Throughout 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, Jane Smiley notes what seems an obsessive theme in novels, at least the novels of Europe and America in the 19th and early 20th centuries: What are we to do with women? Against that question she says Kate Chopin’s The Awakening is one of the first novels to address the counter-question: “Why is there a problem?”
Smiley says Chopin answers this question honestly with the actions of protagonist Edna Pontellier. Edna awakens to her sensuality to Eros and art, rejecting her bourgeois life — husband, family, entertaining, formal visiting — and, indeed, scandalizes her family and neighbors by moving out to a home of her own to pursue painting. At the same time, Edna yearns for two men, Alcee Arobin and, in particular, Robert Lebrun, whom she has fallen in love with, though that love is never erotically consummated.
As with several female protagonists in 19th century novels, who turn against bourgeois life — Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary — Edna makes the choice of self-sacrifice over losing the new life she has chosen for herself. Chopin, Smiley says, depicts Edna’s choice of suicide with sympathy, as if the decision were triumphant acceptance on Edna’s part of holding on, no matter what, to her awakening. Smiley writes, ” . . . Edna recognizes that once she has awakened, it is better to sacrifice her life than to sacrifice her new sense of herself.”
The last few paragraphs are lyrical as Edna swims out to sea. Chopin doesn’t exclude the sensuality she’s used throughout the novel, even during Edna’s last moments:
She felt like some new-born creature, opening its eyes in a familiar world that it had never known.
The foamy wavelets curled up to her white feet, and coiled like serpents about her ankles. She walked out. The water was chill, but she walked on. The water was deep, but she lifted her white body and reached out with a long, sweeping stroke. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.
As sensual as that passage is, there is foreboding, too, with the waves “coiled like serpents.” Edna’s Eden is going away, choked off by symbolic serpents. In the last paragraph, she experiences a moment of terror as she goes further and further out. While the decision to take her own life is a strong one, it is still suicide, the action of the fallen women of Tolstoy and Flaubert, women with whom we feel empathy, but not sympathy, at least that’s what the novelists want us to feel, and nothing more. Edna’s awakening, though triumphant, is still futile for its time. At another time, later in the 20th century, Edna may have found some other way to maintain her new sense of self. And yet, she may not have, as women still have to wonder, Why is there a problem?