A Self-discovery as a Providing Theme in The Awakening by Kate Chopin


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Edna Pontellier’s Self-Discovery

Death is the ultimate sacrifice or the last act of rebellion. People die for their loved ones or for themselves, to better the world or to preserve ideals. In Kate Chopin’s novel, The Awakening, Chopin narrates Edna Pontellier’s journey of self-discovery that ultimately ends in suicide. Chopin’s purpose is to entertain the audience while questioning the discriminatory social standards of the early 1900s. Her impartial tone provides readers with a realistic plot, drawing the audience into the novel. Many literary critics note that Chopin also employs various writing styles to support this central idea, in addition to tone. Throughout The Awakening, Chopin expertly utilizes characterization, symbolism, and an objective point of view to emphasize the theme of self-discovery. During The Awakening, Chopin’s characterization of Robert Lebrun emphasizes the theme of self-discovery. Robert’s naïve nature drives his belief that the impossible is probable, of course within the conventions of society. In Chopin’s novel, Robert even declares his love for Edna and tells of his hope that Mr. Pontellier will liberate her (Chopin 178). Robert views Edna as her husband’s property, awakening her to the female social standard of family devotion. Once she comprehends society’s standards towards females, Edna rebels against civilization and begins her journey of self-discovery. In literary critic Carole Stone’s opinion, “Robert becomes cupid that awakens Edna to the force of Eros” (Stone 62). Once Robert causes Edna to question her current situation, her female companion Adele Ratignolle further illustrates Edna’s need for self-discovery.

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Chopin’s characterization of Adele Ratignolle further emphasizes the theme of self-discovery. Adele, one of Edna’s closest companions, represents the stereotypical mother of society, unselfishly spending her time tending to her children, cooking, knitting, and cleaning. Adele’s view of the world greatly differs with Edna’s, sparking disagreements between the two on a variety of subjects. During one disagreement, Edna asserts that she would sacrifice her life, but not herself, for her children. Adele fails to comprehend the difference between these two concepts, declaring that people must sacrifice themselves when giving up their lives (Chopin 80). Adele thinks superficially, not pondering the symbolic meaning of Edna’s words, that people can unselfishly sacrifice themselves without giving up their souls. Through such arguments, Edna realizes that she is not meant to be a stereotypical woman, only “absorbed, defined by her social and biological roles and responsibilities,” as literary critic Suzanne Green notes (Green 61). Edna craves art, beauty, self-fulfillment, and other deep concepts, which Adele simply does not understand. Once Adele awakens Edna to her differences so that she feels the need for a self-discovery, Edna’s other female companion, Mademoiselle Reisz, aids in this voyage. Mlle. Reisz is the quintessence of an isolated and dedicated artist, as literary critic Carole Stone observes (Stone 61). Mlle. Reisz’s musical background gives her the knowledge to teach Edna about the soul-searching qualities of art. Mlle. Reisz first shows art as a means to self-fulfillment at a dinner party, where Mlle. Reisz’s piano skills “sent a keen tremor down Mrs. Pontellier’s spinal column” (Chopin 44). Mlle. Reisz encourages Edna to discover herself through art by illustrating the beauty of music. In addition, the other residents’ views of Mlle. Reisz (that she is an odd and disagreeable woman but a fantastic piano player) shed further light on the life of an artist (Chopin 43). Mlle. Reisz is self-fulfilled but is also isolated from the rest of society, exposing Edna to the benefits and consequences of an artist’s life. Through this knowledge, Edna discovers that she cannot abandon society to become just an artist and not a mother, since she requires companionship. In addition, Mlle. Reisz directly supports Edna’s self-discovery by providing her with soul-searching advice. In Chopin’s novel, Mlle. Reisz asserts that one must have natural talent and a courageous soul to become an artist (Chopin 106). Through Mlle. Reisz’s advice, Edna looks within herself for the various qualities of an artist generally, such as defiance, courage, and freedom. After learning about the benefits and consequences of becoming an artist, the qualities that an artist has, and the necessity of art for self-discovery, Edna then turns to the sea for guidance on this journey.

The symbolism of Grand Isle’s sea, which Edna visits often, also emphasizes Chopin’s theme of self-discovery. The sea’s deeper meaning is first highlighted through Edna’s childlike response when learning to swim, that she is like a “clutching child, who of a sudden realizes its power” (Chopin 47). The ocean symbolizes Edna’s vast potential and capacity, which she discovers through learning to swim. Near the end of her journey, when Edna feels wronged by the unbending standards of society, the ocean also provides her with a final resting place. The sea slightly changes forms from the beginning of the novel, becoming “seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander in an abyss of solitude” (Chopin 189). Edna has discovered the limits of her potential and has thrown herself into this abyss, also known as death, marking the end of her journey. Many critics, including Carl Wade, have also interpreted the sea as such a symbol. Wade asserts that Edna’s swimming and the sea symbolizes an attempt by Edna to become one and whole (Wade 246). In general, the sea becomes a symbol of Edna’s self-discovery, since she is attempting to understand her potential. Though the sea’s symbolic nature is crucial in supporting this theme, an objective narrator is arguably more important for Edna’s personal growth.

The theme of self-discovery is further emphasized by Chopin’s use of an objective point of view. The author avoids loaded terms while describing her characters, neither aiding nor hindering Edna’s self-discovery. One such instance is in Chopin’s novel, when Edna refuses to go to her sister’s wedding and her father, the Colonel, yells at Edna for her lack of kindness (Chopin 119). Chopin describes the Colonel as fair when highlighting Edna’s flaws, so that Edna is more likely to take the blame for her actions, understand her flaws, and grow as a person. According to literary critic Ramos, this allows Chopin to then impartially critique Edna’s choices (Ramos). In this way, Edna is able to take the blame for other actions she commits, like her affair with Alcee Arobin. Chopin writes that Alcee’s and Edna’s first kiss “was a flaming torch that kindled desire” (Chopin 139). Edna is not portrayed as a victim to manipulation but as a willing participant in this affair, forcing Edna to take responsibility for her actions. Overall, Chopin’s impartial description of Edna’s affair and the Colonel’s yelling forces Edna to take responsibility for her actions and discover the flaws in her behavior. This detailed analysis proves that Chopin uses literary devices in The Awakening to support the theme of self-discovery. Robert’s love, created through characterization, and the symbolism of the sea “awaken” Edna, causing her to set out on a journey of self-fulfillment. Adele helps Edna realize that she is not a stereotypical mother, which further pushes Edna to discover herself. Mlle. Reisz then exposes Edna to the artist’s life, encouraging Edna to discover herself through art. Finally, an objective point of view allows for the unbiased telling of Edna’s journey, so that the reader is able to see the true consequences of Enda’s actions and watch as she grows as a person. At the end of Edna’s journey, Chopin utilizes the sea once again to symbolize death, concluding the novel. Overall, Chopin’s superb implementation of characterization, symbolism, and an objective point of view emphasizes the theme of self-discovery throughout The Awakening.

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