“It Moved Her to Dreams, to Thoughtfulness, to the Shadowy Anguish”:
The Reader’s Place in Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening”
Kate Chopin’s The Awakening was published, with great debate and scandal surrounding it, in 1899. Becoming an indispensible literary work for feminism and a representative piece for American fin de siècle culture. Chopin’s novella The Awakening concerns itself with the epitome of the existential crisis for a woman torn between the world she physically exists in and the possibility of a world beyond existence; the world of dreams, truth, and freedom. Chopin’s central character in this text, Edna Pontellier, is a woman who is stirred by the awakening of a metaphysical state of mind that separates her from her life as a wife and mother.
Canonical literature continues to be influenced by this novella today; in fact, sixteen years after its publication, in 1915, came T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in which we see the life of one awakened much in the same sense as Edna. Eliot’s words offer the perfect introduction to a discussion of The Awakening in that they strikingly echo the awakening and demise of Edna, and the reader’s relationship to her ever-developing level of consciousness. Eliot irradiates, “When the wind blows the water white and black. / We have lingered in the chambers of the sea / By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown / Till human voices wake us, and we drown.” Just as Edna drowns in her awakening the reader is caressed into lingering and sharing in this experience until we inevitably recognize the specters of the human voices unavoidable in our own reality, and come to understand why Edna drowns.
Edna’s awakening mirrors Eliot’s waking, and shows a reader of this novella that to embrace and understand a metaphysical consciousness one must separate from sleep. The word awakening etymologically delivers to us the essentiality of “rising from sleep… inaction, or indifference” (OED). Edna, in The Awakening, becomes aware of her past inaction and indifferences, reflecting on her arguably accidental marriage and motherhood, and rises from the sleep that is her life to the reality that she is not living as she truly wishes to. She desires above all to not be defined, and to be free; she craves the deconstructive existence that she attempts to create for herself following her encounter with multiple specters in the natural world. Her spirit is restless, and the specter that we receive in this text from Chopin gives the reader traces of it.
There is nearly countless work and critical analysis surrounding such a canonical text. However, I aim to situate my analysis as a close reading of The Awakening while working alongside important critical, philosophical, and literary writing to generate a new understanding of Chopin’s novella. By addressing the inherited background knowledge that contemporary work on this text provides, but also applying previously unconnected sources to this story, I believe that an original and thoughtful consideration of the relationship between Chopin’s Edna and the reader emerges.
It is vital to note that a provisional title for this novella existed, before it was titled The Awakening. Carol Wade’s article concerning literary realism in this text, “Conformity, Resistance, and the Search for Selfhood in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening,” addresses this often-overlooked detail. Wade reminds us “Chopin considered naming her novel The Solitary Soul (Culley 247)… Radical self-realization is identified with the intense and the elemental, but also with the fragile, the vulnerable, and the isolated” (102). The etymology of “solitary” contributes to attentiveness of the image of a soul who “retires,” “is quite alone or unaccompanied,” and secluded (OED). The importance of this optional title lets us know that Chopin, in The Awakening, finds the themes of seclusion and separation indispensible to the reading of the text. Edna is “the solitary soul,” and she creates for us the model in which the reader can begin to understand the state of solitude.
The sea in Edna’s life has a voice. When she is near to and within the water it speaks to her. The narration in the novella tells us that “The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude: to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation” (215). The sea, in The Awakening, is the différance between the world of man and the realm of non-being. As Kathleen Streater asserts, in “Adéle Ratignolle: Kate Chopin’s Feminist at Home in The Awakening,” “Symbolically she [Edna] returns to the womb and the lost mother” (415) and certainly to a space of différance, of khora, and of non-being.
In her disillusionment of society, and those around her, she is awakened by specters and tempted and seduced by their disassociation with others. Streater emphasizes an understanding of the inherently constructed nature of the world that The Awakening perceives. For Streater, this comes about largely through the reality of societies assigned gender roles. She cites “Judith Butler argues that when we expose ‘the performative status of the natural,’ we expose the ‘unnaturalness’ of assigned gender roles” (407). Edna sees quite clearly, partially through her interaction with Adéle Ratignolle, “the embodiment of every womanly grace and charm (208) in Adéle’s conscious performance.
Following exposure to the performative reality of gender, identity, and society Edna begins to question her own identity. Peter Ramos’s “Unbearable Realism: Freedom, Ethics, and Identity in The Awakening” understands the freedom that is inherently essential to Edna’s conception of identity.
