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The Awakening

The Awakening

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Published by lama_fier

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Published by: lama_fier on Dec 10, 2009
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Romanticism, Realism, Naturalism, and Local Color The Literary Context of 
The Awakening 
Four major literary movements can claim some aspect of 
The Awakening 
, for in this "small compass . . . [is illustrated] virtually all the major Americanintellectual and literary trends of the nineteenth century" (Skaggs, 80).
The Romantic movement marked a profound shift in sensibilities away fromthe Enlightenment. It was inspired by reaction to that period's concepts of clarity, order, and balance, and by the revolutions in America, France, Poland,and Greece. It expressed the assertion of the self, the power of the individual,a sense of the infinite, and transcendental nature of the universe. Major themes included the sublime, terror, and passion. The writing extolled theprimal power of nature and the spiritual link between nature and man, andwas often emotional, marked by a sense of liberty, filled with dreamy inner contemplations, exotic settings, memories of childhood, scenes of unrequitedlove, and exiled heroes.
In America, Romanticism coalesced into a distinctly "American" ideal: makingsuccess from failure, the immensity of the American landscape, the power of man to conquer the land, and "Yankee" individualism. The writing was alsomarked by a type of xenophobia. Protestant America was faced with an influxof Catholic refugees from the Napoleonic Wars, of Asian workers whoconstructed the railroads, and the lingering issue of Native Americans. Aninsular attitude developed, the "us and them" in Whitman. The major writers of the period were Irving, Cooper, Emerson, Poe, Thoreau, Hawthorne,Whitman, Dickinson, and Melville.
There are various romantic elements in
The Awakening 
. Perhaps the mostobvious and elemental are the exotic locale, use of color, and heavyemphasis on nature (click here). The overriding romantic theme in the novel isEdna's search for individuality and freedom: freedom to decide what to be,how to think, and how to live. This search amounts to her own romantic questfor a holy grail, a grail of self-definition. In the process two classic motifs of theRomantic movement occur: rebellion against society and death. Ringe pointsout that Edna lies between two extremes in life and is completely alone in theuniverse(204-05): a condition that is a hallmark of romanticism. As are theother prototypical romantic elements of the text: frequent inner thoughts,memories of childhood, the personified sea and its sensuous call, the fantastictalking birds, the mysterious woman in black, the romantic music playingalmost constantly in the background, the dinner party, the gulf spirit, and thedesire to express herself through art.
Realism developed as a reaction against Romanticism and stressed the realover the fantastic. The movement sought to treat the commonplace truthfullyand used characters from everyday life. Writers probed the recesses of thehuman mind via an exploration of the emotional landscape of characters. Thisemphasis was brought on by societal changes sparked by
The Origin of Species
by Darwin, the Higher Criticism of the Bible, and the aftermath of theCivil War. A deeper, more pessimistic, literary movement called Naturalism
grew out of Realism and stressed the uncaring aspect of nature and thegenetic, biological destiny of man. Naturalists believed that man's instinctual,basic drives dominated their actions and could not be evaded. Life wasviewed as relentless, without a caring presence to intervene. Twain, Crane,London, Norris, Howells, James, and Dreiser were the major writers of thismovement.
The aspect of naturalism most evident in
The Awakening 
is the portrayal of Edna as hostage to her biology. She is female, has children, and is a wife in asociety that dictates behavioral norms based on those conditions. Thesefactors drive the novel and drive Edna. She makes "no attempt to suppressher amatory impulses" (Seyersted/Culley, 180), she bases her decisions onthe welfare of her children, and she is in her difficult situation because of themen in her life: father, husband, lover, and would-be-lover. The inheritedbiological aspect continues with the idea that her character traits may havebeen tainted by bad stock. The novel is also true to the real life aspects of Realism and Naturalism in its forthright dealing with sexual matters: Arobin'sseduction, the hot kisses she gives to Robert, Leonce's allusion that they nolonger sleep together, the naked man on the rock. This type of descriptionwas actually advanced for both movements; Chopin provided a more detailedand full range of sexual emotions and activities than most other Americannovelists had. (Seyersted/ Culley, 181). The