A seldom discussed moment in Kate Chopin's The Awakening occurs when Edna Pontellier's father arrives for a visit and is sketched by his daughter:
Before her pencil he sat rigid and unflinching, as he had faced the
cannon's mouth in days gone by. He resented the intrusion of the children,
who gaped with wondering eyes at him, sitting so stiff up there in their
mother's bright atelier. When they drew near he motioned them away with an
expressive action of the foot, loath to disturb the fixed lines of his
countenance, his arms, or his rigid shoulders.(1)
The image agrees with the general portrayal of Edna's father--a striking man but vain and cold. Although Edna initially enjoys the new adult sensation that "for the first time in her life she felt as if she were thoroughly acquainted" with her father and is only "amused" that "he kept her busy serving him and ministering to his wants" (p. 66), in time they argue over "her lack of filial kindness and respect" and she is glad to see him leave "with his padded shoulders, his Bible reading, his 'toddies' and ponderous oaths" (p. 68). Edna's father is a study of narcissism, and the image of him shooing his grandsons while trying to maintain his perfect pose is a telling clue to Edna's childhood and the forming of her personality.
Except for Elizabeth Fox-Genovese's fine study of the "pervasive voice of `motherlessness'" in the novel(2) and Cynthia Griffin Wolff's interpretation of Edna as a woman with a schizoid personality disorder,(3) we have paid too little attention to the making of Edna's personality. While we debate the feminism, Darwinism, and existentialism of the novel, we tend to miss Chopin's insight into Edna's psychological state. Unfortunately, this means that we have typically ignored the possibility that Edna's suicide derives from depression and that she is a woman haunted by the attachment deprivation of her childhood. Admittedly Kate Chopin was fascinated by Darwinism and presents Edna's sexual awakening as a product of a biological imperative. Likewise, Chopin's interest in feminism is apparent in the model of Mademoiselle Reitz and in Edna's struggle to define herself outside the social codes of marriage and motherhood. The novel's prefiguring of existentialism is also apparent. Edna sees herself, much like Camus's Janine in "The Adulterous Woman," as an isolated individual caressed by nature's force and both isolated and freed by her self-realization.
All of the -isms together create within the novel an odd tension between freedom and determinism; even the suicide is both a release from sexual and social repression and an enslavement to erotic self-destruction. The paradoxical nature of the novel may be better understood if we take into account that Chopin carefully shaped a human being whose needs were not met in her childhood and that the denial of her early needs for intimacy left her with a lifelong struggle both to break from her own neediness and to achieve a human attachment that would not smother her emerging sense of an authentic self. As Fox-Genovese has so aptly argued, "Edna's immature emotional neediness cannot easily be exaggerated . . ." (p. 272). Such confusion of the self frequently results in depression, and suicide may occur as the depressive's response to rejection and isolation.
Consider, for example, how in her final moment Edna's mind returns to her childhood:
Edna heard her father's voice and her sister Margaret's. She heard the
barking of an old dog that was chained to the sycamore tree. The spurs of
the cavalry officer clanged as he walked across the porch. There was the
hum of bees, and the musky odor of pinks filled the air. (p. 109)
The keen sensory reactions carry her back to her childhood and define her early needs and desires. These memories are paired with her reaction to Robert who she believes has rejected her. She recalls his note in which he wrote, "Good-by--because I love you" and she realizes that "He would never understand" (p. 109). This pairing of recent rejection and early childhood is logical if we accept that Edna's longing for love and understanding was first frustrated in childhood. Edna's awakened sexuality in both her childhood and her adult state is inseparable from her longing for intimacy.
The link between sexuality and intimacy is central within the novel, and Wolff's essay is useful in its investigation of Edna's intimacy problems. I am in full agreement with Wolff's argument that Edna's identity has been dangerously "predicated on the conscious process of concealment" (p. 235) and that there is an "apparent terror which genuine emotional involvement inspires in Edna" (p. 236). However, Wolff's essay is based upon her application of R. D. Laing's very broad interpretation of the schizoid personality in The Divided Self.(4) Edna's personality does not conform to this disorder, at least not as it is currently defined within the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th ed. (DSM-IV).(5) According to the "Diagnostic Features" this disorder is primarily characterized by "a pervasive pattern of detachment from social relationships and a restricted range of expression of emotions in interpersonal settings" (p. 638). Accordingly, one must have at least four of the following characteristics: (1) neither desires nor enjoys close relationships, including being part of a family, (2) almost always chooses solitary activities, (3) has little, if any, interest in having sexual experiences with another person, (4) takes pleasure in few, if any, activities, (5) lacks close friends or confidants other than first-degree relations, (6) appears indifferent to the praise or criticism of others, (7) shows emotional coldness, detachment, and flattened affectivity. Certainly, within the early action of the novel, such as her touching and talking with Madame Ratignolle or her ecstatic reaction to the performance of Mademoiselle Reitz, Edna manifests too much need for intimacy and too much affectation to conform to this description.
Even within Laing's broad application of schizoid, key statements do not conform to the characterization of Edna. For example, Laing writes that "no one feels more `vulnerable', more liable to be exposed by the look of another person than the schizoid individual" (p. 79). Later he writes that "if there is anything the schizoid individual is likely to believe in, it is his own destructiveness. He is unable to believe that he can fill his own emptiness without reducing what is there to nothing. He regards his own love and that of others as being as destructive as hatred" (p. 99).(6) Such characteristics are consistent with Millon's description of schizoid individuals as "unfeeling, then, not by intention or for self-protective reasons, but because they possess an intrinsic emotional blandness and interpersonal imperceptiveness. They lack spontaneity, resonance, and color, are clumsy, unresponsive, and boring in relationships, and appear to lead dull, if not bleak, and stolid lives."(7) This description conflicts with Edna's vivid imagination and hunger for romance. To follow Laing's reasoning one would have to see Edna's "awakening" as a descent into schizophrenic psychosis, but here again the characteristics do not conform to the DSM-IV (since there is an absence of delusions, hallucinations, disorganized speech, and grossly disorganized or catatonic behavior).
Similarly, Edna's condition is not as severe as what is now called Bipolar I Disorder (previously defined as Manic Depression). Chopin's description of Edna's change in behavior does not conform to a psychotic manic episode, but it does conform to what is called a hypomanic episode and, combined with the hints of major depressive episodes, this would justify considering Edna under the DSM-IV category of Bipolar II Disorder. A hypomanic episode may include the following symptoms that seem relevant in Edna's case: (1) inflated self-esteem or grandiosity, (2) an urge to be more talkative than usual or a sense of …