There’ve been migraines, grad school rejections, complete, maniacal boredom, a complete overload of CSS and an ophthalmological breakdown as a result, but I am still ploughing on with The Awakening. I feel a little silly making such a big deal on what is, from a superficial perspective, a rather easy read. I wish I truly felt liberated in my unemployment to simply enjoy the luxury of going to a cafe everyday and reading. Alas, some sort of mental fixation or inner demon pops up.
Today I read at home, on my aqua sofa with the last of my banana chocolate walnut muffins and tea.
I love the way the beginning of the story sets up such a richly interwoven sub-layer of tensions. In the idyllic world of Grand Isle, there’s so much beneath the surface, and this is somehow echoed through the powerful presence of the sea. In one of the earlier passages, Chopin writes:
“Edna Pontellier, casting her eyes about, had finally kept them at rest upon the sea. The day was clear and carried the gaze out as far as the blue sky went; there were a few white clouds suspended idly over the horizon.”
Although the sea isn’t an obvious metaphor or presence in Chopin’s story-telling, there is the powerful scene towards the end of the Pontellier’s time at Grand Isle, when Edna masters swimming. Even from a detached, purely conceptual point of view, this is very symbolic. For a woman to learn to swim at that time may not have been a big deal in itself, but it somehow seems like a gesture of independence, of breaking free from the stiff formality of everyday dress and protocol. In the context of Edna’s “awakening,” though, this act takes on added meaning:
“.. that night she was like the little tottering, stumbling, clutching child, who of a sudden realizes its powers, and walks for the first time alone, boldly and with over-confidence. She could have shouted for joy. She did shout for joy, as with a sweeping stroke or two she lifted her body to the surface of the water…
“… she grew daring and reckless, overestimating her strength. She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before.”
In light of Edna’s move out of her husband’s home much later on, this reference to swimming and branching out seems especially potent. I also just realized that she feels the desire to swim out further than any woman, particularly, had swum out. This evokes our empathy or realization of Edna’s yearning to experience more soul, more feeling, perhaps that the average woman settles for. [apart from conjuring up a vision of early-2oth century Edna exploring the universe along side Jean Luc Picard, that is.]
If Edna’s experience in the water was one of the earlier “moments” in her awakening, then her dinner party, her “coup d’ etat,” as Arobin called it, was perhaps another. The sheer extravagance and resplendence of that dinner party seemed to be calling for attention. The diamonds in Edna’s hair kind of really take the cake. The amount of time Chopin spends describing the affair, the physical layout the, elements which make it rich and luxurious, really points to the significance of this scene:
“There was something extremely gorgeous about the appearance of the table, an effect of splendor conveyed by a cover of pale yellow satin under strips of lace-work. There were wax candles in massive brass candelabra, burning softly under yellow silk shades; full, fragrant roses, yellow and red, abounded. There were silver and gold, as she had said there would be, and crystal which glittered like the gems which the women wore.”
It’s such a contrast to the way we first meet Edna. It almost seems like a celebration of her “awakening,” some sort of pinnacle towards which the book has been heading. All the tensions of inner drama vs. outer silence have been released, and there she sits, bedecked in diamonds, the queen of the night:
“…magnificent cluster of diamonds that sparkled, that almost sputtered, in Edna’s hair, just over the centre of her forehead.”
The rhythm and feeling of things in the volume sort of change, as they often do in life, after such high-points. Edna herself couldn’t put it better when she says later that night to Arobin [who seems to me, so far, a little like the extra air that Edna must simply blow out of her, and also a little pretentious and annoying] after she’d moved into the new house:
“I feel as if I had been wound up to a certain pitch – too tight – and something inside of me had snapped.”