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Critical Analysis of The Awakening

by Suleman

Women’s concerns are a key subject of any nation’s literature, however certain particular times in the history of literature are particularly noted for their higher focus on certain issues. Several distinguished authors have stressed the need for a better role for women in social life in the history of English literature, and many also focus on various literary elements to spread their strong ideas about women’s issues. Thus, literary features such as narrative, characterization, form, symbolism etc are wonderfully adorned and strongly expressed by the passionate philosophies of the authors. In American literature, through her attempts to promote women’s concerns, Kate Chopin gained tremendous attention, and her writings express progressive philosophies through her literary instruments. Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) has received distinct critical praise for its historical value as well as its thematic considerations, and it is praised for its special focus on women’s problems. While it took a long time to gain popular interest, during the time, The Awakening touched the nerve of many readers and the stimulating conclusion of the book, coupled with the extraordinarily sumptuous scenery, deserves centred analytical study and literary appreciation efforts. In this article, in order to conclude on Chopin’s concerns regarding women’s problems that are unique to her time, a detailed review of the characteristic literary elements of the tale such as the storyline, characterization, tone, symbolism etc is emphasised.

In the modern literary analyses, various critics consider Kate Chopin as the precursor of feminist writers of the 20th century, and her novel The Awakening is able to point up this claim. A profound analysis of the novel in its various literary elements establishes the novelist’s particular concerns for the cause of feminist issues. Her protagonist Edna Pontellier is the best epitome of the novelist herself who puts forward categorical ideas of feminist issues and treats the issues of women in the most distinctive way. In the novel, one finds the harmony of feminist voices along with the most sophisticated ideologies through Pontellier’s voice. According to Bauer, “Chopin’s novel simultaneously articulates the socializing norms of the Creole community and the conflicting gendered voices. She plays on the typical encoding of woman-as-mother in her relation to the hero; in fact, Chopin turns this romantic structure on its head, creating in Edna’s fragmented voice a denial of the ideologeme of the mother- woman.” (Bauer, 1988, p 129-30). At the primary analysis of the novel’s feminist concerns, one notices the fragmented voice of the protagonist, and the faltering quality testifies to the strength of cultural code. The protagonist, opposing the cultural and social norms of the period, also contests the ideology of motherhood and creativity. In fact, Chopin is successful in playing out the difference in the orchestration of voices in the novel. Therefore, a reflective analysis of The Awakening substantiates the view that Chopin is the precursor of the modern day American feminist writers and the literary elements in the novel helped the novelist in the most effective conveyance of her ideologies.

Critical Analysis of The Awakening

It is deeply illumining in this critical analysis of the novel The Awakening to undertake an investigation of the important literary elements such as plot, characterization, style, symbolism. The storey of the book deals with the life of the upper-middle class white woman Edna Montpellier who reflects Chopin’s feminist ideologies. “The Awakening,” as Justin Wintle suggests, “is a story of both cultural and sexual conflict… Edna’s romantic illusion is irrevocably linked with both sensuous awakening and with her discovery of will and identity.” Wintle, p 118-9). She is married to the Creole elite of New Orleans, Léonce Pontellier, who provides the best contrast to her feminist spirit. Though Edna is the mother to two children when she spends her vacation in Grand Isle, she chose to enjoy her time with Robert Lebrun who is a romantic young man. Lebrun and Edna develop an intimate relation as they spend time in cherished conversations, boating excursions, and moonlit walks. Now, she realizes that her life is in need of more joy and pleasure and that she needs to rise above the chains of the traditional thinking and cultural bondage to realize her ultimate pleasures of life. Her desire to live more wholly, to love as she has never loved in her previous life, and to crack her niggling displeasure with material things and marriage etc confirms the main concerns of the novelist. Thus, the plot of the novel develops the ideology of the novelist concerning the issues of women. Edna’s bond with the romantic young man Lebrun which is central to the plot of the novel points out the character’s true awakening of her organism. This awakening of the feminist spirit in the protagonist is the core of the plot and this is closely linked to main arguments of the novelist. Though she is apparently desperately bound by the traditional values of the Creole community, Edna is successful in ultimately rising above the clings of the forbidding atmosphere. The plot is effective in reflecting the story of a young feminist who sacrifices her life with utmost content in pursuit of the true awakening of life. In short, the plot of The Awakening becomes meaningful as it contributes to the feminist concerns of the period which the novelist reflected in her works.

Chopin is at her best in the characterization of the novel, and every character in The Awakening has a central contribution to make the feminist concerns of the novelist. Chopin has been especially successful with the protagonist of the novel and it is Edna Pontellier who drives the plot forward reflecting the thematic concerns of the novelist. The complex and, at times, spoiled character of Edna is unlike the quite standard nineteenth-century heroines. More importantly, she is the best tool at the hands of the novelist in her attempt to contribute to the feminist concerns specific to her period. “The story concerns Edna Pontellier’s “awakening” from the slumber of southern womanhood. The key problem of the novel is how she can handle her current views, in the presence of her relatives and lovers.’ (Sauder). Whereas the novel’s villain is easily identifiable, the antagonist is hard to validate. Nevertheless, there is a clear view that the conventional “Society in general, and hegemony in particular, serves as the key enemy, and the portrayal allows the author to better portray the tension between society’s agreed values and the protagonist’s pioneering feeling of awakening. In the development of the main themes of the novel, other characters including Léonce Pontellier, Robert Lebrun, Alcée Arobin, Madame Ratignolle, and Mademoiselle Reisz et al make their remarkable contribution. The characterization of the novel has been significantly superior and this has serious implication with regard to the themes of the novelist.

