A Return to the Sea

Photo via Pikist

By Shan-Li Barkovich

 (UBC Arts One, Dr. Robert Crawford Seminar)


Edna Pontellier’s story culminates in death, but not in destruction. The last pages of Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening detail Edna’s final moment on the shore of Grand Isle in a position that may indicate her defeat as one who has attempted to break free from the conformities of what it means to be a woman in 19th-century America, but may also represent her success in accepting the impossibility of her situation and taking control of the one thing she has power over: her mortality. Edna is beckoned by images of the sea throughout the novel as a symbol of vast freedom and something that is unknown and seemingly endless; the sea is where she first encounters the fragility of her life as it is truly her own to bear, and where she chooses to forsake her life rather than return to her unfulfilling commitments as a woman and a mother.

This essay seeks to examine the sea as a symbol of an expanded consciousness through its representation during the stages of Edna’s awakening, beginning at her first successful attempt to swim alone and ending at her final surrender to the vast unknown of the sea. Edna’s process of becoming an individual is rooted in the unfamiliarity of nature, particularly in Chopin’s portrayal of the sea at Grand Isle. I will supplement this argument with Claire Vaye Watkins’ New York Times article, “The Classic Novel That Saw Pleasure as a Path to Freedom,” connecting Edna’s acclimation to her previously untouched personal desires with her reorientation as an individual who may exist outside of the domestic sphere. Alongside this I will provide examples of Edna’s connection with nature, particularly the association of summer with freedom, to demonstrate her diversion from the expected duties of mothers in The Awakening towards her reclamation of the youthful independence she once felt. Additionally, I will reference Rosemary F. Franklin’s American Literature article “The Awakening and the Failure of Psyche,” in particular her analysis of the contrast between Edna’s childlike qualities and Adèle Ratignolle’s sensuality, in order to emphasize Edna’s detachment from traditional femininity as it relates to her desire for a solitary life. Finally, I will discuss Edna’s inability to return to a life defined only by her motherhood and its culmination in the final scene of the novel.

Edna’s awakening is intimately connected with nature. Home and domestic life are the familiar spaces The Awakening’s women move in, duties not requiring them to venture outside of their known routines. Watkins elaborates this point by describing Edna’s awakening as beginning outdoors, “an escape from the structures of patriarchy into the unbuilt landscapes of the sensual, sublime, and the supernatural” (Watkins, 2020). Initially, Edna finds solace in nature. She is introduced in the novel as “burnt beyond recognition” (Chopin 3), indicating the time she has spent enjoying the hot summer days rather than protecting her fair skin. When Léonce upsets Edna over her perceived lack of devotion to him or their sons, she escapes outside to the porch where she is comforted by the “mournful lullaby” (Chopin 8) of the sea. It is in this scene that Edna’s yearning for endless summer days first appears: the feeling of “indescribable oppression” Léonce has evoked is “like a shadow, like a mist passing across her soul’s summer day” (Chopin 8). To Edna, summer represents freedom, a sensation not associated with the women of The Awakening. Watkins argues “Edna’s desire is the mechanism of her deprogramming” (Watkins, 2020), that by becoming accustomed to her own wants, she is at the same time secluding herself from what her male-dominated society wants her to want, namely to exist only as a caregiver and homemaker. The “indescribable oppression” Edna feels has “generate[d] in some unfamiliar part of her consciousness” (Chopin 8). Watkins argues that as Edna “edges into the uncharted territory of her own consciousness” (Watkins, 2020) and awakens to the oppression she faces from her society, she gains power by putting names, and later actions, to her desires, resulting in her achieving an “essential reorientation” (Watkins, 2020). Instead of existing as an appliance for her husband and children to seek indulgence and comfort from, Edna becomes aware of her ability to access her own thoughts and desires, existing not as a fixture of domesticity but as an individual, separate from the thoughts and desires of those who wish to control her.

When Edna revisits Grand Isle at the end of the novel, she stands before the sea in complete isolation: “The voice of the sea is seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamouring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander in abysses of solitude” (Chopin 155). The first instance this line appears is when Edna accompanies Robert to the beach during the summer at Grand Isle. She initially turns down his invitation but soon gives in, prompting the start of her awakening as she begins to consider “her position in the universe as a human being, and [recognizes] her relations as an individual to the world within and about her” (Chopin 17). Throughout the novel Edna is beckoned by images and sounds of the sea. Captivated by Mademoiselle Reisz at the piano, Edna does not experience the waking visions music had previously exposed her to, but feelings, “the very passions (…) aroused within her soul, (…) as the waves daily beat upon her splendid body” (Chopin 35). In this manner, Edna is accessing the unconscious part of herself that cannot be put to words. Later that night, she exercises her own strength “like the little tottering, stumbling, clutching child,” (Chopin 37) who has “of a sudden [realized] its own powers” (Chopin 37) when she swims alone for the first time and momentarily feels as if she were unable to return to shore, the realization that she may perish in the waters alone suddenly dawning upon her. Though Edna attempted to swim prior, the ability now comes easily from within her, reflective of her desires that she awakened to but had been in her all along. The last pages of the novel are reflected in this scene, as Edna realizes her own life is in her hands, something that is exhilarating as well as terrifying. Rather than shying away from her mortality, Edna is made aware of her ownership of it.

