The Solitude of Surrender
by Jill Blackmon
How many lives have been lost to the ravenous invocation of the sea? The great blue-green monster tempts her prey with warm, beckoning waves, enticing her victims with the lure of lands and treasures unknown. The most ruthless pirates, the most massive naval fleets, the grandest cruise ships, the most modest rafts, and the most hopeless romantics have all fallen victim to the fickle appeal of the ocean. The sea is at once liberating and captivating, a destination and an uncertainty. Each who enters her belly is filled with some yearning desire that compels each shaky, frightening step forward. It is no surprise, then, that young Edna Pontellier joins in the fate of all the previous victims of the mysterious wrath of the sea in Kate Chopin’s 1899 classic The Awakening. Chopin uses a Louisiana gulf setting to depict Edna Pontellier’s perils with her own tempestuous nature. In the novel, Edna undergoes the painstaking transition from the confining life of a high-society New Orleans wife and mother to an existence guided by her own repressed artistry, sexuality, and individualism. Edna gradually becomes overpowered by her longing for such freedom, abandoning the Creole code of chaste and modest womanly behavior. Left with the options of ostracism from society or conformity to an ill-fitting moral code, Edna chooses neither. Instead, she expresses her newly mastered individualism in the ultimate escape: suicide. The brilliantly chosen oceanic setting gives the reader a sense of the overpowering force that brings Edna to her eventual self-destruction at sea. In relating Edna’s ordeal, Chopin reveals the larger human truth that nonconformity is a destructive entity that leaves its beholder isolated and desolate. The central oceanic theme pervades the work, symbolizing the enchanting, destructive passion that tears its way through Edna Pontellier’s soul.
Although most of The Awakening utilizes the more elusive qualities of the ocean to symbolize Edna Pontellier’s ordeal, much of the story reflects the practical purposes of the sea. One such purpose, sunbathing, is used early in the novel to symbolize Edna’s defiance. Chopin begins the novel with Edna’s emergence from the beach, where she has spent a carefree day in the sun with her young friend, Robert Lebrun. As she approaches her husband, Edna laughs nonsensically about some untold event in the water. Leonce immediately scolds Edna for her negligence to care for her skin at the beach when he exclaims, "‘You are burnt beyond recognition . . . " (Chopin 7). Obviously, sunbathing was considered imprudent for the high-society Creole woman. Chopin contrasts Edna’s rebelliousness with the obedience of Adele Ratignolle, who was "more careful of her complexion," with "a gauze veil about her head . . ." (27). Such a contrast between the two characters reveals Edna’s inability or unwillingness to adjust to the society in which she is immersed. Thus, Chopin effectively uses sunbathing as a symbol of the stubborn will that evokes Edna’s self-inflicted seclusion from her Creole counterparts.
Chopin also utilizes another practical purpose of the ocean, sailing, as a symbol of Edna Pontellier’s nonconformity. When Edna and Robert take a boat excursion to the nearby Cheniere Caminada, Chopin reveals that Edna "felt as if she were being borne away from some anchorage which had held her fast, whose chains had been loosening– . . . leaving her free to drift whithersoever she chose to set her sails . . ." (58). Her first outing with Robert away from Grand Isle serves to awaken in Edna a sense of sailing away from the bonds of the society in which she is trapped. Chopin’s symbolic use of an anchor accurately depicts the weight of the power of social customs which constrict Edna and her sensuality. In yet another reference to vessels upon the water, Robert refers to most of the women he met in Mexico as "‘people who leave impressions not so lasting as the imprint of an oar upon the water . . . ’" (Chopin 168). This comparison reassures Edna of Robert’s loyalty to their newly cultivated, tradition-defying relationship. Through these and many other references to vessels upon the sea, Chopin underscores the overall theme of isolating, destructive passion.