The Awakening challenges the traditional concept of woman as a property and arouses a new spirit in the minds of women of every nation and period which the protagonist conveys. This main theme of the novel also sets the specific feminist concerns of the time period and culture. The characterization of the novel has been in a way to suit the author’s attempt to challenge the traditional patriarchal treatment of women as the assets of their spouses. Pontellier’s clear-cut comments to the protagonist illustrate this outlook of the patriarchal society. The powerless nature of the protagonist as a property of the husband as well as the hopelessness of her condition sets the right framework for the novelist’s thematic concerns. Through the sheer merit of her characterization, Chopin eventually nullifies the traditional constraints of the protagonist. The introduction of some commanding women characters such as Alcée Arobin helps the novelist in substantiating the feminist efforts of the protagonist. Therefore, it is evident that the characterization of the novel contributes to the major theme of the book, which is a strong awakening from the slumber of patriarchal social convention. “Chopin…gives birth to Edna’s voice, which in turn gives birth to feminine desires as they are constructed through her battle with Creole culture.” (Bauer, 1988, p 130). It is also illuming, at this point, to establish that Kate Chopin employs a proper narrative style and strategy in conveying her feminist themes.

One of the most remarkable features of Chopin’s The Awakening is its abundant use of symbolism which is the novelist’s method to convey her ideas rather than the use of blunted literalism. Even the subtlest ideas concerning the feminist themes are powerfully transmitted by the use of symbols. Chopin’s use of symbols in every narrative segment is so effective that the reader completely comprehends and appreciates the novel as a whole.  Several critics have regarded the use of symbolism as the most exceptional literary element in the novel. “The Awakening then, somewhat extraordinarily, as compact as it is, contains a world of material objects and allusions that both illustrate the era and reveal Edna’s situation. The most commented on metaphor is women’s apparel, a cohesive symbol of the restrictive social code.” (Salmon, 1992, p. 139). The writer establishes both freedom and failure through the symbol of art and one finds that Edna attains the zenith of her awakening when she endeavors to become an artist. To her, pure art is a means of self-expression as well as self-assertion. Similarly, Reisz also comprehends the trail to becoming an artist as an experiment of her own individuality. Therefore, the symbol of art has a significant implication to the overall theme of the novel. Through the symbolic images such as birds, the narrator succeeds in establishing her themes of awakening, freedom etc. Birds, such as mockingbird and parrot, represent the ability to communicate, besides symbolizing the entrapment of women by the social convention. “The Awakening is loaded with symbolism. The bird metaphor–from the cawing, impatient parrot at the beginning, to the damaged seabird at the end–is full of allusions…” (Sauder). Chopin establishes her feminist concerns by the usage of these influential images, and the novel today enjoys considerable prominence as one of the first literary efforts to favour the feminist cause.

“Kate Chopin’s writings, including The Awakening, “explore the struggle of female protagonists to identify and experience their own subjectivity in a culture that insists on the identity of women as artifacts, determined by male desires” (Wallace, 1997, 76). The frank depiction of female sexuality in The Awakening, along with the awakening of the self-awareness of the heroine that leads her to abandon the conventional marriage universe, sets the feminist issues of the poet. Similarly, through the book, Chopin opposes the traditional ‘mother-woman’ notion that was in abundance in her age. The true awakening in the protagonist from the bondage of her environment ascertains the novelist’s plea for an awakening of women of every period and location from the chains of social and cultural conventions. In conclusion, it becomes lucid that Chopin is effective in reflecting the feminist concerns that were specific to her period, in this attempt, the literary elements of the novel, such as narrative, narration, theme, symbolism, support her.

  • Bauer, Dale M. (1988). Feminist Dialogics: A Theory of Failed Community. SUNY Press, p. 129-30.
  • Salmon, Marilyn Hoder. (1992). Kate Chopin’s The Awakening: Screenplay as Interpretation. Florida: University Press of Florida, p. 139.
  • Sauder, Diane. (Ed). The Awakening by Kate Chopin – MonkeyNotes by PinkMonkey.com. Retrieved November 18, 2008, from http://lib.store.yahoo.net/lib/monkeynote/pmAwakeningSample.pdf
  • Wallace, Elizabeth Kowaleski. (1997). Encyclopedia of Feminist Literary Theory: Shamanism and Initiatione. Taylor & Francis, p. 76.
  • Wintle, Justin. The makers of culture: a biographical guide. London: Routledge, p. 118-9. Retrieved November 18, 2008, from http://books.google.com/books?id=EF2fKDpp8S8C&pg=PA118&dq=%27The+Awakening%27+by+Kate+Chopin+-+theme+and+plot&ei=zWQiSYKgI5uKkATGse3wAQ#PPA118,M1

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