Houses as Motifs in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening Linda Catte Dr. Kathryn Warren ENGL 2329: American Literature March 22, 2012 (KateChopin. org. ) (Krantz’s Grand Isle Hotel Picture of painting by Tracy Warhart Plaisance) (Reflechir: Vol. 1. Les images des prairies tremblantes: 1840-1940 by Cheniere Hurricane Centennial Committee) It is not new or unique that an individual is looking for one’s purpose and meaning in life. Nor is it unique that men and women imitate the norms of society. In Kate Chopin’s novella, The Awakening, Edna Pontellier, the antagonist, knocked against the societal norms of the late 1800’s.
Houses represent Edna’s search for her inner self. The houses which Chopin uses in The Awakening come in pairs which contrast each other. Chopin uses the bird cage and the bath-house to illustrate imprisonment and freedom. The house on Grand Isle and the small house on the Cheniere Island represent restlessness and awareness. The grand house on Esplanade Street in New Orleans and the small house located just around the corner demonstrate confinement and control in contrast with freedom and independence. Each house brings to light different aspects of Edna’s personality as she searches for her inner soul and finds new awakenings along the way.
As various houses are presented by Chopin, each will provide insight into Edna’s search for meaning in her life. In order to better understand Edna’s state of mind as Chopin begins The Awakening, the norms of society needs an explanation. Mr. Leonce Pontellier demonstrates characteristics of a husband who fits the societal norm of 1899 when The Awakening (Chopin) was written. Behaviors by Leonce are displayed in the opening chapter of Chopin’s novella. There are bird cages with a talking parrot and a singing mockingbird, hanging on the porch of the main house at Grand Isle. “Mr.
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Pontellier, unable to read his newspaper with any degree of comfort, arose with an expression and an exclamation of disgust. ” (Chopin, ch. 1) Leonce had the freedom to walk away from an irritation and find solace elsewhere. “Mr. Pontellier had the privilege of quitting their society when they ceased to be entertaining. ” (Chopin, ch. 1) The bird cage represents imprisonment, the birds represents how individuals in society mimic what is repeated over and over. Although every word is not equally understood and interpreted by all, the words still have a meaning. (http://office. microsoft. com/en-us/images)
Edna and Leonce were interpreting different meanings from what society expected. Edna had the burden of imprisonment because of the societal norm. Leonce had flexibility and freedom. He was a businessman with a wife and family that was expected to behave in such a manner that would exhibit appearances of a proper marriage and family. An illustration of Leonce’s attitude is revealed in Chapter One of Chopin's book, a few specific examples are, “…looking at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property …,” “…perhaps he would return for the early dinner and perhaps he would not. and “If it was not a mother’s place to look after children, whose on earth was it? He himself had his hands full with his brokerage business. ” Leonce viewed himself as important, the roles of society were rigid and fixed in his eyes, and certainly to his advantage. (http://office. microsoft. com/en-us/images) Edna did not have the freedom to detach herself as her husband did from unwanted annoyances. Her escape to the bath-house provided as much freedom as Edna could possess at the time. “…had no intention of bathing; they had just strolled down to the beach for a walk and to be alone and near the water. (Chopin, ch. 7) Lounging at the bath-house on the beach with her friend, Madame Ratignolle, is when Edna realized realities about her marriage and children. Her life was now somewhat predetermined because of her own rash decision to marry Leonce out of rebellion against her father and sister Margaret. “Add to this the violent opposition of her father and her sister Margaret to her marriage with a Catholic, and we need seek no further for the motives which led her to accept Monsieur Pontellier for her husband. ” (Chopin, ch. ) She desired passion as expressed in her daydreams prior to marriage, “It was when the face and figure of a great tragedian began to haunt her imagination and stir her senses. The persistence of the infatuation lent it an aspect of genuineness. The hopelessness of it colored it with the lofty tones of a great passion. ” (Chopin, ch. 7) But she had no passion in her life. “As the devoted wife of a man who worshiped her, she felt she would take her place with a certain dignity in the world of reality, closing the portals forever behind her upon the realm of romance and dreams. ” (Chopin, ch. 7) (http://office. icrosoft. com/en-us/images) Marriage did not bring fulfillment or satisfaction to Edna’s life, nor did being a mother. “She would sometimes gather them passionately to her heart; she would sometimes forget them. ” (Chopin, ch. 7) When her children were away with their grandmother, they were not missed by their mother. “Their absence was a sort of relief, though she did not admit this, even to herself. It seemed to free her of a responsibility which she had blindly assumed and for which Fate had not fitted her. ” (Chopin, ch. 7) What mother forgets her children and does not miss them when they are gone?
