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The Awakening Essay, Research Paper

The Awakening




Chopin, Kate, “Works Of Kate Chopin,: The Plot And Themes

Of “The Awakening,” pub. 1963, Bureau Development

Inc., Parsippany, NJ., pp. 8, pp. 11

Chopin, Kate, “The Awakening,” pub. 1992 World Class

Library, Novato, California, Preface.

Thorton, Lawrence, “Edna As Icarus: A Mythic Issue,”

Approaches To Teaching Chopin’s “The Awakening”

(ed.) Bernard Koloski, New York: MLA 1988, pp. 138

Peters, James N., Kay, Pat R., Evans, Steven B., Rogers,

Z., Thomas, “A Compendium Of Themes And Works

of American Literary Authors,” pub. 1993, World

Class Library, Novato, Cal. pp. 39

When Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening” was published at the

end of the 19th Century, many reviewers took issue with what they

perceived to be the author’s defiance of Victorian proprieties,

but it is this very defiance with which has been responsible for

the revival in the interest of the novel today. This factor is

borne out by Chopin’s own words throughout her Preface — where

she indicates that women were not recipients of equal treatment.

(Chopin, Preface ) Edna takes her own life at the book’s end, not

because of remorse over having committed adultery but because she

can no longer struggle against the social conventions which deny

her fulfillment as a person and as a woman. Like Kate Chopin

herself, Edna is an artist and a woman of sensitivity who

believes that her identity as a woman involves more than being a

wife and mother. It is this very type of independent thinking

which was viewed as heretical in a society which sought to deny

women any meaningful participation.

The fact that Edna is an artist is significant, insofar

as it allows her to have a sensibility as developed as the

author’s. Furthermore, Edna is able to find in Mlle. Reisz, who

has established herself as a musician, a role model who inspires

her in her efforts at independence. Mlle. Reisz, in confiding to

Edna that “You are the only one worth playing for,” gives

evidence of the common bond which the two of them feel as women

whose sensibilities are significantly different from those of the

common herd.

The French heritage which Edna absorbed through her

Creole upbringing allowed her, like Kate Chopin herself, to have

knowledge or a way of life that represented a challenge to

dominant Victorian conventions. In Creole society, women are

dominated by men, but at least the freer attitude toward

sexuality allows a woman opportunities for romance which are

lacking in Anglo-Saxon culture. But sexual freedom is of little

interest to Edna unless it can be used as a means of asserting

her overall freedom as a human being. Learning to swim is thus

important to her, because it allows her to have more control over

the circumstances of her own life through the overcoming of the

dread of water and the fear of death which it symbolizes. Again,

the process through which Edna attains liberation and, in the

author’s words, begins to “do as she likes and to feel as she

likes,” is a gradual one. From statements such as “women who

idolized their children, worshipped their husbands, and esteemed

it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow

wings as ministering angels,” it should be obvious why “The

Awakening” was viewed by some critics of the day as offensive to

prevailing conventions and mores. When Edna finally resolved to

end her life it is not because she has been rejected by Robert

but because she can no longer lead the type authentic life which

to her is the only life worth living, and this is the result of

the denial of equal rights to women by the society of that day.

Chopin has clearly taken care to anticipate criticisms that her

suicide would leave the children motherless by having her

recently visit the children to find that they really had no need

of her and are perfectly content with the grandmother. In having

Edna reflect that “she would never sacrifice herself for her

children,” Chopin was not arguing so much in defense of selfish-

ness as against the view that a mother could be expected to deny

her own freedom for the sake the children in a manner that was

not expected of the father. Thus, women’s struggle is synonymous

with Edna’s suicide as well as the events leading up to it.

Edna plays a significant role in this story. Overall, I

personally construed K. Chopin’s novel as a repudiation of

prevailing mores which govern women’s behavior during that period

in time. Edna was an outsider. She did not comprehend that the

personal freedoms she saw all about her were well defined within

a construct of old established social conventions, and that not

one of the old Grand Islanders would have approved of anyone

crossing the lines between acceptable behavior and reprehensible.