relationship between men andwomen and the economic aspects that go along with that issue are alsorealistic. Edna is "owned" at various points in the novel by her father,husband, Arobin, and Robert. Victor speaks of women in terms of possession,and Leonce is shown to class her as property, and to see her as a symbol of his social status. Edna herself remarks that as she moves into the pigeonhouse she feels she is lower on the social rank. Another naturalistic elementin the novel is the portrayal of Edna as a victim of fate, chance, of an uncaringworld, pulled into a consuming, but indifferent sea. In the end, despite her developments into selfhood, the only escape from her biological destiny as awoman in society, possessed, sexual, and ruled, is death.
Local Color writers were an offshoot of the Realistic movement. They soughtto preserve a distinct way of life threatened by industrialization, immigration,the after effects of the War, and the changes in society. Their writingconcentrated upon rendering a convincing portrait of a particular region anddelving below the surface picture to reveal some universal aspect. A localcolor work "is one in which the identity of the setting is integral to the veryunfolding of the theme, rather than simply incidental to a theme that could aswell be set anywhere" (May, 195). Women local colorists were concerned withthe place of women in society and the moral designs called for in a life.Freemen, Stowe, Harris, Chesnutt, and Cable were all important localcolorists.
Local Color aspects of 
The Awakening 
include the characterizations of thepeople, the descriptions of places and fundamental meaning in the story, theCreole society and its social mores, and the aspects of women makingchoices that create a life. The characters are important to the plot, but also tothe feeling of place: Mlle. Reisz is a bad-tempered spinster, Arobin is a Don
Juan, the old men fussing in the boat and Mariequita are "typical" of the islandpeople, the woman in black is a "good Catholic Creole," and Adele is the"perfect" women. The settings of the story are integral with their meaning:New Orleans has to be a hothouse of societal rules, Grand Isle has to bedistant and isolated, Cheniere Caminada needs to be magical in order for thesymbolic aspects of each place to complement the story. The use of a foreignlanguage and the focus on Edna's decisions in life are also elements of localcolor. Perhaps the most essential element of the story, and the mostimportant reflection of local color, is the Creole society and its rules. Theserules allow Edna to flirt with Robert with Leonce present, while later, thesesame rules cause Robert to leave.
© Neal Wyatt (1995) [contact atnwyatt@leo.vsla.edu
Ways of Interpreting Edna's Suicide: What the Critics SayNeal Wyatt, Virginia Commonwealth University
There are many ways of looking at the suicide, and each offers a differentperspective. It is not necessary that you like the ending of the novel, but youshould come to understand it in relation to the story it ends. One way to cometo terms with her death is to construct a different ending. How would you haveended the story? What would you have Edna do? Would you have her reconcile with her husband? Have Robert stay with her and they be lovers?Have her divorce her husband and marry Robert? Have her move away fromNew Orleans and live alone? Have her do this, but with a chosen lover?These options are just some of the paths Edna could have followed.
Try to fit your ending into one of these categories: she can be with her lover (in any manner she wishes), she can be married (to a man of her choice), shecan live alone. Each of the first two hypothetical endings would betray thepoint of the novel. Edna does not awaken to sex. She is liberated and doesbecome a very sensual woman, but it is not to sexual expression that shewakens. Therefore, all options involving a lover fall short of fulfilling themeaning of her awakening. If she remains married or marries another, thiswould put her back (in terms of Webb)at the start of her circle: all the learningand struggling would be for naught. She would once again be a man'spossession. Before rejecting the idea that marriage is equivalent to ownershipin the world of the novel, remember how Robert speaks to her about their future together. He does not see her living an awakened life with him; he seesher leading the traditional life of a wife with him. The final option is the mostdifficult to reject. It would be nice to imagine her living and painting alone in asmall house somewhere far away from New Orleans. This is not a real option:to see why, think back to the text. Who lives their life this way in the novel?Mademoiselle Reisz does. Is that life shown to be exemplary? No, byportraying Mlle. Reisz in the way Chopin does, she is instructing the reader that Mademoiselle's life is not one to which Edna should aspire.

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