Edna was searching for meaning in her life, she wanted happiness. (http://office. microsoft. com/en-us/images) (http://www. loyno. edu/~kchopin/Album10. html) Vacationing at the house on Grand Isle is where Edna’s dissatisfaction with her own life is brought to the reader’s attention by Chopin. “An indescribable oppression, which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar part of her consciousness, filled her whole being with a vague anguish. It was like a shadow, like a mist passing across her soul’s summer day. It was strange and unfamiliar; it was a mood. ” (Chopin, ch. ) Leonce’s role as a husband was unchanging, “…her husband’s kindness and a uniform devotion which had come to be tacit and self-understood. ” (Chopin, ch. 1) Spending her summer vacation with the Creoles opened Edna’s eyes to a whole new society. “A characteristic which distinguished them and which impressed Mrs. Pontellier most forcibly was their entire absence of prudery. ” (Chopin, ch. 4) Edna had been raised in a strict religious Presbyterian home by her father. (Chopin, ch. 22) Edna’s new acquaintances stirred new thoughts, there was an inner conflict within her.
Unspoken expectations were present for societal norms to be followed for a devoted wife and mother, those like her new friend Adele Ratignolle. Edna longed to be her own person, depart from what is expected of her and discover what or who makes her happy. As more and more of Edna’s days were spent together with another new friend, Robert, she missed him when he was not around. “She missed him the days when some pretext served to take him away from her, just as one misses the sun on a cloudy day without having thought much about the sun when it was shining. ” (Chopin, ch. 0) Mademoiselle Reisz impacted Edna, it started when she heard her play the piano at the grand party in the main house on Grand Isle. “Edna was what she herself called very fond of music. ” (Chopin, ch. 9) As she heard the chords, she would envision in her mind what each piece of music was saying to her. But with Mademoiselle Reisz, it was different. Her emotional response was something she had never experienced. “The very first chords which Mademoiselle Reisz struck upon the piano sent a keen tremor down Mrs. Pontellier’s spinal column. ” (Chopin, ch. 9) It was the exact emotion in which she was searching. But the very passions themselves were aroused within her soul, swaying it, lashing it, as the waves daily beat upon her splendid body. ” (Chopin, ch. 9) It was that night Edna learned to swim; it was that night she did not do exactly what her husband asks of her. (Chopin, ch. 10) It was the house on Grand Isle that first awakened Edna to new thoughts and feelings. (http://www. loyno. edu/~kchopin/cheniere. htm) The next morning, Edna and Robert went to Cheniere Island. Edna’s behavior and attitude began to transform. She took steps of boldness by sending for Robert to go with her to Cheniere. She had never sent for him before. ” (Chopin, ch. 12) On the boat ride to the island, Edna felt a sense of freedom, “…felt as if she were being borne away from some anchorage which had held her fast, whose chains had been loosening-…” (Chopin, ch. 12) She began to daydream of a life where she was alone with Robert. She shared this imagined world with him as her flirtation intensified. (Chopin, ch. 12) When they reached the island, they fulfilled the intended purpose of the trip by attending mass at Our Lady of Lourdes. The freedom Edna had experienced on the boat ride was stripped from her as she sat in the church. …her one thought was to quit the stifling atmosphere of the church and reach the open air. ” (Chopin, ch. 13) It was at this time that Robert took Edna to a small house on the island where she naps and discovers another facet of herself. Once she awakens, she and Robert have dinner outside the small house, the evening approaches, they do not want the day to end. “It was very pleasant to stay there under the orange trees, while the sun dipped lower and lower. (Chopin, ch. 13) Upon their return from Cheniere Island, Edna separates herself so that she can be alone to ponder her escape.
