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The Unspeakable in The Awakening by Kate Chopin
The Awakening portrays a woman caught in the feminine role defined by her society. The true nature of Edna’s difficulty is conveyed by means of distinct images and literary strategies rather than being directly described. Although Edna’s inability to communicate her problem is rendered on both the story and discourse levels, on the story level this problem is restricted to Edna’s inability to make sense of her suffering and communicate it to other characters. On the discourse level, however, Edna’s situation is conveyed by means of imagery and higher symbolism rather than straight discussed. Edna is caught in between the standard and the unconventional, among what society expects her to be and what she shouldn’t be: “at the really early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life—that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions” (35). This characteristic of Edna is highlighted by means of some recurrent photos or is symbolically conveyed in some of her relationships with the other characters of the novel.
The image of the unmarried “young lovers” followed by “the lady in black” who frequently carries a prayer book (37, 42, 54, 55) can be regarded as a single of the elements of the setting of the story that can be linked to Edna’s inner contradictions regarding the social values and the individual values. Apart from the truth that the lovers can stand for social unconventionality and the lady in black for religious morality, it is interesting to note that the couple is always followed by the lady. The lovers can be regarded as the temptations of life, one thing that the lady in black consciously avoids but unconsciously adores.
An additional instance of Edna’s oscillation among the traditional and the unconventional can be traced in her loving partnership with both Madame Ratignolle and Mademoiselle Reisz. The former is portrayed as the embodiment of what a lady should be according to the criteria of the patriarchal society and the latter as the isolated, socially rejected woman artist. Despite the fact that more than the course of the novel Edna is much more inclined to lead Mademoiselle Reisz’s life rather than that of Adele’s, the ending of the novel points out her rejection of the both.
Edna’s inner conflict is also depicted in several of her reactions to her companions in the novel. In seems that in her believed approach she has to feel twice to adjust her true inner thoughts and feelings to the conventions of the actual outward globe. In the course of the novel and during the approach of her awakening, she grows less and significantly less profitable in privileging her social role to her inner desires: “wishing to go to the beach with Robert, she need to in the very first spot have declined, and in the second location have followed in obedience to one of the two contradictory impulses which impelled her” (34). ‘Thinking’ in Edna’s opinion is referred to the approach of adjusting her desires to the guidelines of the society. In several passages in the novel it is indicated what Edna is in search of is ‘thoughtlessness’ thoughtlessness for Edna is a way to express herself, a way to regain her individuality and freedom. I will return to this concern in the section concerning the symbolic significance of the sea to discuss it in a lot more information and with reference to the related textual passages.
The Awakening opens up with the image of two birds, both kept in cages. Despite the fact that in the 1st reading of the opening paragraphs of the novel the birds might only be detected as some minor components of the setting of the story contributing to the construction of a summer abode in Grand Isle, in the course of the novel they come to assume a rather significant symbolic worth.
A green and yellow parrot, which hung in a cage outside the door, kept repeating more than and over:
“Allez vous-en! Allez vous-en! Sapristi! That’s all appropriate!”
He could speak a little Spanish, and also a language which no one understood, unless it was the mocking-bird that hung on the other side of the door, whistling his fluty notes out upon the breeze with maddening persistence. (22)
The parrot can be connected with Edna, who faces a sort of failure in communicating her thoughts and feelings to the people about her. Edna’s lack of the proper language to give voice to her feelings and thoughts is expressed many times in the text of the novel via the voice of the narrator, or in Edna’s direct speeches: “she went on crying there,” but “she could not have told why she was crying” (27), “a thousand emotions have swept via me to-night. I don’t comprehend half of them.” (50), “she had all her life lengthy been accustomed to harbor thoughts and feelings which in no way voiced themselves” (75). If the association of Edna with the parrot could be taken as credible, then it is fascinating to note that even the comprehensible words it utters—”Go away! Go away! For God’s sake!” (footnote, 22)—do not convey considerably to the listener the utterance conveys the speaker’s agitation without having referring to its source or cause.
Another interesting point concerning the above quote is the “mocking-bird” who appears to be the only one particular who can recognize the language spoken by the parrot. The mocking bird “whistling his fluty notes out upon the breeze with maddening persistence” can stand for the character of Mademoiselle Reisz whose music (fluty notes) is considerably favored by Edna. In the course of the novel, she seems to be the only particular person who develops a comprehension of Edna and her enigmatic circumstance rephrasing it in an additional bird imagery: “The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice have to have sturdy wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth” (106).
The birds obtaining been hung “outside the door” are portrayed as social outcasts who can be basically rejected and isolated due to particular conventions of the society, “Mr. Pontellier” for instance, can have “the privilege of quitting their society when they cease to be entertaining”(22). A much more concrete example of this issue occurs at the Saturday evening party thrown in Madam Lebrun’s location where in the middle of the performance of the “Farival twins”, who are “clad in virgin colors, blue and white, having been committed to the Blessed Virgin at their baptism”, the parrot from outside the door shrieks “Allez vous-en! Sapristi!”
