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CIRCADIAN RHYTHMS AND REBELLION IN KATE CHOPIN'S THE AWAKENING Robert S. Levine* It is one of the curiosities of Kate Chopin's The Awakening that the "awakening" heroine does so much sleeping. Surely The Awakening is the "sleepiest" novel in the American literary canon.1 Descriptions abound of Edna Pontellier's fitful sleep, listlessness, occasional deep sleep, and oncoming exhaustion. Throughout the novel the reader remains acutely aware that Edna needs sleep and resists that need. Her resistance results in a reordering of sleep patterns that more often than not leaves her tired and dull-spirited. Though now and then achieving a satisfying sleep and consequent waking clarity, Edna generally traverses the thin line between waking and sleeping and seems lost in a dreamy fatigue.2 The increasing lassitude weighing on Edna's consciousness seems at odds with the parallel development of her awakening from being "a dupe to illusions."3 Critics who have commented on Edna's sleepiness have tended to be those sharply critical of her character. According to this group of commentators, Edna sleepwalks her way through the novel as an essentially passive and confused heroine. Her suicide is seen as the ultimate manifestation of such mental confusion. As the debunkers would have it, Edna, by the end of the novel, has experienced not a feminist awakening but a retreat into a self-absorbing dreamland.4 But this condemnatory interpretation of Edna's "sleepy" character founders on two points: it fails to take note of Edna's active participation in her sleep-wake disruptions, and it wrongly isolates the problem of Edna's sleepiness from the larger pattern of circadian rhythms, or rhythms of the day, described in the novel.5 A close study of this rhythmic pattern demonstrates the logical though tragic connection between Edna's sleep habits and her suicide and reveals the radical rebellious tendencies of her character. Edna's rebellion against the ordering patterns of both nature and community is the central drama of the novel. Though hints are offered retrospectively in the text that Edna has been experiencing some sort of inchoate "awakening" of passion and •Robert S. Levine is a Lecturer in English at Stanford University. He has published an article on Ormond in Early American Literature and is now working on a book entitled "Conspiracy Fears and the American Romance, 1789-1860." 72Robert S. Levine insight during her summer at Grand Isle, it is a disruption of sleep at the novel's opening that seemingly initiates the events culminating in her suicide. Returning from a night with his male friends at Klein's hotel, Mr. Pontellier disturbs Edna's regular sleep: "His entrance awoke his wife, who was in bed and fast asleep when he came in" (p. 885). After awaking her, he smugly chides her for not properly taking care of their children. His arrogance and, no doubt, Edna's emerging romantic feelings for Robert Lebrun lead to the first rebellious act portrayed in the novel: Edna goes outside to the wicker chair on the porch and begins "to rock gently to and fro" (p. 886). At this point Chopin establishes the strong associations present throughout the novel between rebellion and the sea: "It was then past midnight. The cottages were all dark. A single faint light gleamed out from the hallway of the house. There was no sound abroad except the hooting of an old owl in the top of a water-oak, and the everlasting voice of the sea, that was not uplifted at that soft hour. It broke like a mournful lullaby upon the night" (p. 886). Resisting sleep, Edna becomes open and receptive to the call of the "sea": passional, nonrational sources. The act of resistance paradoxically creates a passivity of consciousness that nurtures these internal stirrings. Edna's first resistance to sleep enlarges, by a ripple effect, to a more comprehensive rebellion against the regular circadian rhythms of her husband and, eventually, of her community. The next day Mr. Pontellier, the good citizen, arises early to take the rockaway to the steamer to his business in New Orleans while Edna remains fatigued. And when Mr. Pontellier the following week returns home late at...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-5806
Print ISSN
0091-8083
Pages
pp. 71-81
Launched on MUSE
2014-10-01
Open Access
No
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