A novel, a piece of literature, a story, or a book; all names for pieces of work in which a reader can assess the author’s choice of character, symbolism, setting, background, and point of view from different perspective to gain a deeper meaning of the words put to paper. There are three main perspectives or views in which a work of literature can be analyzed: feminist, historical, and psychoanalytical. This particular essay will focus on a description and analysis of the psychoanalytical view. Let us first get a small background in the three perspectives first: To look at the inner workings of a novel using the feminist perspective is to assess prior said literary elements from this feminist mindset.
Did a character go against the grain when it came to the ideals of feminine culture? Was the author a feminist or against feminism? Also, through the eyes of the feminist view, we can take a look at race, ethnicity, and other such backgrounds that may have struggled with inequality or prejudices. Then there is the historical perspective in which the literary elements are analyzed in accordance to the time period. When was the novel written? Did the character stand for someone who was an object of importance during that time? Was there a significant historical event at the time of the novel’s release? Finally, there is the psychoanalytical perspective where literary elements are looked at and analyzed at a much deeper angle.
Why did that character think and act the way she did? Did her actions have a deeper significance that was a symbol from the author? Perhaps there was a message in the symbolism used from the author to her audience; such as the symbolism we find in The Awakening, by Kate Chopin. If we take a deeper look, and psychoanalyze some of the repeating objects in Chopin’s novel, we will see a great significance and a deep connection between these items and the characters themselves. As we dig deeper into the symbolism used, the characters will come to life in many ways the reader may not see if he/she barely scratches the surface.
While the main goal of this essay will be the psychoanalytical view of the symbolism and its ulterior motives in meaning; it is also a sub-goal to take a look at some of the important aspects of The Awakening from the feminist perspective and the historical perspective. Let us first get the feminist perspective under way. Edna was obviously a woman who was looking to obtain freedom and independence. She was tied down in a marriage to a husband who thought of her as his own personal property; not as a human being. She also, having had children at a young age, left behind any chance or time to live out her dreams and desires. Upon meeting and befriending a young man, Robert Lebrun, Edna realizes that she in fact has a lot of passion and emotion left inside of her that she needs to set free.
From a feminist perspective, this is unheard of; a woman in this era was suppose to marry her husband, remain faithful and loyal, and stays at home taking care of the children. No woman was expected to desire freedom from marriage and freedom from any child she brought into the world. Nor was a woman supposed to speak out and speak of these types of things in a casual manner. Chopin shows us that Edna realizes her tendencies to go against the norm, yet she doesn’t care that her desire for a different life speaks for itself, “I suppose this is what you would call unwomanly; but I have got into a habit of expressing myself. It doesn’t matter to me, and you may think me unwomanly if you like” (Chopin, 1899, Ch. 36, para. 12).
As for analyzing The Awakening in a historical manner, it is easiest done if we take a look at the time period at which Kate Chopin wrote in. It is important to remember that “literary historians and cultural critics assert that one must have a rich understanding of the time in which the poet (author) lived” (South University Online, 2012, para. 3). Chopin lived in a pivotal era for change. This was the Victorian Era; in the late 1800s, early 1900s. At this time (specifically 1899 when The Awakening was published) there were a few different aspects of history to take into account. Aspects that may have had an effect on the way that Chopin wrote The Awakening; what certain symbolism, characters, or other things such as setting may have inevitably stood for.
For one, Queen Elizabeth was on the throne in England; a major importance because she was a woman ruler. This may or may not have helped inspired women to start taking control of their own lives and trying to obtain personal goals and freedoms. Furthermore, it may have obligated Chopin to feel the way she did about the “woman’s place” in society and therefore write about it in The Awakening.
It is true however, that Chopin expresses Edna as a flawed character; leaving plenty of space for skepticism on what objects and characters might truly stand for or suggest. Deeper into the historical view, however, it was right around the time that The Women’s Right Movement of the 1800s was taking place. Edna was, perhaps, a representation of one of these women who were learning to speak out against the inequality towards women’s rights as wives, mothers and most significantly as equals.
The Psychoanalytical View
Prominent to this essays thesis, we come to the psychoanalytical views and perspectives that Chopin’s work is most deeply understood through. Main points are made comprehensible and are important for her readers to be able to analyze the novel by using this type of perspective. Under this perspective we are going to analyze the symbolism that Chopin uses throughout the story as means to express something deeper and more significant; hoping that the reader picks up on this queue. There are a few different items that we see showing up repetitively in The Awakening; birds, the sea, and even clothing. Over and over again, birds are seen in the novel at different times, in different scenes; always doing something different than they were doing last. We are introduced to the book with the description of a caged bird. We quickly learn that Edna feels as though she is a woman trapped in a marriage; caged in a situation she cannot escape.
In future scenes we read descriptions of birds flying, and flapping their wings. Edna longs throughout The Awakening to expand her own wings; to take flight and fly away from her unhappy home life. Taking a look in a psychoanalytical manner at the way that Chopin uses birds as symbolism; in her novel we see the connection with Edna and the constant exchange of emotion, desire for freedom unlimited, and dreams of access to unlimited heights. Not only does the symbol of the caged bird, a parrot more accurately, represent Edna’s personal entrapment; but it also represents the entrapment of women in general throughout society in a world of inequality; the Victorian Era. Furthermore, there was the mention of a mockingbird; a bird that whistled freely as it pleased. This bird was a symbol in regards to Mademoiselle Reisz.