One flirted, even dangerously, but one never consummated these

relationships. Certainly, if one did act on the impulse of a

women’s passion, it never involved the deeper emotions such as

love. By definition of her very character, K. Chopin sets Edna

up for a fall. It is not immediately recognizable by most that

this “fall” would eventually lead to her suicide. Nevertheless,

this ultimate act suicide, is also tantamount with society’s

ultimate taboo. Indeed, readers and society of the time (and

even today) had to take note of those variables which contributed

to this ultimate and very terrible and final demise. At Grand

Isle it was perfectly acceptable for a bachelor to fawn upon a

married lady, to fetch her scarf, to accompany her home to her

porch and sit with her in the moonlight, so long as everyone knew

that it would go no further. It was almost as if the husband had

granted his permission for his wife to be admired and paid

attention to by the other man, who did not possess a wife of his

own. It was also a kind of superior position for the husband,

who, unspokenly had ultimate usufruct of the creature, an

intimacy to which the poor bachelor could not attain. The ladies

of Grand Isle had all made peace with their defined roles in

life. They were the mother – women, such as Madame Ratignolle,

nurturing of their children, doting on their husbands’ needs.

There were the widows and the single women, all of whom had

structured acceptable lives for themselves, Madame Le Burn with

the management of her summer resort, Mademoiselle Reisz life was

devoted to the piano and to the world of music. Madame

Ratignolle devoted herself only to running her household and

being the wife of her husband.

Edna had no brothers, and a stern and preoccupied

father. There had been no sibling closeness with her two

sisters, in fact, she had never revealed the inner Edna to any

living soul. Her life with her husband was one of surfaces and

duties performed, and on her part not with much relish, both in

bed and out.

The author, Kate Chopin, provides countless clues that

Edna is about to take her own life…or at least, will, sometime

in the future. For example, she underscores the importance of

one’s own identity. Edna says that although she would give her

life for her children, she will not give herself. Adele, of

course, is shocked by this blasphemy and probably doesn’t even

understand what Edna is talking about, but Edna knows what she

was saying. Children, for Edna, are a constant pulling on her

own selfhood. To give herself up to her children means losing

herself. This, she says, she cannot do. She is willing to

sacrifice everything in order to be a person herself, and not

just an appendage, no matter how ornamental.

Robert LeBurn’s teasing tantalizes Edna. She beings to

be very aware of his person, to miss him when he is away, and is

devastated when he finally goes to Mexico, as he has promised to

do for a long time. She becomes more infatuated with Robert but

allows herself to be seduced by Alcee Arboin. When she realizes

that, perhaps, what she was pretending was a grand passion for

Robert was only a sexual desire that can be satisfied by Alcee,

she begins to understand her own nature, and the danger of

passion. She says, at one point, that she married her husband

because she knew that passion would not intrude and spoil the

gentle affection she feels for him. Edna has always regarded

passion as dangerous, even before her marriage to Leonce. She

must have had some understanding of her susceptibility even as a

girl. Edna pays for her passion with her life. (Chopin, pp. 8)

To a large extent, “The Awakening” may well be equated with

escape in Edna’s mind. Similarly, and at this juncture, I should

like to interject that there appears to be much in the way of an

auto biographical theme and content within Ms. Chopin’s

prevailing society. There is great importance placed on one’s

own identity, as I have previously alluded to.

Kate Chopin calls her novel “The Awakening”…which

reflects an inherent danger. “The Awakening,” even though she

had chosen another name for it at first e.g. “A Solitary Soul;”

this original title had the theme of alienation, difference from

others, and anguish. The title was changed to “The Awakening,”

but the themes remained. Once Edna becomes aware of certain

things in herself that she would have liked, perhaps, to have

kept repressed, she can no longer continue living the life she

did before. There is danger in waking up. There is danger in

being alienated from others, in being different. It is far safer

to be like everyone else. Edna, now fully awake, can no longer

go back to sleep. (Chopin, pp. 11)

In “Edna And Icarus: A Mythic Issue,” 1. Lawrence

Thornton joins other myth-critics of “The Awakening” by likening

Edna Pontillier’s condition in Chopin’s novel to that of Icarus.

