I finished The Awakening about a week ago, but I still feel as though I’ve just emerged from a dream. The main thing I have right now is sensation, as opposed to thoughts—above all a very deep pity for Edna.
I say this even though I often found her obnoxious in this last section, like an entitled, petulant child. She engages in an affair with Alcée Arobin but doesn’t treat him with much respect (whether or not he deserves respect is another question); she uses her husband’s money to throw a lavish dinner party, which ends with her freaking out and breaking a glass; and she moves into her new home without considering the reaction of her husband or children. Many of us liked Edna a lot at the beginning of the novel—did you start to like her less at the end?
And yet when Robert returned, I was so happy that she was in a place to form a romantic relationship with him. She had psychologically broken free of her ties to her husband and social mores—and if only Robert were willing, they could run away together! Yes, it would be hard on her children, but they had a wonderful grandma as a surrogate mother. And yes, Léonce would be embarrassed, but he’d probably just eat the cost of her departure like he would a failed investment and move on to another “valuable object.” Were you rooting for Edna and Robert, too?
I never turned the pages faster than through the scenes after Robert’s return. I truly believed (and was devastated) that he had fallen out of love with her; he was so distant and cold and seemed annoyed that Edna was making demands on his attention. I took his behavior at face value—but of course, he was just protecting himself. He loved her very much yet knew they could never be together. Unlike Edna, he was still attached to ideas of propriety.
Did Robert’s ultimate rejection drive Edna to suicide? No. I think that if he had written the note before Edna witnessed Adele’s painful childbearing, she would have retained hope that he didn’t really mean good-bye and continued pursuing him. It was the pain and responsibility of motherhood that made her do it; Adele’s advice to “think of the children” stuck in her head. She couldn’t hurt her children by leaving—her core goodness and morality prevented that. And yet, like she told Adele at the beginning of the novel, she could never sacrifice herself for her children. After reading Robert’s note, she didn’t lie awake all night thinking of him. She thought of her sons, Raoul and Etienne, who “appeared before her like antagonists who had overcome her; who had overpowered and sought to drag her into the soul’s slavery for the rest of her days.” She is horrified by them as she was horrified by the spectacle of Adele’s childbearing. She imagines the children as villainous creatures who (how dare they?) force her to think of moral consequences and stay shackled to the conventional role of wife and mother. But at the same time she loves them completely and could never bear to “trample upon the little lives” by acting selfishly. So Edna dies both to save them—from suffering social stigma, from growing up with a disappointing, distant mother—and to stay true to her free, awakened self.
Finally, some thoughts about the title of the book. When I think of an awakening, I think of being snapped back to (often harsh and cold) reality after a night of dreaming. But Edna’s awakening feels like the opposite of that—she sinks out of reality into a sensual dream world dominated by primal, subconscious urges. Notice that the book opens on Grand Isle, with many descriptions of the hot, bright sun; as Edna progresses through her growth, more and more scenes take place at night or in dark rooms. It all becomes like a fantasy (especially her almost hallucinatory dinner party). Then the image of strong sunlight returns at the end, as Edna walks to the sea to die. I’m sure that many readers and Kate Chopin herself would disagree with me, but I wonder if “awakening” can’t refer to Edna’s brutal realization that her dream world couldn’t be real. Becoming enfolded in the “soft, close embrace” of the sea is her way of going back to sleep—to succumbing entirely to the rich, wild world of her subconscious, which water represents. Any thoughts on this?
I’m so glad I had the chance to read this book—and thanks for reading along with me! I hope you all have a fabulous Thanksgiving.