She was compared to the mocking bird since she had already found her place in society, was comfortable with it, and could do as she pleased without fear of being judged. We also see this analogy in the quote Chopin uses to compare the two “birds” (women), “[The parrot] could speak a little Spanish, and also a language which nobody understood, unless it was the mocking-bird that hung on the other side of the door, whistling his fluty notes out upon the breeze with maddening persistence” (Chopin, 1899, Ch. 1, para. 3). The mention of a language that no one could understand psychoanalytically suggests that Edna’s desires were things that no one of that time could come to appreciate. Finally, the last reference to a bird (wings) is actually mentioned in the immediate introduction into Edna’s life on Grand Isle.
I mention this reference, or symbolization, last because it is important to see where the author has taken the use of imagery and symbolism with birds in the first place; in order to catch this initial psychoanalytical analysis we need understand the deeper meaning to the author’s use of the bird. Here, Chopin says, “In short, Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother-woman. The mother-women seemed to prevail that summer at Grand Isle. It was easy to know them, fluttering about with extended, protecting wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened their precious brood” (Chopin, 1899, Ch. 4, para. 3). The use of wings, as if these women are mother-hens or better yet a mother goose protecting their young; and it is clearly stated that Edna is not the mother-goose type. Edna is the parrot trapped in the cage, speaking a language that no one else understands.
Next, the sea or ocean is another symbol we find Chopin using throughout the novel to express different moments of meaning and importance; vast openness, and endless desires. First off, Edna spends most of her life afraid of the ocean because she doesn’t know how to swim; she never had the opportunity as a young woman to learn. That summer however, at Grand Isle, with Robert Lebrun (not her husband, notably) Edna expands her “wings”, takes a leap towards freedom and learns to swim. This is a significant show of Edna facing a fear, diving into her life head on, taking advantage of an opportunity, making sure she will have no regrets in life, and more importantly this shows us that Edna is moving towards her desire for freedom. The sea literally is an open, wide, inviting, moving, and incredible object. As Edna takes a leap into her dreams of becoming her own woman, learning to swim is an extremely powerful example of her dedication and desire to accomplish her goals.
Now, while the water represents her rebirth and ability to reach for her goals and freedom; it also inevitably represents her unavoidable demise as she ends up drowning herself in the ocean. A place that had originally given representation of so much strength, and faith for a future she wanted exceptionally; inescapably was her place of demise and where she would rest forever. Lastly, throughout the novel when paying close attention to Edna’s clothing choices, over the course of the story Edna starts to dress more modern; almost loose and comfortable. Instead of being strictly and completely covered up, someone who would allow the show of no skin; she starts to loosen up and dress more sexually. Part of her desire for freedom from her marriage, from her husband, and from being a mother, also includes wanting to be desired sexually.
Edna wants “to want and be wanted” by men. She starts the novel appropriately dressed for a woman of her “position” in a society of its type according to the time the novel The Awakening was written. By the end of the novel, Edna is naked, on the beach and ready to take her life; completely reversed from where she started the novel. Another character whose clothing is mentioned time and time again is Mme. Reisz. The description of her clothing articles and how she never changes her outfits, suggests that she is somewhat detached from society and how she feels that she is set in her place and doesn’t need to change.
Mme. Lebrun however, is always changing her clothes and/or adding layers as if it is a constant need to be covered up. Psychoanalytically perceived we can see that Edna changes her clothing throughout the story as she changes her life and becomes a new person; changing from one old outfit to a new one. We can see those others who do not change their clothing in the novel are comfortable with who they are and their places in society. And finally, we can analyze that the meaning of women who change constantly, adding layers of clothing, are trying to cover their selves up; perhaps keep their sexuality and their desires for a different life a secret. Perhaps these other women aren’t as bold or as ready as Edna to start changing and speaking out against their entrapment as pieces of property to their husbands.
When we take a look at Kate Chopin’s use of symbols and the repetitiveness of them, we can start to assess the deeper meaning of them and their ties in the story The Awakening. By doing this in a psychoanalytical perspective, we can also get a deeper understanding of the main character, Edna Pontellier, and her desires and dreams. Not only is it important to understand Edna for her deeper connections to the stories meaning, but it is also wise to get to know the sub-characters and a psychoanalytical view on them and any symbolism or imagery used to create a deeper meaning. Analyzing a piece of literature, a novel, a story, a book or any piece of literary art from an author’s many different standpoints can be an extraordinary adventure.
Depending on which form of analysis chosen, there are various ways to go about finding out information about characters, symbols in the work, and why these elements were chosen or used. Historical, feminist, or psychoanalytical; these are the three ways to critically analyze a piece of literary work. However you chose to do so, it is always wise to assume that the author has left a hidden message between the lines, in the symbolism, underneath the character’s actions or thoughts, and it is your job to dig deeper to figure it out. Critical analysis of The Awakening through the psychoanalytical perspective in this essay has shown us a noteworthy view into the meaning behind the words Chopin so sophisticatedly used to create a “Master Piece” of its time.
Chopin, K. (2005). The Awakening [VitalSource digital version]. Raleigh, NC: Hayes Barton Press
Acosta, David L. Pike and Ana (). Literature: A World of Writing Stories, Poems, Plays, and Essays VitalSource eBook for Education Management Corporation  (VitalSource Bookshelf), Retrieved from http://digitalbookshelf.southuniversity.edu/books/9780558711825/id/fm01