“In this reading Edna’s actions serve as an example of what can happen to a protagonist whose unwillingness to continue dedicating herself to any of the available social roles leads her to abandon all of them in favor of an enticing yet ever-elusive freedom” (147).
The abyss that the sea is, that invites her to “wander for a spell” in “an enticing yet ever-elusive freedom” in their respective solitude separates her even farther from the actual world, of what she is becoming and could become. In Specters of Marx Jacques Derrida insists “As soon as one no longer distinguishes spirit from specter, the former assumes a body, it incarnates itself, as spirit, in the specter” (4). Chopin’s sea’s voice is, for Edna, the specter of différance, and in the moment of her awakening when she “no longer distinguishes” the spirit within the sea that it gives voice to with its specter she unveils what is before her and sees the possibility of non-being “incarnate,” or manifest, itself. When “The voice of the sea speaks to the soul” of Edna it opens up her mind, but ultimately results in her demise within the physical world, that of becoming.
The sea’s very nature lends itself to a reading in correspondence with différance. The ocean is the specter of the spirit of whatever lies beneath the veil that it constructs. The words that it speaks with the voice bestowed upon it are the specters of this hidden non-being that Edna is fascinated and lured by. In Elizabeth Grosz’s tributary piece, “Derrida and Feminism: A Remembrance” she clarifies the condition of différance.
“Différance is the originary tearing of that which, unknowable and unspeakable as it is, was always amenable to inscription, was never ‘full’ enough to retain its self-presence in the face of this active movement of tearing, cutting, breaking apart. Which is also a bringing together, a folding or reorganizing, and the very possibility of time and becoming, of time as uncertain, open, future-oriented” (91).
Chopin’s choice of incarnation, and subsequently the very movement of the sea, mirrors Grosz’s understanding. Grosz continues on to say “Entities, all entities, things in their specificity and generality and not just terms, are the effects of difference, though difference is not reducible to things insofar as it is the process that produces things and the reservoir from which they are produced” (91). In this way the ocean contributes to the difference, but it is not its most reducible form. Derrida reminds us “the specter is a paradoxical incorporation, the becoming-body, a certain phenomenal and carnal form of the spirit” (5). Chopin understands this important “carnal form” of the specter’s embodiment in the spirit. The waves of the ocean present this “self-presence,” but are also continually “folding or reorganizing” denying a “’full’” image of, or the ability to close upon and define, what the sea is or looks like with one description or image. In this sense they are the always “becoming-body.” The ocean, for Edna, is “future-oriented,” as it holds her fate that seems so unsure throughout the novella. The ultimate reality of the unknowable sea rests in its solitude; just as the reader, narrator, and people surrounding Edna can never know her, they can never know the sea and neither can she.
Even though Edna cannot know the sea in its consistently changing nature, and the reader can never know Edna for these same reasons, she is invited to “wander in the abysses of solitude” by its voice which speaks so deeply to her. In the same respect a reader of The Awakening is identically invited to drift to Edna and the sea in a different manifestation of wandering in solitude alongside them. In The Politics of Friendship Derrida understands, and clarifies, the state of friendship in relation to solitude.
“We are first of all, as friends, the friends of solitude, and we are calling on you to share what cannot be shared: solitude. We are friends of an entirely different kind, inaccessible friends, friends who are alone because they are incomparable and without common measure, reciprocity or equality” (35).
The relationship between Edna and the sea, and Edna and the reader is perfectly seen within these lines when put in relation to Edna’s first swim in the ocean in the novella.
“She turned her face seaward to gather in an impression of space and solitude, which the vast expanse of water, meeting and melting with the moonlit sky conveyed to her excited fancy. As she swam she seemed to be reaching out for the unlimited in which to lose herself” (232).
Although Edna and the sea are “incomparable and without common measure” because Edna is a woman and the sea is a force of nature, in the ocean Edna recognizes, and is “excited” by the unattainable that she reaches out to with every stroke of her arm, the possibility of true solitude outside of herself becoming visible and revealing itself to her. Similarly Edna is a fictional character, an entity that only exists within the dead written text, the specter of Chopin. Because of this she is an “inaccessible” friend to the reader. Yet, Chopin reveals Edna to us much in the same way that the ocean exists for Edna. We can “see” her in our imagination, and we can even touch the words on the page that construct her, but we cannot truly know her. All involved parties are solitary. The reading experience of The Awakening consequently becomes a precarious state.
