of Kate Chopin's The Awakening:
Human actions and the places in which such actions occur are intimately related. This relationship exists if for no other reason than that in order for a human to act or to even exist, there must be a location at which he or she can act or exist. A more significant aspect of the relationship between person and place as it relates to literature is the potential effect an environment may have on a character living within it. In The Awakening, Chopin develops a beautiful and somewhat detailed description of “Grand Isle,” which serves as the delightful and devastating environment in which one side of Edna Pontellier is washed away as her other side is set free. One of the most important parts of Edna’s environment, namely, the sea, serves in the complicated role of being her seducer, washer, killer and liberator. Without the Gulf Edna would have never woken up out her unique bondage, through the water and out the other side into a new freedom. Consider the complex and essential role the sea plays in Edna’s awakening.
The beach and the ocean serve as the place of shared amusement between Robert and Edna. Edna first appears in the story arriving home from the beach with Robert, having left her symbol of marriage, her wedding ring, at home. These two companions have shared, if not an inside joke, an inside experience, “some adventure out there in the water,” causing both to laugh at its recollection while leaving Mr. Pontellier “yawn[ing] and stretch[ing] himself”(Chopin 45). Note that this walk home is also the first appearance of the beach in the story, the place where the level of affection shared between Robert and Edna, if not beginning here, continues to grow. This first appearance of the sea serves as the foundational place in which Edna’s awakening begins, continues and ends.
Seduction occurs at several times in different forms to a number of characters. However, Edna’s seduction can be most clearly perceived in the role of the sea, using at least four of her senses in calling her, embracing her and eventually pulling her in. The sea’s seductive powers are first hinted at as the soft south wind reaches the relaxed but talkative Edna and Madame Ratignolle, “charged with the seductive odor of the sea” (Chopin 56). Edna’s sense of smell is important here as she receives this faint invitation, this hint of stronger, inescapable invitations to come, invitations to come to the sea in the fullest sense of the phrase.
Edna’s sense of sight is mentioned when her sense of hearing the sea’s call is first discussed, “her glance wander[ing] from [Robert’s] face away toward the Gulf, whose sonorous murmur reached her like a loving but imperative entreaty” (Chopin 56). Here, the invitation becomes a bit clearer. Perhaps the clearest picture of the sea’s seductive invitation comes with the narrator’s description of “the voice of the sea [being] 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” (Chopin 57). The last sense mentioned in this description of the sea’s seductive power is the sense of touch, “the touch of the sea [being] sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace” (Chopin 57). Throughout the story Edna continually goes to the beach, each time using all four of the previously mentioned senses. This is to say that it would be difficult if not impossible to go to the beach into the water and not see, hear, smell or touch it. The sea continually evokes these senses, thereby continually seducing Edna to wake up and come to it.
The waves of the Gulf slowly washed away Edna’s “outward existence which conforms” and cleansed and encouraged her “inward life which questions” (Chopin 57). Trip after trip, wave after wave, the tendency to conform disappears as the tendency to question, to imagine appears increasingly clearer. Notice the importance of the place in which this washing occurs. It was “that summer at Grand Isle she began to loosen a little the mantle of reserve that had always enveloped her” (Chopin 57). This somewhat violent washing and loosening involved a complex of emotions within Edna which arose in her from the effect of the waves of the sea. “She saw no pictures of solitude, of hope, of longing, or of despair. But the very passions themselves were aroused within her soul, slaying it, lashing it, as the waves daily beat upon her splendid body” (Chopin 71-2). More is happening during these daily trips to the beach than the simple wetting of a body. The ocean is the primary means by which the body, mind and spirit of Edna are slowly washed, slowly changed from one state to another, from physical life to physical death, from a spiritual death to a new spiritual life and from bondage to freedom. One instance of Edna’s increasing freedom can be seen in her experience of learning to swim in the ocean, “like a tottering, stumbling, clutching child, who of a sudden realizes its powers, and walks for the first time alone, boldly and with over-confidence” (Chopin 73). One can imagine the sense of freedom a child has upon learning to walk. Learning to walk allows a child to experience more of the land. Learning to swim allows Edna to experience more of the sea. Edna’s last washing occurs just before her apparent death as “the foamy wavelets curled up to her white feet and coiled like serpents about her ankles” (Chopin 175-6). She walks into the water and it “enfold[s] [her] body in its soft, close embrace” (Chopin 176).
Here, in the last scene, the sea is completely realized in its’ role as both killer and liberator. Physically, I assume Edna dies by drowning in the sea. Spiritually, Edna has reached the climax of her slowly produced awakening. The complex role of the sea is apparent from the beginning of the story as it first invites Edna to its embrace, to the end where it embraces her one last time therein completing the process of Edna’s awakening, making it impossible for her to live a life of submissive sleep any more.