The Importance of the Sea in Chopin’s The Awakening
Unlike María Eugenia, Edna in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening chooses not to fill her family’s expectations. As she takes her final steps into the sea she thinks to herself: “they need not have thought that they could possess her, body and soul” (655). Edna treasures her autonomy and chooses death over familial subjugation. However her transformational journey, alluded to by the title of the novel leads to more than the rejection of her self-sacrificing familial roles as wife and mother and her death.
We first meet Edna on her way back from a swim with Robert Lebrun, as Chopin begins to establish Edna’s burgeoning transformation in the context of her relationship with Robert and to the sea. While Robert and Edna’s relationship develops, Edna becomes increasingly dissatisfied with her marriage to Léonce Pontellier and her traditional roles as wife and mother to her two children, Rauol and Etienne. Edna learns to swim, takes up painting, befriends Madame Reisz, an eccentric old woman that plays the piano, and moves into her own house. After Robert leaves for Mexico, she engages in an affair with Alceé Arobin, until Robert returns and they affirm their love for one another. However, Robert, afraid of the social repercussions of their affair, leaves town. As a result of losing Robert, failing to find fulfillment in her life without a man, and failing to reconcile her roles as a good and faithful wife and mother while becoming an artist and falling in love, Edna commits suicide by drowning herself in the sea.
The sea, or green-world token is present throughout the novel as Edna engages in her innermost thoughts and her relationship with Robert, the green-world lover. Although Edna engages in the transformational journey to the point of changing her behavior, she is not happy with the results. She can find no happy medium between being the model wife and mother that her friend, Madame Ratignolle represents and the independent artist that Madame Reisz represents, while pursuing her relationship with Robert and staying true to herself.
From the beginning of the story, the reader is alerted to the fact that Edna is experiencing an inner struggle to reconcile her relationships with Mr. Pontellier, Robert, and herself. When Edna comes back from her swim with Robert, Mr. Pontellier criticizes her; “What folly! to bathe at such an hour in such heat!” (Chopin 522). From the outset, Mr. Pontellier is opposed to the engagement with the water that Robert and Edna share. He is neither cognizant of the fact that Edna and Robert are falling in love, nor is he supportive of Edna’s transformation.
Later on in the story after Edna has taken up painting and refuses to receive callers, Mr. Pontellier calls up his friend, Dr. Mandelet to evaluate Edna’s mental state. Mr. Pontellier’s action is indicative of the women artist’s position in society at the time, what Virginia Woolf refers to as the “crazy...