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

By Ryan, Steven T. | The Mississippi Quarterly, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?