The similarities between Virginia Woolf‘s Mrs. Dalloway and Kate Chopin‘s The Awakening are surprising. Without a doubt, Chopin influenced Woolf’s novel, but The Awakening has not quite received the same attention despite the fact that it too is riddled with suicide, depression, objectification and (especially) the solitude of the main character. Edna’s solitude and capacity for self-reflection change from ignorance to realizing what she can and cannot accept. Her existentialism grows strong as she wakes from her class and dependent position to a self knowing woman who learns to make her own choices. By confronting the things that make her feel suffocated, Mrs. Pontellier earns her own identity as Edna; the woman who faces her fears and ends the suffocation. Even if it means that she is the one orchestrating the pain on her self, Edna is the one in control.
Edna becomes aware of her solitude and chooses to face it. “What we feel most keenly about Edna is her remoteness from those about her-her husband, her children, her two female friends, her two male friends. And her solitude is underscored by the dramatic action of the novel as the significant persons in her life repeatedly leave her alone” (Culley, 225). Mr. Pontellier always leaves her, but she feels isolated from him anyway, and she spends little time with her kids so Edna leaves them. Whether it is through her death, not sitting around on Tuesday waiting for callers or swimming by herself, Edna faces her solitude and learns more about herself. “The key scenes in the novel are the scene where Edna is along” (225). Madame Ratignolle proclaims that when Edna almost drowns, the spirit of the Gulf has Edna and may never “release her from the spell” (Chopin, 30).
Apparently Edna does not wholly want to be freed. When people or things that bring Edna solace leave, she gathers them as “presences in her imagination which deliver her from her solitude” (Culley, 227). When she is alone, Edna can live in a fantasy world to take away her solitude, but the effects are only temporary because her imaginings eventually are not strong enough or they too fade, leaving her alone. “Having dismissed both possibilities of deliverance from her solitude, and unable to sustain the delight it brings her, Edna embraces death whose voice she has heard in her aloneness” (228). The solitude transports her…it is in these moments of exhilaration that Edna discovers her body, her freedom, her will, her self [but] Edna’s new life, occurring as it does in the ‘abyss of solitude’ which is the sea, bring with it its attendant vision of death” (22).
The problem with her new-found identity is that Edna is still a solitary figure, only now she knows this. “The word alone resounds like a refrain in the text, occurring some two dozen times” (226), the same way it must have echoed in her head. Self-reflection is a significant ability, but it is not enough of a treatment for Edna. Escaping is a coping mechanism for her. However, this mechanism is a way of handling that which bothers her, not a way of hiding from it. Edna is less hiding from her own personal truth and more confronting empowerment and choice. Suicide if often referred to as something “selfish,” but Edna knows better. For her, she is drowning with the oppression from her husband and the social constraints of the upper class. In order to belong in this society, she must be silent. But even a caged bird has a voice. Edna “is finally able to overcome by herself the strength of the social and religious conventions and the biological mystique that entrap her” (Chametzky, 200). Her identity is solely “defined as someone’s daughter, someone’s wife, someone’s mother, someone’s mistress” (Culley, 228), and this is devastating Edna. No wonder she “experiences not only dread in the face of solitude, but also delight. As a woman, she has had so little sense of a self alone” (224) and must feel overwhelmed at all the possibilities. Being Léonce’s “piece of personal property” (Chopin, 4), much like the caged parrot, Edna’s “struggle is for the woman to free herself from being the object or possession defined in her functions, or owned, by others” (Chametzky, 200). Therefore, Edna’s liberation must not stop at objectification and classism. She must be “awakened by a realization of her sensuous self” (Culley, 228).
Since “the novel is a powerful one about female sexuality” (editor’s note, 144), Edna’s encounters with her lovers significantly contribute to her overall transformation. When Edna feels passion, “we glimpse the ecstasy of the discovery of the power of the self and the refusal to adjure it. To Madame Ratignolle she says, ‘I would give up my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give up myself’” (Culley, 228). Once Edna proclaims this out loud, notice that she starts caring for Robert and her self. Her relationship with him and the experience with the lovers and the lady in black bring true feelings of self-centered behavior and light into her life. “Edna Pontellier grows in self-awareness and autonomy. But it is a lonely and isolated autonomy that exacts a terrible price” (Chametzky, 201). A sexual awakening is not enough to sustain this stationary woman. No matter what kind of experience Robert brings her and no matter how she feels for him, Edna knows that he will not be able to live up to her constructed reality and, echoing the recurring truth of the novel, “the day would come when he, too would melt out of her existence, leaving her alone” (Chopin, 113).
“Solitude also brings a confrontation with the ultimate aloneness—death—and thus the threat of extinction of the fragile, newborn self” (Culley, 224), but Edna’s fear of death is temporal because there is something greater behind it. Edna’s death is an assertion of independence. Readers will try to compare Edna to Icarus, but the two play different roles. Icarus is warned by his father, who is exhausted but determined not to fly too close to the sun or the wax on his wings will melt. Icarus ignores his father and plunges to his watery grave. The father is distraught but must go on, and this is what is seen in Edna. The bird with a lame wing falls to the water. However, Edna swims, exhausted but determined, because her family “need not have thought that they could possess her, body and soul” (Chopin, 114). She may not understand what is evolving in her, but Edna feels and understands what she can and cannot accept. In the end, “she embraces death with the same mixture of dread and delight as when she first discovered her solitude” (Culley, 224), but her last thoughts are of the”old dog that was chained to the sycamore tree-” (Chopin, 114), and hence she has gone back home. She feels the comfort of home as she swims out alone to make her final choice – death.
Mrs. Pontellier is not accustomed to making decisions and being the woman who Madame Ratignolle is. The capricious Mr. Pontellier scolds Edna for not being maternal or social enough, and treats her like their pet parrot, not the way Edna wants. Throughout the novel, Edna is a solitary figure struggling with depressing, being objectified and conforming to the upper class and even results in her struggle with her own suicide. However, Edna’s death is one of the most liberating actions she makes because it allows her complete control over her body, soul – everything. In order for Edna to break away from her suffocating world, she has to discover her self in terms of her sexuality, her relationships with others, and her own servitude to the customs around her. Mrs. Pontellier fought for her identity as Edna through confronting her fears and solitude and came out a courageous soul, despite her death. Edna commits suicide, but she chooses it. Edna commits suicide, but she chooses it. Edna Pontellier is in complete control and returns to the recesses of her mind where she can end her solitude.