Another, more female centered myth that might shed light on the

causes of Edna’s internal struggle and suicide is that of

Philomela, since an embedded allusion to “Philomela’s cooking”

occurs immediately before Edna’s suicide. By itself, this

allusion might seem quite arbitrary; however, there are other

psychological indicators in the novel that Edna, like Philomela

may have been either the victim of or witness to sexual

violation. While there is no direct evidence of such a violation

in “The Awakening,” there are clues throughout Chopin’s novel

that Edna may not only be awakening to her sexual identity in an

oppressive, patriarchal society, but may also be grappling, like

La Folle in “Beyond The Bayou, with a repressed post-traumatic

memory. This memory may at least be partially responsible for

her extreme mood changes, boundary problems and suicide.

Analogous to Philomela who cannot initially voice her violation

by Tereus because he has removed her tongue, Edna is described as

having “all her life long been accustomed to harbor thoughts and

emotions which never voiced themselves.” We are told that Edna,

“even as a child, had lived her own small life within herself.”

While one could argue she was just shy or introverted, Edna’s

sweeping passion later in the novel suggests the introversion may

have been imposed. Years after she marries Leonce Pontillier, a

Creole Catholic, in defiance of her family’s wishes, Edna’s

marriage sours. As she weeps uncontrollably the first time

Leonce rebukes her for being an unattentive mother, the “every

lasting voice of the sea” that surrounds the Pontillier’s cottage

is described as “a mournful lullaby,” suggesting that something

lost in childhood is being mourned. Yet, Edna could not have

told why she was crying. On the same page, Chopin describes Edna

as suffering from “an indescribable oppression,” which seemed to

generate in some unfamiliar part of her consciousness, filling

her whole being with a vague English, an English that will

reoccur throughout the novel. Another rebuke by Leonce is where

we find Edna smashing a glass vase. The narrator tells us Edna

“wanted to destroy something.” While the anxiety and marriage

might be directed at Leonce, the recurrence of Edna’s mood swings

throughout the novel – even after she has left Leonce’s cage of a

home – suggests that the protagonist is trying to block something

more than just her realization that she is unhappy in her present

marriage. (Thorton, pp. 138)

Chopin provides ample symbols for the purpose of

signaling Edna’s ultimate suicide. Symbolically, I believe these

might best be characterized by the deficiencies and

incompatibilities with Edna’s society around her, her

responsibilities, and her own longing to break out into the world

which she has come to awaken to.

Another clue to Edna’s ultimate and eventual demise has

to do with the increased tension between Edna and Robert. She

finds Robert to be aloof and suspects that he is involved with

another woman. Edna becomes filled with jealousy…even enraged.

However, she keeps this to herself. Another signal that Edna is

about to explode, at some point in time. The ultimate conclusion

or perspective regarding what is largely considered auto

biographical, is succinctly reflected in the life and death of

Edna. (Peters, et. al, pp. 39)

One question which I have had to ask myself, throughout

the reading of this story is as follows. I strongly suspect, and

I believe that my feelings are strongly in accord with most

critics of this book, and this has to do with the relationship

between Edna and the author. I feel that this is largely auto

biographical, as revealed through the review of the literature.

The question I would raise is — Would a woman (or male for that

matter) (individual) resort to suicide under conditions which

were highly restrictive and painful. Indeed, many other people

throughout the world, and I would venture to say even within

Edna’s society might have well been experiencing the same type of

(or even different) suffering to a higher degree. Yet, they did

not resort to suicide.

Similarly, Edna is portrayed as something of the

protagonist, or the heroine. She dares to rebel against

prevailing society, and even the very title of the book, as named

by Kate Chopin, “The Awakening” is analogous to danger. Is the

truth then so dangerous and horrific that one risks suicide? And

if so, is this applicable to everyone? Similarly I would ask the

question, if this were to be the case, or if even not, why is

that most of the population is not committing suicide? Surely

they are living lives which they would not prefer, for example,

most people according to polls would not report their job unless

they had to and were paid for it. Most marriages end in divorce.

Indeed, the degree and level of suffering and pain throughout the

populace is almost unfathomable. Perhaps, Ms. Chopin was living

out a vicarious reality through Edna in committing suicide…and

perhaps, this may be the underlying reason for the great

reception which this novel has enjoyed…as well as staying

power. Similarly, it has also been appointed a kind of jewel of

the vanguard of women’s rights. Indeed, “The Awakening” is one

novel which exemplifies the attempt — even realization — of

American womanhood’s escape from personal and domestic bondage.


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