In Edna’s enticement from the sea, and the novella’s providing an awakening to the reality of a space of différance, the reader can begin to understand the unfolding of the plot. Ramos notes how Edna reacts to these realizations.
“Edna ultimately responds by attempting to live outside of all social constructions, beyond any workable, practical fiction, entering what she imagines to be a space of unmediated reality beyond identity — a space that can neither be inhabited nor endured — as she comes to reject in succession the various social roles available to her” (149).
What Edna does not understand throughout the majority of the novella is that she cannot inhabit “a space that can neither be inhabited nor endured.” Because Edna exists in early 20th century society the choice to truly be a sexually free, unattached, or independent woman is not an option following her marriage and children.
Until the end of the novella, at the point where she chooses to enter into a space of non-being through ceasing to being able to inhabit any space whatsoever in her suicide, Edna attempts, to no avail, to shift her identity so that she may be free, like the state of the sea that she so covets. It is because of her consistent attempts to attain this “unmediated reality beyond identity” that, Dorothy Jacobs in “The Awakening: A Recognition of Confinement” says, “Edna has initial recourse to inexplicable tears, more sustained dependence upon moods, a naturally dreamy disposition, and increasingly a determination to exercise her will” (82). The frustration induced by her limited nature within her world and the bounds of society leads her to experience intense internal episodes, such as when she “began to feel like one who awakens gradually out of a dream, a delicious, grotesque, impossible dream, to feel again the realities pressing into her soul,” (237) and these moods continually exhaust her, tempting her back towards a sleeping state. Her strong ultimately denies a return to unconsciousness.
Edna is a character that knows well how to love, but her ability to be loved is obviously lacking in this text. Her constantly shifting identity, from wife to mother to woman, creates a continually changing environment in the novella and lets the reader know that she is impossible to pin down in one specific role or mindset. Because of this Edna is only able to exercise the ability to love, but her unknowable nature makes it unrealistic for others to truly know and love her. However, this is not a fault in Edna’s character, but rather strength. Derrida says that Aristotle declares “If a friend had to choose between knowing and being known, he would choose knowing rather than being known” (11). Edna, the friend of the reader, clearly demonstrates this sentiment. She chooses knowing, following her awakening, as opposed to the possibility of filling a provided identity, or role in society, and being known to those around her; her husband, children, and friends who all ultimately are puzzled and somewhat in awe of her existence. They continually wonder who she really is, and what motivates her actions.
The prioritized themes of The Awakening enlighten the reader of Edna’s mental state. Edna essentially cares, above all, about expressing herself rather than absorbing and manipulating the emotions of those around her. Derrida, in The Politics of Friendship, begins to define the state of loving and being loved in conjunction with Aristotle. In the bounds of this understanding is partially where we find Edna’s rise in consciousness, knowledge, and her awakening. He articulates “Loving will always be preferable to being-loved, as acting is preferable to suffering, act to potentiality, essence to accident, knowledge to non-knowledge. It is the reference, the preference itself” (11). With her love of Robert, children, and unavoidable connection with Adéle Ratignolle, Edna acts rather than suffers the imposition of love upon her; acts rather than awaits the possibility of love, and the possible accidental state of infatuation, and therefore achieves the knowledge of awakening in contrast to the existence of non-knowing and non-knowledge that arises from being blindly loved.
Edna’s attempt at a true expression of self through her love is the only mode of truth she is able to know in a world she sees as false. Following her awakening, Edna is one who, Derrida might say, “can love only at a distance, in separation… This is not all they love, but they love; they love lovence, they love to love — in love or in friendship — providing there is this withdrawal” (35). Edna’s practice of this loving of lovence creates for the reader the example of how to love both Edna and the text itself. In its inherently distant nature The Awakening gifts to us Edna in the tradition of separated loving. She is the gift that is not explicitly given, but rather suggested, and the reader does not thank Chopin, but instead secretly comes to love this lovence in a manner reflecting the text itself as Edna “invite[s] you [us] to enter into this community of social disaggregation… which it not necessarily a secret society, a conjuration, the occult sharing of esoteric or crypto-poetic knowledge” (35). The conjuration of reading and discussing this text promotes this depicted community, and encourages awakening in others.
The reader is aware of Edna’s loss of morality in The Awakening and her growing independence as she realizes that the laws of society exist only when power is given to them from the individual consciousness. Donald Ringe, in “Romantic Imagery in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening,” critically reminds us of the responsibility of the reader of this novella.
