Depression and Chopin's 'The Awakening.' (Kate Chopin)

By Ryan, Steven T. | The Mississippi Quarterly, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview
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Depression and Chopin's 'The Awakening.' (Kate Chopin)

Ryan, Steven T., The Mississippi Quarterly

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.

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