The Importance of Setting in The Awakening
Setting is a key element in Chopin's novel, The Awakening To the novel's main character, Edna Pontellier, house is not home. Edna was not herself when enclosed behind the walls of the Pontellier mansion. Instead, she was another person entirely-- someone she would like to forget. Similarly, Edna takes on a different identity in her vacation setting in Grand Isle, in her independent home in New Orleans, and in just about every other environment that she inhabits. In fact, Edna seems to drift from setting to setting in the novel, never really finding her true self - until the end of the novel.
Chopin seems highly concerned with this question throughout her narrative. On a larger scale, the author seems to be probing even more deeply into the essence of the female experience: Do women in general have a place in the world, and is the life of a woman the cumbersome pursuit to find that very place? The Awakening struggles with this question, raising it to multiple levels of complexity. Edna finds liberation and happiness in various places throughout the novel, yet this is almost immediately countered by unhappiness and misery. Even at the end, the reader is still left with the question of whether Edna has truly found a setting in which she can finally be herself.
Many readers would argue that Edna finds this niche in her seaside vacation home on Grand Isle. To Edna, the sea is a wide expanse of opportunity and liberation from the constricting socialite world of French Quarter New Orleans. Chopin's lavish descriptions of the sea give us an insight into its powerful effect on Edna:
The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation. The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace (Ch. 6, p. 13).
As Chopin writes, the sea is the place where Edna can truly look within herself in order to find out what lies beneath her socially constructed façade. Whether she ever does find her true self is another question. It is difficult to define Edna's "self" because it never seems to emerge at any point in the novel. Chopin presents us with Edna's identity problems early on:
Mrs. Pontellier was not a woman given to confidences, a characteristic hitherto contrary to her nature. Even as a child, she had lived her own small life all within herself. At a very early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life-that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions (Ch. 7, p. 13).
The novel's abrupt and tragic ending (coincidentally on Grand Isle) puts an immediate halt to Edna's pursuit to answer those very questions. She does begin to slowly uncover small snippets of her life's true value in...