At Grand Isle, a microcosm of the meticulously constructed Southern society portrayed in The Awakening, Edna is an outsider. Franklin puts forth Adèle Ratignolle’s “recognition of the threat to matriarchal solidarity that one who ‘is not one of us’ presents” (Franklin 4). Although initiated into this solidarity by her gender, Edna’s rejection of motherhood threatens the stability of the family ideal, as represented by the Ratignolles. Adèle “being is devoted entirely to procreation and nurture; manipulation of men through flirtation and dependency exists for the sake of her role as a mother-woman” (Franklin 4). Though the post-Civil War society in The Awakening is undoubtedly patriarchal, the central figure in the house is the mother-woman, with Adèle as an ideal. Contrasted against the sensuality of Adèle, “the embodiment of every womanly grace and charm” (Chopin 10), Edna, whose most dominant memory is not of her husband or children but of a summer’s day in her childhood, is “almost virginal” (Franklin 3) despite her motherhood. Edna’s detachment from her society’s definition of a mother’s role is a factor in her awakening, as she comes to appreciate solitude and desire a space of her own, leading to her purchase of the pigeon house. Unlike Adèle and the other mother-women, whose feminine strength serves in utilizing social influence to uphold one another in preserving virtue in the household, Edna is unconcerned with endeavors to participate in matriarchal solidarity. She refuses to “conform to the narrow roles prescribed by the patriarchs” (Franklin 4) that demand her to be “emotionally intense” (Franklin 4) with fellow women to ensure their compliance, while at the same time “unquestioning and submissive” (Franklin 4) with her husband. Edna’s reminiscence of youthhood maintains her isolation from the rest of her peers and the solitary quality of her awakening.

Standing naked for the first time in open air, Edna is likened to a newborn child, or perhaps more accurately, a reborn child. She feels like “some new-born creature, opening its eyes in a familiar world that it had never known” (Chopin 156). By using the word “creature” rather than baby or child, it is as if Edna no longer belongs to the human world—that her awakening as an individual and progression into solitude has drawn a divide between herself and what it means to participate in society as a woman, and as such she has become something new and unrecognizable. Edna’s last memories are also of her childhood, emphasizing the rebirth aspect of this scene. She recalls the “hum of bees, and the musky odour of pinks” (Chopin 157), suggesting these memories are from her cherished summer days. Entering the ocean has returned Edna to her youth, a period during which she experienced what felt like endless possibilities and an ignorance of the expectations of society. However, even her childhood was tainted with conformities. When she is speaking to Adèle at Grand Isle, she describes a memory of herself running through a meadow that, to a child, seemed “as big as the ocean to the very little girl” (Chopin 21). Though this memory evokes an outward appearance of harmless childhood indulgence, Edna soon reveals she was running to escape the Sunday service, an instance for a child that would seem to be the antithesis of freedom. In the same way that she ran into the field “idly, aimlessly, unthinking and unguided” (Chopin 22), Edna wades into the ocean at the end of the novel, desiring to escape the tethers that compress her into a narrow mold.

The second part of the quote emphasizes Edna’s newfound isolation from the rest of late 19th-century America, which has become “a familiar world that [she] had never known” (156). By confronting her personal desires to practice artistry and move to a new house, in addition to committing smaller acts such as going for walks on a whim without leaving a reasonable excuse for callers at the Pontellier house, Edna is exercising a previously unused part of herself: acknowledgment of her personal desires. The world is familiar to her because she has lived all her life in it, but through her process of awakening, it is at the same time foreign. By living alone in the pigeon house Edna no longer participates in the carefully allotted duties of a woman, and finds herself unable to go forward in the direction she desires as an artist with a man whose love she actively returns, while at the same time unable to return to her previous life, for it is no longer familiar or adequate to retain her interest and happiness. Edna has reached the end of her tether as a woman by the end of the novel, but this tether does not exist for men. Léonce consults with the Doctor in relation to Edna’s “peculiar” (Chopin 89) behaviour of abandoning housework and taking walks alone, because the idea of his wife as an individual, rather than a unit of his home who complements his freedom with her dormancy, is foreign to him. Although Edna is only experiencing a fraction of Léonce’s freedom, the two men are quick to dismiss any reasoning beneath these desires apart from labelling her a “peculiar and delicate organism” (Chopin 89), reducing her struggle for individuality to a “passing whim” (Chopin 89), and equating women to organisms, a mere curiosity to be prodded at and ultimately disregarded as incapable of possessing rational inclinations outside of the domestic sphere.

