She felt as if a mist had been lifted from her eyes, enabling her to look upon and comprehend the significance of life, that monster made up of beauty and brutality. But among the conflicting sensations which assailed her, there was neither shame nor remorse. – Kate Chopin, The Awakening
Thirty years before D.H. Lawrence published his banned book Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Kate Chopin was banned for writing a more subtle version of the shades of oppression, suppression and repression. In Chopin’s tale, Edna Pontellier belongs to a different age which presents its own complications and fetters, but the story, set in the Creole society of New Orleans, of being a free soul capable of and longing for true meaning is essentially the same.
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 the unattainable. (9)
Chopin uses the sea, “the voice of the sea,” to describe the yearning in Edna for something to “speak to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.” By learning how to swim, and “reaching out for the unlimited in which to lose herself,” the indescribable aspects of what it is like to be bound to a life that is not really your own are clearly felt.
Mr. Pontellier had been a rather courteous husband so long as he met a certain tacit submissiveness in his wife. (63)
Naturally as Edna emerges from the fog of her sleep she is accused of losing her mind:
It sometimes entered Mr. Pontellier’s mind to wonder if his wife were not growing a little unbalanced mentally. He could see plainly that she was not herself. That is, he could not see that she was becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world. (64)
Edna’s soul is crying out to her, but she has no frame of reference with which to understand herself. She is already deeply in love with Robert before she is even aware of it. A few of her friends understand what is happening, but it is Mademoiselle Reisz who understands the true depth, “Courageous, ma foi! The brave soul. The soul that dares and defies.” (71)
Mademoiselle Reisz is an independent woman, but here we can see that mere independence is not the point of life, or anything else worth considering. It is a means, not an end. It is rather connection, it is this idea that Lawrence would so fervently argue for a few decades later. But Mlle. Reisz knows the price that this sort of thinking can lead to:
[she] felt my shoulder blades, to see if my wings were strong, she said. “The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth.”(92)
Music, through Mlle. Reisz, is also an instrument for loosening the tethers constricting Edna. Music can momentarily transport and satisfy your soul. But that brings me to a question I kept asking myself- I don’t think music transport every soul, nor do I think the sea or the heavy evening air affects many people to the degree it moves Edna, and I wonder why that is. Why does her soul ache to the degree it does? Other people seem content to live lives of parlor parties and picnics. Is it the insidiousness of her servitude to her husband? Is it her status as an outsider, both as a non-Creole in her society, and as a woman that traditionally is always the outsider into the husband’s family and name? Or is it that she falls in love? That she feels the purity of a true human connection?
“Good-by – because, I love you.” He did not know, he did not understand. He would never understand. (128)
Robert’s abandonment of her, particularly in the state (emotionally, mentally and physically) that she is in, is devastating. Life is complicated, but what Robert does not understand is that Love is not. That he chooses to leave her speaks volumes as to the true depth of his feeling. Edna does not experience the sensation of “choice.” True love is unconquerable and all-conquering. It is its quality of simplicity, in fact, that signifies its veracity.
All that is left for Edna, given the age in which she lives, is the open sea.
*Ma foi! – My faith!