining freedom for her body, mind, and soul. Within this dichotomy the notions change inversely: the more freedom that is exercised by Edna because of unknown, and undisclosed, subconscious analysis deep in her mind, her sense of Creole responsibilities ebb proportionately.
As these opposing forces ebb and flow, Chopin shows freedom in its basic and natural light—as being instinctive and as the normal state of a human being, evidenced by Edna Pontellier’s actions flowing smoothly as proscribed deeds in spite of Creole social norms. Creole responsibility is shown as an unquestioning, requisite, often repressive duty, an iron mandate: that of the mother-woman, a steel parasol under which Edna must function.
This is the cultural norm in the society in which Edna Pontellier is trapped, which translates for her into an abnormal state of being. Chopin uses Edna’s growing subconscious self-awareness as the vehicle in which to portray the push-pull of these concepts of freedom and responsibility. As Edna is imbued with a nascent subconscious knowledge of personal freedom, her compliant response to her tormenting role of a staid, responsible Creole wife and mother-woman in a static society lessens as her freedom grows.
Her apparent sense of responsibility wanes proportionately, encouraged by Chopin’s portrayal of Creole Society as the catalyst. The author shows Edna growing warmer to the idea of her own personal freedoms with a corresponding coolness toward her responsibilities as a wife and mother, concomitant with her increasingly physical self-awareness, need for personal space, and her longing for Robert. In keeping with the instinctual nature of acquiring her freedom, she does not actively seek Robert out in the beginning.
The concept of Robert as a lover gradually grows in her from within, when, after Mademoiselle Reisz’s spine-tingling piano performance, Chopin says, “Perhaps it was the first time she was ready, perhaps the first time her being was tempered to take an impress of the abiding truth” (Kindle location 491-505). The “abiding truth” was the onset of the knowledge and understanding of her personal freedom. Following Mademoiselle Reisz’s piano recital, as the small audience was walking to the beach for a midnight swim, Robert willfully lagged behind.
Chopin writes, “She missed him the days when some pretext served to take him away from her, just as one misses the sun on a cloudy day without having thought much about the sun when it was shining” (Kindle location 505-19). There is no conscious act to have Robert for her own; it happens as a consequence of her growing subconscious self-awareness, which takes place out of sight of the reader and makes itself known by Edna’s deeds which just seem to flow from her naturally.
Chopin contrasts this nascence of freedom through Edna’s portrayal of a gradual release from within herself of her old persona, instead of the overt shedding of it through forced open rebellion. Indeed, at times Edna simply drifts into freedom as her natural state of being. Although hidden from the reader, one can safely assume her instincts of right and wrong, what is fair and unfair, grow in her subconscious mind to a point in which they overcome and displace the artificial, imbedded notions of Creole society and the Victorian world at large, as seen in the metaphorical exchange with Robert, “’… Will you get my white shawl which I left on the window-sill over at the house? ‘” “… When he returned with the shawl she took it and kept it in her hand.
She did not put it around her” (Kindle location 560-70). One possible metaphor here is that the white shawl represents her supra-marital chastity which she now holds in her hand, eschewing its use. Change will be inevitable. Freedom often comes through rebellion in some part, however, and Edna has a small share, albeit mostly she gains her freedom through the effects of her inner turmoil and subconscious awakening of her true self and acting on it.
But oddly, Chopin does not present this contrast of rebellion as a juxtaposition of the concepts of responsibility versus irresponsibility; instead, she lets defiance take its place, as seen here when Leonce perceives Edna’s violation of a social norm: “’This is more than folly,’” he blurted out. “’I can’t permit you to stay out here all night. You must come in the house instantly. ‘” [Leonce](Kindle location 584-600). In the paragraph which follows, she turns the tables neatly: ”With a writhing motion she settled herself more securely in the hammock. She perceived that her will had blazed up, stubborn and resistant.
She could not at that moment have done other than denied and resisted. She wondered if her husband had ever spoken to her like that before, and if she had submitted to his command. Of course she had; she remembered that she had. But she could not realize why or how she could have yielded, feeling as she did then”(Kindle location 588). Immediately, she says, “’Leonce, go to bed, … I mean to stay out here. I don’t wish to go in, and I don’t intend to. Don’t speak to me like that again; I shall not answer you’” [Edna] (Kindle location 589). It is here that she anchors her freedom. Her role as an obedient Creole wife has ended.
The totality of her transformation to a whole individual also involves a sexual counterpart with respect to her desire for Robert and a coming alive of her physical body in a sensual sense; however, her desire for Robert as a lover is not fulfilled by the end of the novel, thereby inferring an asexual nature to that part of her journey. Although Edna wishes for a tryst with Robert, it is not he who ushers in the springtime of her physical awakening; it is Alcee Arobin, showing for the most part the asexual nature of her quest and an objectivity in their consummation which gives the lie to calling it lovemaking.
It is simply an event in her journey, one which does not cause the earth to move. Arobin is not a usurper; he is merely a sex object. In contrast, Chopin describes real love in no uncertain terms: “The lovers were just entering the grounds of the pension. They were leaning toward each other as the wateroaks bent from the sea. There was not a particle of earth beneath their feet. Their heads might have been turned upside-down, so absolutely did they tread upon blue ether” (Kindle location 407-21).
Edna seeks complete freedom, including that of a sexual act, to validate becoming a confident, singular, and unified individual human being. She wishes to be in control and in possession of—her own body and actions, in spite of her repressive upbringing and learned puppet-dance of Creole society. Chopin frames this tryst as an expression of Edna’s independence and as the ownership of her own body—to do with as she wishes. Although it is Robert whom she loves, it is Alcee with whom she shares herself, not with romantic passion but as a liberating release of the stultifying social morality which binds her.
This takes place in an out-of-wedlock setting where she may express her love and curiosity freely and selfishly without the duty-bound responses she might have in her marriage bed with Leonce. Indeed, this craving for a lover’s tryst is concurrent with a gradual and proportional shedding of her wifely responsibilities and ebbing of motherly duties as this liaison draws closer. It is significant to note that although Edna interacts less and less with her children, her love does not in any way decrease for them.
Another dichotomy exists here, too, in that Edna is shielding them from her personal storm by placing them in the lee of another’s guardianship because of the instinctively felt but not-as-yet consciously perceived destruction to come. From a mother’s standpoint, she was, in essence, instinctively giving them away—something a loving mother might feel she had to do to protect her children—but an act that contradicts being a responsible mother-woman in Creole society. The push-pull of freedom vis-a-vis Creole responsibility is shown dramatically, in the following: She was fond of her children in an uneven, impulsive way.
She would sometimes gather them passionately to her heart; she would sometimes forget them. The year before, they had spent part of the summer with their grandmother Pontellier in Iberville. Feeling secure regarding their happiness and welfare, she did not miss them except with an occasional intense longing. Their absence was a sort of relief, though she did not admit this, even to herself. It seemed to free her of a responsibility which she had blindly assumed and for which Fate had not fitted her” (Kindle location 369).
Once again, Edna’s subconscious is pulling her away from the responsibilities so incontrovertibly linked to the Creole way to allow her the freedom she yearns for—mind, body, and soul. Chopin confirms that child-rearing is not what Edna wants or is prepared for. Edna’s end, when it comes, shows the dichotomy: Edna sheds her clothing, free at last, and defies her Creole responsibilities with one final swim, naked. On the one hand, she has fulfilled her quest for freedom of her mind, body and soul; on the other hand, Edna is eternally empty of all Creole responsibility.
Courtney from Study Moose
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