The parrot was the only getting present who possessed adequate candor to admit that he was not listening to these gracious performances for the initial time that summer season. Old Monsieur Farival, grandfather of the twins, grew indignant more than the interruption and insisted upon having the bird removed and consigned to regions of darkness. (45)
The juxtaposition of the image of the “Blessed Virgin” and the utterance of the disgusted parrot highlights Edna’s dissatisfaction with the religious and social conventions. At the identical time, Monsieur Farival’s verdict regarding the interruption of the parrot underlines the fallen social status of a lady like Edna, if she decides to move against the stream of the established guidelines of the patriarchal society.
The auditory image of the “owl” is yet another image that reflects Edna’s sorrows and isolation. Edna following the reproachful argument with Mr. Pontellier sits alone on the porch listening to “the hooting of an owl in the prime of a water oak” which “broke like a mournful lullaby upon the night” (27).
The bird imagery has also been employed to characterize the females who have been capable to properly adjust themselves to the function society expects them to perform. These females are not portrayed as parrots or mocking birds confined in cages hung outdoors of the doors, instead they are “mother-women”: fluttering about with extended, protecting wings when any harm, actual or imaginary, threatened their precious brood. They were ladies who idolized their youngsters, worshiped their husband, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as people and grow wings as ministering angels. (29)
The depiction of the mother-females as lovely, free angels reflects the patriarchal society’s approval of their conducts.
The sea, for Edna Pontellier, is a symbol of individualism and freedom in expressing herself. The image of the sea reminding Edna of her operating expertise in the green meadows in Kentucky in her childhood is related with ‘thoughtlessness’. In the Creole society of Grand Isle, Edna is provoked to search for self expression and an “absence of prudency”(31), the characteristics for which she lacks the required courage. Not only the visual image of the sea but even the olfactory and auditory images of the Gulf are inspirational to Edna the sea possesses a “seductive odor” (33) and its “sonorous murmur” reaches Edna “like a loving but crucial entreaty” (34). The connection in between the sea and the green meadow of Edna’s childhood is revealed in Edna’s talk with Adele when Edna tries to discover the chain of her personal thoughts:
I can trace—of a summer time in Kentucky, of a meadow which seemed as massive as an ocean to the really little girl walking by way of the grass, which was larger than her waist. She threw out her arms as if swimming when she walked, beating the tall grass as one strikes out in the water. (37)
She goes on revealing her memories speaking about a distinct Sunday on which she “was running away from the prayers, from the Presbyterian service, read in a spirit of gloom by [her] father” (38). Edna’s startled answer to the query posed by Adele regarding the truth if Edna has “been running away from the prayers ever since” underlies the function of ‘thinking’ for Edna: “No! oh, no! […] I was a small unthinking youngster in these days, just following a misleading impulse without question” (38, my italics). As indicated earlier, ‘thinking’ for Edna is an act of adjusting her inner desires to the social conventions ever because her childhood thinking, in this distinct sense, is a strategy to be established as an adult lady. Even so on this specific summer time in Grand Isle she feels as if she “were walking via the green meadow again idly, aimlessly, unthinking and unguided” (38, my italics). Edna, referring to her expertise in the green meadows, talks about her urge to “walk on forever, with out coming to the finish of it” (38). This urge for absolute, unlimited freedom and self expression reappears on the evening when she discovers that she is capable to swim: “as she swam she seemed to be reaching out for the limitless in which to shed herself” (49). In the last paragraph of the novel, the connection amongst her childhood memories and the sea is as soon as once again established. By way of the voices of her father, her sister, their chained dog, and “the spurs of the cavalry officer” (139), she swims towards eternal, unlimited freedom, as a way to regain her individualism.
All through The Awakening, the reader is confronted with Edna Pontellier’s futile endeavor to give voice to her incommunicable enigma. Though a direct explanation of Edna’s problem is never pointed out in the novel, the nature of her inner conflict is portrayed in the rich imagery and symbolism of the novel. Amongst the a variety of symbolic pictures of The Awakening, I decided to limit myself to the images which accentuate Edna Pontellier’s inner conflict, the recurrent bird imagery and the symbolic significance of the sea as some of the substantial problems reflected in the novel regarding Edna’s entanglement in the confining patriarchal society she inhabits.
Kate Chopin. The Awakening. Full, Authoritative Text with Biographical, Historical, and Cultural Contexts, Crucial History, and Essays from Modern Crucial Perspectives. 2nd. ed. Ed.
Nancy A. Walker. Case Research in Modern Criticism. Boston: Bedford/St.Martin, 2000.
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