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Ambiguity In Kate Chopin's The Awakening

3630 words - 15 pages

Ambiguity in The Awakening

 
     Leonce Pontellier, the husband of Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin's The Awakening, becomes very perturbed when his wife, in the period of a few months, suddenly drops all of her responsibilities. After she admits that she has "let things go," he angrily asks, "on account of what?" Edna is unable to provide a definite answer, and says, "Oh! I don't know. Let me along; you bother me" (108). The uncertainty she expresses springs out of the ambiguous nature of the transformation she has undergone. It is easy to read Edna's transformation in strictly negative terms‹as a move away from the repressive expectations of her husband and society‹or in strictly positive terms‹as a move toward the love and sensuality she finds at the summer beach resort of Grand Isle. While both of these moves exist in Edna's story, to focus on one aspect closes the reader off to the ambiguity that seems at the very center of Edna's awakening. Edna cannot define the nature of her awakening to her husband because it is not a single edged discovery; she comes to understand both what is not in her current situation and what is another situation. Furthermore, the sensuality that she has been awakened to is itself not merely the male or female sexuality she has been accustomed to before, but rather the sensuality that comes in the fusion of male and female. The most prominent symbol of the book‹the ocean that she finally gives herself up to‹embodies not one aspect of her awakening, but rather the multitude of contradictory meanings that she discovers. Only once the ambiguity of this central symbol is understood can we read the ending of the novel as a culmination and extension of the themes in the novel, and the novel regains a coherence missing in a single edged interpretation of Edna's awakening.

 

A number of feminist critics focus on the entrapment Edna feels in her marital situation. Edna realizes that "she had all her life long been accustomed to harbor thoughts and emotions which never voiced themselves. They had never taken the form of struggles" (96). In the novel the struggle begins and it is against the demands of her husband and children. As she walks into the ocean at the end of the novel to escape her life she thinks, "they need not have thought that they could possess her, body and soul" (176). Emily Toth claims, "an escape from confinement is the overriding theme of The Awakening" (242). The primary means for this emotional confinement is the societal expectation, held over from the early Republican era of America, that "'the best way of a married woman to carry her points is to yield sometimes.'" Jan Lewis says that in early America "it was the wife who had to bend" (712). This remained true at the middle of the century when William Alcott declared "the balance of concession devolves on the wife. Whether the husband concede or not, she must" (32). Edna comes to understand that earlier in her life she followed this...

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