As such, Edna cannot proceed any further living in the manner she has become accustomed to in the past months without either sullying her family’s name, which would jeopardize her husband’s career and her boys’ future, or accepting defeat and relinquishing her freedom. Meanwhile, Léonce may engage in the domestic world only so much as he pleases, returning home from social gatherings late at night only to resent his wife’s lack of “interest in things which concerned him” (Chopin 6) and critique the sleeping state of his sons, to whom his involvement consists of bringing home gifts whenever he remembers. Edna experiences this level of participation in her children’s lives later on when they are sent to stay with their grandmother and whom she visits for a week, though after departing they are no more than the “memory of a delicious song” (Chopin 128) as she returns to the city alone. For Edna, there is joy to be had in spending time with her boys, but it is a demanding joy, one that is forced upon her rather than discovered by choice.

The imposition of Church, school, and familial duties on a young Edna can be equated to her entrance into womanhood and all of its confinements. The ideal women “idolized their children, worshipped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels” (Chopin 10), but Edna is unable to accept this role. Her acknowledgement of the “indescribable oppression” (Chopin 8) she faces is prompted by Léonce’s dissatisfaction with Edna as a mother to their boys. Léonce may engage in the domestic world only so much as he pleases, returning home from social gatherings late at night only to resent his wife’s lack of “interest in things which concerned him” (Chopin 6) and critique the sleeping state of his sons, to whom his involvement consists of bringing home gifts whenever remembered. Edna is imprisoned in domesticity, her sons the prison bars preventing her from ever extending the freedom she feels when she sends them to live with their grandmother. She tells Adèle, “I would give up the unessential, (…) I would give up my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself” (Chopin 64), emphasizing Edna’s desire for an identity separate from her motherhood and foreshadowing her eventual suicide, the ultimate act that secures her eternal freedom from the domestic prison. Though Edna feels joy at spending time with her sons, it is demanding, forced upon her as an extension of her duties rather than discovered by choice. Edna is tethered to the home; her expressions of individuality jeopardize the strength of domestic life, which serves as the basis for society as portrayed by The Awakening.

As Edna stands on the beach, there is “a bird with a broken wing” above her, “beating the air above, reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water” (Chopin 156). Similar to the broken bird, who just moments ago was soaring the endless skies, Edna’s momentary freedom has run its course as she finds herself unable to return to the domesticity that her duties as a wife and mother demand without a part of herself becoming broken. This coincides with a line Edna recalls from a conversation with Mademoiselle Reisz, who describes a “bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice” (Chopin 112). This bird must have “strong wings,” because “it is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth” (Chopin 112). However, Mademoiselle Reisz represents only one route a woman may take, that of a spinster artist. By becoming strong-willed she sacrifices her affection, and by becoming independent she sacrifices comfort in luxury. Thus, Edna is a bird with a broken wing by Mademoiselle Reisz’s definition, but not by her own. Standing naked before the ocean, the bird with a broken wing may also be seen as a symbol of Edna’s life of passivity. Its downward fall is not representative of her failure to prevail against “tradition and prejudice,” instead it is her entire life as a woman who is expected only to provide that has become broken and spirals down toward the sea. Rather than isolating herself from traditional society as Mademoiselle Reisz has done, nor accepting her place as one who may only give and never take, Edna has simultaneously come to terms with the impossibility of her situation and committed a final act of defiance. Her mortality is perhaps the one thing she truly has power over, and by ending her own life she exercises that power. Nonetheless, The Awakening ends in tragedy because there can be no other end for a woman who hopes for too much. This passage reveals the inability of The Awakening’s society to accept dynamism as a quality in women, and Edna’s subsequent refusal to participate in a society that considers motherhood and solitude, or femininity and independence, as incompatible.

Women cannot desire too much, and should they find success in their desires, it must be sacrificed lest they face punishment. However, Edna Pontellier defies the bounds of society by freeing herself from them completely, her death not a tragic defeat but a final display of power. “The vast expanse of water, meeting and melting with the moonlit sky” (Chopin 37) is the only place she can turn to without being restrained into a woman she does not want to be, the sea reminiscent of her childhood, a time she recalls in her last moments as a period when she had yet to be taught the limitations of her future. By taking her own life, Edna accepts that her short-lived freedom must come to an end, and rather than forfeiting it and returning to a shackled existence, she confronts death as a singular escape from unhappiness.



Works Cited

Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. Herbert S. Stone & Co., 1899.

Franklin, Rosemary F. “The Awakening and the Failure of Psyche.” American Literature 56, no. 4. Duke University Press, December 1984.

Watkins, Claire Vaye. “The Classic Novel That Saw Pleasure as a Path to Freedom.” The New York Times. The New York Times, February 5, 2020.