Kate Chopin: The Awakening (2017) | WW Norton Edition

Kate Chopin’s Technical Artistry in ‘The Awakening’

In just two passages of Kate Chopin’s 1899 feminist novel, The Awakening she artfully conveys the protagonist’s inner struggles with the powerful patriarchy.

The Awakening
Kate Chopin
W.W. Norton Edition
July 2017

Passage 1:

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.

(Chopin 16)

Passage 2:

The water of the Gulf stretched out before her, gleaming with the million lights of the sun. The voice of the sea is seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander in abysses of solitude. All along the white beach, up and down, there was no living thing in sight. A bird with a broken wing was beating the air above, reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water.

(Chopin 116)

Kate Chopin writes with a strategic discipline, captivating her readers with each alluring and carefully placed word. Edna Pontellier’s journey of self-awareness not only rises from the narrative of The Awakening (1899), but is conveyed through the written and visual structure of the novel. Chopin’s use of punctuation and paragraph formation visually affects the meaning behind her words, emphasizing the novel’s pronounced theme of awakening.

As the narrative progresses, Edna becomes aware of her confined role in society as a woman, gathering an understanding of the self outside of gender constrictions. Edna’s development as a character is directly reflected in Chopin’s word choice and sentence structure, as demonstrated in passages one and two, above. Essentially, the passages hold the same definitive context, paralleling in word choice; however, there is a depth to Chopin’s words understood only after reading the novel.

Chopin’s writing grows, molds, and adapts with Edna, expanding and contracting along with the character. The repetition of these passages cannot be ignored as they symbolize the wake of Edna’s awakening; the crash and fall of the waves.

After agreeing to go to the beach with Robert despite firstly wanting to rest, Edna ponders over her decision to comply. Chapter six, where this scene occurs, is short and sweet, set between two lengthy and scenically dense chapters, thereby causing Edna’s inner thoughts to stand out. Passage one, above, concludes this chapter, abruptly shifting the tone from a confused realization to a melancholy lament.

Here, Chopin breaks away from Edna’s narration, directing readers’ attention to the ocean; however, the personification of the sea reflects Edna’s inner conflicts. The brief decision to join Robert on the beach is one of Edna’s first awakenings, as Chopin highlights, “Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being” (16). Passage one is the initial crash of a wave, the beginning of Edna’s awakening.

In The Awakening’s final chapter, Edna walks nude into the sea, falling peacefully into its wake to never emerge. Passage two, above, occurs as Edna goes down to the beach with the notion of escaping her children, husband, and the reigning feeling of loneliness. At this point in the text, Edna is fully aware of herself and her role in society; she has awakened. The development in Edna’s character is seen through Chopin’s repetition of passage one, alluding to the initial wake that started Edna’s journey of self-awareness. Unlike passage one, passage two enacts a series of thoughts as Edna continues to swim out to sea; therefore, passage two represents the crash of Edna’s final wake, the fall of Edna’s awakening.

The placement of these passages is strategic as Chopin provides a full-circle moment to a sudden but realistic ending, starting and ending Edna’s story with the sea. Along with being a setting within the narrative, the sea metaphorically represents Edna’s inner turmoil and the unknowns of life. Edna’s mood rises and falls throughout the novel as the waves, too, come in and pull away. She embarks on the mental journey of finding her true self in a world that confines her. Each pleasure and pain can be represented with the sea, and Chopin deliberately includes oceanic symbols to convey intangible emotions.

A reader’s eye follows a sentence as water flows with the current. Chopin guides readers through Edna’s metaphorical sea with the formation of her paragraphs. The paragraph formations of passages one and two are drastically different. Passage one is a single, stand-alone paragraph, whereas the repetition of passage one in passage two appears in the middle of a four-sentence paragraph. As with short chapters, short paragraphs stand out on the page, demanding special attention.

Of course, the separation of a paragraph suggests a new thought, movement, or scene. In her first awakening, Edna is trying to compile her newly awoken thoughts and feelings into coherent sentences. She is unable to connect related thoughts, her mind a series of stand-alone sentences waiting to be joined. “The voice of the sea” (Chopin 16) is an abrupt interruption in Edna’s current life; therefore, Chopin sets the sentence apart in its own paragraph.

Passage two opens with a new sentence detailing the sea. Chopin’s artistic choice to place the repeated section of passage one in the middle of a paragraph alludes to Edna’s character development. Unlike before, Edna can connect the stand-alone sentences that once swam freely in her mind, no longer confused by her sudden revelations. She can anchor her previous awakened thoughts with those of the present.

