The contrast between an urban and a tropical setting represents the awakening that the protagonist experiences in Kate Chopin’s classic novel, The Awakening. At Grand Isle Edna becomes conscious of her restrictive marriage in a male dominated society. Her awakening originates with her experiences at Grand Isle but fully develops upon her return to the city, where she completes her transformation from her roles as wife and mother to an independent woman.
The setting at the beginning of the novel is the Grand Isle, a popular Creole island resort. The reader first sees Edna returning from the beach, with the sea disappearing on the horizon, and the mood of a lazy summer day permeating the scene. This idyllic environment is soon interrupted by her husband Leonce’s characteristically stuffy and disapproving reaction to his wife’s activities: “You are burnt beyond recognition” (7). Leonce views his wife as a “valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage” (7). Swimming at mid-day, Edna has endangered her respectability in a society where women may be judged by the color of their complexion. Yet Edna does not seem ruffled by society’s expectations or by her husband’s callous remark. Instead she focuses on the summer warmth, her companion, Robert Lebrun, and swimming, where she is free both physically and emotionally. Edna’s habit of removing her wedding rings before entering the water underscores and symbolizes her temporary escape from the ties of matrimony and the bonds of convention.
While vacationing at Grand Isle, Edna is surrounded by mother-women “who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels” (16). Unlike these women, Edna does not wish to submerge her own identity and freedom in her role as a wife and mother. At one point, her husband claims that she is a negligent and irresponsible mother and orders Edna to tend to their sick child, believing this duty to be a “mother’s place.” Uncharacteristically, Edna appears bewildered and distraught after her husband’s outburst. “An indescribable oppression, which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar part of her consciousness, filled her whole being with a vague anguish” (14). She begins to suspect that a deeper relationship is possible between a man and a woman, more fulfilling than what she has known. Her dissatisfaction with her own marriage hits her with full force.
Edna’s self-discovery is driven by the “voice of the sea” which is “seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude” (25). When she is swimming in the sea, Edna is aware of an intense cleansing and renewing which allows her to find the vast solitude that is within her. When at last she learns to swim on her own, Edna yearns to “swim far out, where no woman had swum before” (47). She yearns for greater freedom in a world which she both loves and fears. Her new awakened state leads her to face her husband directly, as an equal. Having shed the persona of lady-wife, she tells her husband, “Don’t wait for me,” while he expects her to accompany him to bed. Her husband is surprised and disturbed by his wife’s newly found independence. Furthermore, Edna’s courage in defying her husband does not fade with the tropical morning light when she awakens to discover a new sense of self: “She was blindly following . . . alien hands . . . [which] freed her soul of responsibility” (55). Separated form her normal day-to-day self in the city, Edna is lead into a new land of discovery on the exotic Creole island.
As the influences of Grand Isle allow her release from the conventions of society, Edna makes a full declaration of female independence, stating that “she would never sacrifice herself for her children, or for anyone” (79). She refuses to dedicate her life to a role that she does not fashion, define, or fulfill. Demanding respect and accepting responsibility for herself, she rebels against a woman’s living vicariously through the lives of her husband and children, as the women of the Grand Isle have chosen to do.
Upon her return from Grand Isle, Edna is determined to complete her awakening in New Orleans. The setting of the novel changes to the faster-paced city life, and the more desperate mood of the novel reflects this abrupt change as well. It is clearly evident that Edna is no longer interested in her past routine of social gatherings and dinners to keep up appearances. As Edna’s character development continues, she finds herself at odds with her husband, and becomes increasingly distressed by her oppressive marriage. In an attempt to challenge her husband’s authority, Edna refuses to attend a Tuesday social gathering at her home. The reason for her intentional absence can be attributed to Edna’s sudden disdain for her wifely duties, viewing them as a representation of her husband’s values. Eventually Edna relocates to another residence that she rents while Leonce is in New York “without even waiting for an answer from her husband regarding his opinion or wishes in the matter” (141). This action completes Edna’s breaking away from her marriage.
The urban environment of New Orleans provides Edna with other relationships which reinforce her break with her restrictive home life. She associates more frequently with Mademoiselle Reisz and Alcee Arobin who are on the fringe of Creole society and are portrayed as outcasts. Edna respects Mademoiselle Reisz who is unmarried and free from marital and social responsibility. The two develop an understanding that enables Edna to understand her true emotions for Robert. Reisz is an attentive listener who does not judge Edna as others would do. This relationship represents progress for Edna, who becomes more confident in her new outlook on life. In Alcee Arobin, Edna tests her newfound freedom by stepping outside the boundaries of marriage. Arobin’s flattering comments and obedience to her make Edna feel in control of the relationship. Her relations with Arobin in the exciting city lifestyle of New Orleans prepare Edna for Robert’s eventual return.
Symbolism is a common element in explaining Edna’s emotions at both Grand Isle and New Orleans. Many of the symbols found in the tropical setting are repeated in Edna’s vastly different life in the city. One recurring image that is described both in Grand Isle and in New Orleans is that of gambling. Previously, Edna had associated this recreation with men and their clubs. However, following her transformation, “the fever of the game…got into her blood and into her brain like an intoxicant” (124). As Edna continues to separate herself from the traditional roles of women in her time, Chopin distinguishes the main character from those around her through the use of symbolism. At her dinner party, Edna reigns as the confident, self-assured hostess, described by the author as a jeweled goddess emerging from the sea. “Venus rising from the foam could have presented no more entrancing a spectacle than Mrs. Pontellier, blazing with beauty and diamonds at the head of the board” (186).
Kate Chopin’s utilization of the setting in The Awakening is essential to the character development of Edna as she escapes the restrictions of Creole society to become an independent woman. Symbols and images are mirrored and intertwined in the two settings. This repetitive pattern underscores and expands the reader’s understanding of Edna’s enlightenment. But in fact, the most dramatic change in the novel occurs during the transition from Grand Isle to New Orleans. In this story, Chopin’s use of setting proves to be an effective complement to her vivid imagery throughout the novel, and to the symbolism of renewal and rediscovery.