The escape to the little house that gave her a taste of peace and contentment. “She could only realize that she herself-her present self-was in some way different from the other self. ” (Chopin, ch. 13) (http://office. microsoft. com/en-us/images) Upon return to the grand house on Esplanade Street in New Orleans, Edna brought with her disappointment and heartache. She had not planned on Robert’s sudden departure to Mexico. As her life was becoming more self absorbed, she wanted Robert to remain part of her life. She was aware of her infatuation with him and reacted emotionally to his absence. …she had lost that which she had held, that she had been denied that which her impassioned, newly awakened being demanded. ” (Chopin, ch. 15) Being home in the grand house where Leonce displays his possessions with such pride, left Edna feeling trapped and imprisoned. Her summer experience changed how she wanted to live her life. When Leonce was ready for life to be back just like it was before, Edna displayed behaviors of rebellion. She was not going to receive visitors on Tuesday afternoons any longer, she was not going to dress as expected for dinner, and she was not going to lead her life controlled by her husband. Chopin, ch. 17) bb (katechopin. org) Leonce was appalled at Edna’s sudden change in behavior. There were societal norms that were important to Leonce. He did not want their friends to think they did not behave properly. “…people don’t do such things; we’ve got to observe les convenances if we expect to get on and keep up with the procession. ” (Chopin, ch. 17) The Esplanade house represents confinement and control over Edna. With her new found awakenings, she had no desire to return to the ways of her old life. “She resolved never to take another step backward. ” (Chopin, ch. 7) Her thoughts remained with Robert. “She had tried to forget him, realizing the inutility of remembering. But the thought of him was like an obsession, ever pressing itself upon her. ” (Chopin, ch. 13) (katechopin. org) Edna moved forward with confidence but still did not find the independence she was desiring. Leonce found her behavior “…odd, she’s not like herself. ” (Chopin, ch. 22) “Her whole attitudetoward me and everybody and everything-has changed. ” (Chopin, ch. 22) Leonce had concerns about his wife but left her alone upon the advice of Doctor Mandelet. He moved forward with his own (katechopin. rg) life and took a business trip to New York. Edna thought she might miss him , but found “…a radiant peace settled upon her when she at last found herself alone. ” (Chopin, ch. 24) Her children were in Iberville with their grandmother. But this peace was short lived. She still did not have Robert. She looked to activities and relationships to find fulfillment in her life. But none provided the contentment and satisfaction she desired. (Chopin, ch. 25) While Leonce was away, Edna made a spontaneous and rash decision , while on a visit with Mademoiselle Reisz, to move into her own house. (Chopin, ch. 6) The small house was located just around the corner from their home on Esplanade Street. “It looks so cozy, so inviting and restful…I’m tired looking after that big house. It never seemed like mine, anyway-like home. ” (Chopin, ch. 26) It was this small house where Edna was certain she would find peace and happiness. She would find what this cozy house represents, “freedom and independence. ” (Chopin, ch. 26) Each house Chopin uses as a motif brings to light different aspects of Edna’s personality as she searches for her inner soul. Each house brings new awakenings for Edna along the way.
Each house represents her search for meaning in life. “No longer was she content to ‘feed upon opinion’ when her own soul had invited her. ” (Chopin, ch. 32) But Edna was unable to satisfy her soul. She wanted more than anyone or anything could give her. She wanted passion, she wanted Robert. When Robert left for Mexico, it was out of his love and respect for Edna that he could not stay. When he left the small house, it was, again, out of his love and respect for Edna that he must leave. It was Adele Ratignolle who reminded Robert in the beginning of The Awakening (Chopin) of his behavior as a gentleman. If your attentions to any married women here were ever offered with any intention of being convincing, you would not be the gentleman we all know you to be, and you would be unfit to associate with the wives and daughters of the people who trust you. ” (Chopin, ch. 1) Edna did not have the wisdom to understand Robert’s rejection of her. She lived selfishly. “Conditions would some way adjust themselves, she felt; but whatever came, she had resolved never again to belong to another than herself. ” (Chopin, ch. 26) This statement confirms that Edna’s soul would not be found with Robert. She was aware of her own emptiness. There came over her the acute longing which always summoned into her spiritual vision the presence of the beloved one, overpowering her at once with a sense of unattainable. ” (Chopin, ch. 30) (http://office. microsoft. com/en-us/images) The emptiness Edna experienced after Robert’s departure left her hopeless. “Despondency had come upon her there in the wakeful night, and had never lifted. There was no human being whom she wanted near her except Robert: and she even realized that the day would come when he, too, and the thought of him would melt out of her existence, leaving her alone. (Chopin, ch. 39) It was when Edna stood before the ocean that she knew her future. “The voice of the sea is seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander in abysses of solitude. ” (Chopin, ch. 39) The only answer to free Edna’s soul was to enter the sea. Freedom would come only in death. There was no turning back to the empty life which only brought despair, heartache and loneliness. The true love, passion, and happiness she envisioned for her life had escaped her. Robert brought a glimpse of the future Edna had envisioned.
But that future was not for Edna. In the ocean, naked and without any confinement around her , was she was able to find home. (http://office. microsoft. com/en-us/images) Citations: Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. 1899. www. amazon. com/Kindle-eReader-eBook Retrieved on January 14, 2011. http://www. katechopin. org http://office. microsoft. com/en-us/images http://www. loyno. edu/~kchopin/Album10. html Reflechir: Vol. 1. Les images des prairies tremblantes: 1840-1940 by Cheniere Hurricane Centennial Committee.
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