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A Note on Kate Chopin's The Awakening as Naturalistic Fiction
Kate Chopin's The Awakening has become, over the last forty years, one of the most thoroughly examined novels in the American canon. In recent decades in particular, as evidenced by the character of the essays collected by Wendy Martin in New Essays on The Awakening and by Nancy Walker in her Bedford Books edition of the novel, it has increasingly been subjected to the heavy artillery of theoretical and cultural analyses. I wish, in this brief essay, to suggest the need in any account of the work to keep to the forefront what I will call its "plain meaning"--that is, the central and powerfully depicted themes which arise out of the relationship of the novel to literary naturalism, the principal innovative movement in American fiction of the 1890s. 1 Like her near-contemporary Edith Wharton, Chopin was deeply responsive during the period just prior to her undertaking a literary career to the major new ideas and fiction of her time, reading fully in Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, and the French naturalists (Seyersted 49, 85). And although she never set her fiction within the brutish and sordid urban working class world of Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, McTeague, or Sister Carrie, she did seek within her own milieu of middle-class Creole life to dramatize, as did Crane, Norris, and Dreiser, the limitations placed on the human will by the biological and social realities within which the will attempts to find its way.
As has often been noted, The Awakening divides (except for its brief coda) into two significantly juxtaposed parts: an initial section in Grand Isle, in which Edna awakens from her earlier death-in-life existence as a middle-class Creole wife and mother, and a following section in New [End Page 5] Orleans, where she attempts to translate her rebirth into the actualities of her life. In Grand Isle, both nature and society appear to endorse the process of self-transformation she will fully undertake in New Orleans. The sea, as the context for the liberating freedom and sensuality Edna finds in the act of swimming, both "speaks to the soul" and "enfolds the body in its soft, close embrace" (15)--images of rapport between nature and Edna's burgeoning sense of self. The social climate of the Grand Isle summer colony appears to complement the symbolic implication of the sea that Edna can forge a new identity out of her awakening. Mr. Pontellier is absent most of the week; the relaxed social code of a summer resort permits easy associations and movement; and in Mademoiselle Reisz's passionate artistry at the piano and Robert Lebrun's increasing interest in her she find instances of the liberating emotional intensity of art and love and thus the possibility of using them as vehicles for the confirmation of her personal identity. In short, Edna has awakened not only to the truth of her own stifled selfhood but also to the seeming possibility of finding expressive means for discovering and affirming who she is in the natural and social worlds she inhabits.
But even at Grand Isle, an apparently ideal matrix for Edna's act of redefinition of her identity, her natural and social worlds also send clear messages, ignored by her at this time, that she will find her efforts to establish a fully independent and self-expressive life circumscribed and eventually thwarted by the conditions in which she must live. Edna's friend and confidant, Adèle Ratignolle, is clearly a foil to Edna in that she glories in the role of "mother-woman" (10). Despite Edna's rejection of this role, the irrefutable similarity between the two figures is that they are both women and mothers--that though Edna may reject (to briefly adopt the proper critical jargon) the socially-constructed role of a mother's total absorption in her children, she has not escaped the biologically essentialist act of...