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  • Evolution, Narcissism, and Maladaptation in Kate Chopin's The Awakening
  • John Glendening

Like Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891), Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899) responds to Darwinian theory by applying it to individual human behavior within well-defined historical and cultural circumstances. A fraction the size of Hardy's novel, Chopin's text rivals it in the amount of information it conveys about the formation and dynamics of its protagonist's character. Understanding of the novel's evolutionary perspective discloses an extensive but largely consistent mixture of images, motifs, and themes that help explain Edna Pontillier's behavior and its natural and cultural antecedents. Chopin's novel deploys an array of Darwinian concerns in telling of a young woman's involvement with many internal and external forces that both motivate and frustrate her search for capable selfhood. What at first appears a fairly straightforward process of individuation reveals itself as an entanglement of factors in which both chance and determinism, reflecting the maladaptation, death, and extinction that accompany natural and sexual selection, unite with obstructive familial and cultural influences to mark Edna's attitudes and behavior, stifle her psychological development, and ultimately take her life.

Sandwiched between references to Edna's process of self-development and the seductive sound of the sea occurs the following observation: "the beginning of things, of a world especially, is necessarily vague, tangled, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing. How few of us ever emerge from such a beginning! How many souls perish in its tumult!"1 Here, in an assertion connected to other images of entanglement within the novel, Edna's experience reflects the oceanic origins of life itself, with recognition that the emergence of a new reality, especially in an unsympathetic natural or cultural environment, [End Page 41] is fraught with unpredictable complications and the likelihood of failure—as Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859) suggests regarding biological evolution.2 Edna's experience of self-discovery, "tangled" and chaotic and therefore "vague" or hard for her to comprehend, touches upon a core issue, found also in Tess, of individual variation and the uncertainty involved in its creation, expression, and consequences.3

Evolutionary theory, however, although it clarifies much about the constituents of Edna's individuality, does not adequately address the environmental and experiential shaping of her character or the story that ensues. Understanding the "nurture" dimension of the nature-nurture relationship—properly conceived as a complex of entangled factors rather than as binary oppositions—requires, in Edna's case, a psychological perspective that allows recognition of the narcissism stemming from her childhood circumstances.4 Attachment theory, developed by John Bowlby and others as an elaboration of both Darwinism and Freudianism, is particularly helpful in identifying and accounting for this maladaptive pattern of behavior. The argument that follows explicates Edna's awakening as a complex convergence of inherent and environmental factors: an individual nature innately imaginative, sensual, and nonconformist; the early death of her mother; a cold and puritanical father; her emotional unsuitability for motherhood; the incompatible claims on her of sexual selection and romantic love; a society generally ill-suited to her needs; and, uniting these determinants, an increasingly pathological narcissism that leads to her death.


Showing the influence of Darwinian theory on both sides of the Atlantic, the novels Tess of the D'Urbervilles and The Awakening—a pairing I occasionally will make for illustrative purposes—are more interested in the particular than the general, in individuals than groups. Works of fiction generally display this trait, but the stories of Tess and of Edna highlight the matter by taking into account the phenomenon of individual variation in natural and sexual selection. Variability is vital to Darwin since it is upon adaptive features arising as individual variations that selection operates, but finally he is more concerned with evolution, with the long-term changes to populations and species that random variation on the level of single organisms makes possible. Hardy's and Chopin's novels shift emphasis, concentrating on the other side of the individual/group divide, which pushes them toward pessimism. Darwin sometimes stresses the good that evolution seems to imply for species because they have successfully competed...


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