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The Illusion of Marriage
Kate Chopin’s novel, The Awakening was published in 1899 as the one of the first of its kind. It explores the mind of a woman trapped in a marriage that no longer fulfills her. Chopin astounded readers of the time with her bold presentation of the protagonist Edna Pontellier’s search for a more meaningful and physical relationship outside of her current marriage. It thoroughly and honestly investigated female independence and caused much controversy for its forthright and unromantic depiction of marriage. The character development of the protagonist, Edna, revolves around her actions and the internal and external forces which guide them. The author’s use of descriptive detail of action and place to affect mood and character make this novel one of the most perceptive and contentious of its time.
The distance created between Edna and her husband is created in part by Mr. Pontellier’s actions. He is disappointed by Edna’s downhearted and isolated attitude. “He thought it very discouraging that his wife, who was the sole object of his existence, evinced so little interest in things which concerned him, and valued so little his conversation” (5). Leonce also notices his wife’s loss of interest in daily aspects, such as her children, whom she treats lovingly one minute, and ignores the next minute. When he disapproves of Edna’s actions, he “[Looks] at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage” (2).
At one point in the novel, Edna goes out during her reception day, and misses many callers that come by. Angered by this and the cook’s supposedly unfit meal, Mr. Pontellier leaves dinner in a rage to eat at the club, and after Edna calmly finishes her dinner, she rushes into her room, throws her wedding ring to the ground, and breaks a vase against the hearth because “She wanted to destroy something. The crash and clatter were what she wanted to hear” (52). The moment a maid comes rushing in, she pretends like nothing is wrong. This scene demonstrates how confused and tormented Edna is over her circumstance, and how utterly trapped she feels in her marriage.
Mrs. Pontellier spends most of the novel in similar situations, struggling with herself, masking her emotions and pretending like what she is feeling is not really true. One late night, she has herself a good cry on the porch while her husband is asleep. “She [does] not sit there inwardly upbraiding her husband, lamenting at Fate, which had directed her footsteps to the path which they had taken. She was just having a good cry all to herself” (6).
Edna looks for salvage from her confusion and emotional turmoil regarding her marriage in other people. During the Pontellier’s summer at Grand Isle, she meets Robert LeBrun, for whom “she began to loosen a little the mantle of reserve that had always enveloped her” (14). They “[exchange] occasional words, glances, or smiles which [indicate] a certain advanced stage of intimacy” (10). While she is obviously attracted to him, Edna understands that society would frown upon her romantic involvement with anyone other than her husband. One such instance that portrays the push-and-pull nature of Edna and Robert’s relationship occurs while he is watching her sketch:
During his oblivious attention he once quietly rested his head against Mrs. Pontellier’s arm. As gently she repulsed him. Once again he repeated the offense. She could not but believe it to be thoughtlessness on his part; yet that was no reason she should submit to it. She did not remonstrate, except again to repulse him quietly but firmly. He offered no apology. (11)
As the novel progresses and Mrs. Pontellier develops as a character, readers see her opening up more to Robert as she gives in to his flirtations, while she pushes Leonce further away. Her “first-felt throbbings of desire” (30) towards Robert put her “under the spell of her infatuation” (54) and lift her up when she begins to loose interest in the things around her. When Robert leaves for Mexico to escape this relationship he believes will never work, she is angered and offended by his lack of honesty with her:
Robert’s going had some way taken the brightness, the color, the meaning out of everything. The conditions of her life were in no way changed, but her whole existence was dulled, like a faded garment which seems to be no longer worth wearing. (46)
When Edna moves back to New Orleans, she begins to abandon some of her motherly duties to the point where Mr. Pontellier asks a doctor to diagnose her. He goes away on business, and Edna is left alone in New Orleans, where she moves to a small bungalow around the corner from the house:
There was with her a feeling of having descended in the social scale, with a corresponding sense of having risen in the spiritual. Every step which she took toward relieving herself from obligations added to her strength and expansion as an individual. She began to look with her own eyes; to see and to apprehend the deeper undercurrents of life. No longer was she content to “feed upon opinion” when her own soul had invited her. (
Edna feels that independence and social rank form inverse relationship, and her strength, in part, derives from her diminishing role in society. While the culture in which Edna lives may not allow her to assert her own beliefs and remain integrated, the fact that Edna defines her personal independence by her ability to disregard rather than interact with others leads to her downfall and tragic death because she feels the need to live in solitude.
The novel comes full circle when Edna mechanically walks back to the beach at Grand Isle, and for the first time in her life, stands naked in the open air and enters the water where “the touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace” (115). Edna remembers the night she first swam out a distance last summer, and the fear that engulfed her. Now, her terror dies quickly, and she is left floating in the water, enjoying the freedom of it. This is reflective of her wish for freedom in society, freedom from her marriage, and the freedom to be an independent woman. Just as her fear in the water has flamed and died down to a calm acceptance, so has her love for Robert.