By sandwiching the mirrored sentence in passage two, Chopin disguises Edna’s final awakening, providing a game of hide-and-seek for readers. Since the thought is not at the forefront of Edna’s mind, the sentence disappears between a description of setting and connection to one of Edna’s newer, pressing thoughts, “A bird with a broken wing” (Chopin 116).

Mademoiselle Reisz’s comment that Edna has “wings” leaves Edna feeling perplexed as she relays to Alcee Arobin, “She [Mademoiselle Reisz] says queer things sometimes in a bantering way that you don’t notice at the time and you find yourself thinking about afterward” (Chopin 85). In Edna’s final moments, Chopin provides the image of a bird with broken wings, symbolically representing Edna’s character while also sharing her swirling thoughts. The formation of paragraphs, therefore, visually presents Edna’s different stages in development.

As with Chopin’s placement of these passages, the differences in punctuation cannot be ignored. In passage one, Chopin divides the clauses of the sentence with semicolons, whereas in passage two, Chopin replaces the semicolons with commas in the repeated sentence. Chopin’s sentence consists of three clauses: (1) “The voice of the sea is seductive”, (2) “never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude”, and (3) “to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation”. Passage one consists of all three clauses connected with semicolons, whereas passage two emits the third clause while joining the first two with a comma.

A semicolon presents the end of a thought but the continuation of related other. The three clauses could have easily been three separate sentences; however, Chopin links the clauses to control the flow of the narrative. Like the movements of waves, the sentence almost seems to “never cease”.

There is a stream-of-consciousness in the seemingly endless sentence, alluding to Edna’s circling confusion during her first awakening. A period marks a beginning and end, whereas a semicolon marks a beginning but alludes to an end. Edna knows something is awakening within her, but she is unaware of where and when her awakening will stop.

Commas signify a separation in clauses with a soft pause rather than a complete or brief stop. In passage two, Chopin separates clauses one and two with a comma rather than a semicolon. Again, Chopin’s choice of punctuation directs the flow of the sentence. Rather than briefly stopping between clauses, readers pause for only a moment. But by changing the flow, the meaning of the sentence shifts.

In passage one, Chopin’s usage of semicolons shows that all clauses of the sentence are linked; however, since the second clause has the potential to be its own sentence, there is the question of who or what is “never-ceasing”. The question is answered in passage two when Chopin combines the clauses with a comma, signifying that the seductive voice of the sea is what “never ceases”. The sentence appears uniform when compared to passage one. At the end of the novel, Edna has awoken and has become a more complete version of herself. Her development in character, therefore, is represented visually in this passage.

Chopin’s calculated writing mechanics continue with further inspection between the two passages. Upon first glance, the repeated sentence appears to be an exact replica; however, Chopin makes the strategic decision to omit a small portion of the third clause. Chopin’s meticulous writing shines as she removes the clause without directly eliminating the clause’s initial meaning. An exact copy of the clause may be missing, but it is not necessarily lost.

In passage two, “to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation” (Chopin 16) is removed from the mirrored sentence; however, Chopin replaces the clause with a maze. If Chopin were to have copied passage one structurally word-for-word in passage two, the third clause would most likely replace “All along the white beach, up and down, there was no living thing in sight” (Chopin 116). The beach is the maze “of inward contemplation”. Edna is physically wandering into the sea, an abyss of solitude, “to lose” herself “in mazes of inward contemplation” (Chopin 116). Chopin foreshadowed the end of Edna’s awakening at the very beginning of her realization.

Edna once wandered “for a spell abysses of solitude” (Chopin 16), and in the end, she finds her spell. Chopin’s effective tactical efforts are displayed once more as she eliminates “for a spell” completely from passage two. There is no replacement sentence as with the previously mentioned clauses because Edna no longer has to search or wish for solitude. Her soul has found the dark depths of loneliness, and with each step, Edna gets closer to becoming lost forever. Chopin’s exclusion of this simple phrase is subtle, almost missable, but the effects provide deeper insight into Edna’s development and final moments as a character.

The wake of Edna’s awakening is turbulent. As Edna becomes more aware of the constricting constructs placed on her by society, she starts to push back; flowing like the tide; experiencing highs and lows; rising and falling. Chopin leaves a trail of acknowledgment, understanding, and self-awareness throughout The Awakening, visually guiding readers through the ripples of Edna’s wake.

The craft choices Chopin makes to achieve this visual structure are strategic and deliberate, showcasing her fine skills as a writer. The parallels and nuances between passages one and two cannot be ignored as they symbolize the wave Edna mentally rides; the crash and fall of the sea.