“It is not the morality of Edna’s life that most deeply concerns her [Chopin], nor even the feminist concept so obviously represented in the book. It is, rather, the philosophic questions raised by Edna’s awakening: the relation of the individual self to the physical and social realities by which it is surrounded, and the price it must pay for insisting upon its absolute freedom” (588).
In this analysis is where we may understand how Chopin is, while interested in feminism and the rise of Edna’s consciousness through the feminist lifestyle that she cultivates, invested most fundamentally in going about producing this feminist agenda in Edna through philosophically induced means, with figures like the specter of the ocean.
The controversial suggested suicide at the end of this text leaves Chopin proposing the imposition of the reader once again. In “Surviving Edna: A Reading of the End of The Awakening” Robert Treu examines the ambiguous nature of Chopin’s conclusion.
“There is a canvas standing in front of us, but we only see its back… [A possibility] That the canvas is empty, and the painter as yet uncommitted to a subject, his wonderful smile is a way of asking what we think. Edna’s ‘suicide’ is very much like this mysterious canvas. We can see ourselves reflected in it or something else entirely” (34).
What Treu unknowingly points to in his analysis is the deconstructive ending that we are given as a reader. The “empty” canvas that Chopin leaves to the reader, giving every reader the opportunity to reflect ourselves upon it, delivers the gift of an ever-evolving ending, which consequentially then never ends. John Caputo, in Deconstruction in a Nutshell, illuminates for us the environment of deconstruction, and the deconstructive.
“Deconstruction is nourished by a dream of the invention of the other, of something to come, something absolutely unique and idiomatic, the invention, the in-coming, of an absolute surprise. Such a work would likewise involve the invention of its readers” (70).
The picture of the reflective canvas that Treu leaves us with, and Caputo’s understanding of deconstruction, clearly allow us to interpret The Awakening as an exemplary deconstructive work. This novella ends with something to come, “the [implied] in-coming,” and invents the reader through their involvement in Edna’s solitude, love of lovence, and her suggested suicide. The friendships formed between text, protagonist, and reader in all their respective solitude are “In a nutshell, deconstructive” (70).
The Awakening calls on us, the reader, to experience Edna’s awakening in the friendship that is created and exists given Edna and the sea’s respective solitude. We, the reader, cannot share their solitude, but nevertheless commiserate in our own identical solitude at the end of reading The Awakening. We may easily feel as if we have lost a friend in Edna’s departure from the world we have come to roam in with her. Despite our irreducible solitude throughout the entire experience, and undeniable solitude still, this reading eventually forces us to mirror Edna’s final moments. “She looked into the distance, and the old terror flamed up for an instant, then sank again.” Our anxiety, what Derrida claims “is something you [we] will need” is brought to mind, and at once is soothed, or sinks, in the experience of reading The Awakening.
· “Awakening.” Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford English Dictionary: The Definitive Record of the English Language, 2014. Web. Dec. 2014.
· Chopin, Kate, and Lewis Leary. The Awakening and Other Stories. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970. Print.
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· Derrida, Jacques. Politics of Friendship. London: Verso, 1997. Print.
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· Grosz, Elizabeth. “Derrida and Feminism: A Remembrance.” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 16.3 (2005): 88–94. Web. Dec. 2014.
· Jacobs, Dorothy H. “The Awakening: A Recognition of Confinement.” Kate Chopin Reconsidered: Beyond the Bayou. By Lynda S. Boren and Sara DeSaussure Davis. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1992. 80–94. Print.
· Ramos, Peter. “Unbearable Realism: Freedom, Ethics and Identity in The Awakening.” College Literature 37.4 (2010): 145–65. Web. Dec. 2014.
· Ringe, Donald A. “Romantic Imagery in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening.” American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography 43.4 (1972): 180–88. Web. Dec. 2014.
· Streater, Kathleen M. “Adele Ratignolle: Kate Chopin’s Feminist at Home in The Awakening.” Midwest Quarterly: A Journal of Contemporary Thought 48.3 (2007): 406–16. Web. Dec. 2014.
· “Solitary.” Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford English Dictionary: The Definitive Record of the English Language, n.d. Web. Dec. 2014.
· Treu, Robert. “Surviving Edna: A Reading of the End of The Awakening.” College Literature 27.2 (2000): 21–36. Web. Dec. 2014.
· Wade, Carol A. “2. Conformity, Resistance, and the Search for Selfhood in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening.” Southern Quarterly: A Journal of the Arts in the South 37.2 (1999): 92–104. Web. Dec. 2014.