Perhaps the most significant symbol of the ocean’s practical purposes in The Awakening is the art of swimming. At Grand Isle, most of the inhabitants "walked into the water as though into a native element . . . " (Chopin 47). This idea reflects much of the prevalent Darwinian theory of the time, suggesting that native Grand Isle inhabitants evolve naturally in the social setting. Such language also suggests that the members of the Creole society are confident in their own identities, much unlike Edna. Her inability to swim in the story’s beginning parallels Edna’s inability to face her fears in solitude. As the story progresses, Edna becomes more and more confident in her own abilities, casting off the shackles which bind her to a lifestyle for which she is ill-suited (Chopin 33). The sea becomes to Edna a vast expanse where she might find freedom from the confinement of conformity, allowing her real identity to surface (Griggers 2). As she learns to swim, Edna is overpowered by the sense of solitude and control that engulfs her in the sea. Although Edna feels that she has conquered her fear and gained some sense of personal power, Leonce Pontellier assures her, "‘You were not so very far, my dear; I was watching you . . . ’" (Chopin 48). Leonce’s seemingly innocuous sentiment signifies the reality that he is aware of Edna’s newly awakened passion and allows it to continue under his careful supervision. For a newly emboldened woman in this restrictive society, there is only one alternative to such a domineering marriage: death (Ewell 7). Even in the exhilaration of her new accomplishment, Edna has flashes of fear that foreshadow the destruction to follow. Her separation from society begins its inevitable course of devastation.
Aside from the practical uses of the sea, Chopin also utilizes the turbulent characteristics of the ocean in her symbolism of Edna Pontellier’s quest for solitary self-discovery. The tide, which swells in a repetitious pattern, is reflected in Edna’s thoughts when she speaks of Robert’s memory, "fading sometimes as if it would melt into the mist of the forgotten, reviving again with an intensity which filled her with an incomprehensible longing . . ." (Chopin 90). Chopin again mentions the waves at Grand Isle when Edna is reunited with Robert after his trip to Mexico. Robert and Edna both admit that during his absence they have been dreaming of the waves upon the shore of Grand Isle (Chopin 165-167). This revelation associates the wave-like thought patterns of intense passion not only to Edna, but to Robert as well. Such sporadic intensity prompts Edna’s ultimate loss of control over her own newly awakened power. In much the same gradual pattern as the waves of the sea, Edna realizes that her deviation from social standards leaves her irreparably segregated.
Another nautical characteristic that Chopin connects with Edna is the endlessness of the ocean. Early in the novel, Edna remembers an endless sea of waving Kentucky grass surrounding her childhood home (Chopin 31). As a child in the bluegrass meadow, Edna knew no restraint. Now, however, Edna is confined to the life of a high-society New Orleans lady, a lifestyle she never envisioned. When she learns to swim, Edna begins "reaching out for the unlimited in which to lose herself . . . " (Chopin 48). Numerous references to attaining the unlimited reveal Edna’s desire to be unrestrained by the customs of marriage and motherhood. In the final scene, Edna again thinks of "the bluegrass meadow that she had traversed when a little child, believing that it had no beginning and no end . . . " (Chopin 190). As she ends her life in the final scene of The Awakening, Edna again discovers unlimited abandon. Sadly, Edna at once recognizes the weariness which overcomes her as she finally attains her goal. In her quest for endless freedom, Edna goes perhaps a step too far, effectively severing the necessary human ties to the surrounding social order.
In addition to the tide and endlessness, Chopin uses solitude as a characteristic associated with the ocean. Like countless lone travelers upon the waters of the sea, Edna finds herself drawn to isolation. When Mademoiselle Reisz plays a mournful piano piece at a gathering at Grand Isle, Edna imagines a man, fully naked, standing alone upon the seashore (Chopin 44). The next day, as Edna learns to swim, she abandons the crowd and swims out alone, striving for her own such solitude. Edna’s gradual isolation from those around her serves to unravel the threads that only loosely connect her to the family from the start. In the final scene, the ocean once again draws Edna to "wander in the abysses of solitude . . . " (Chopin 189). Edna herself stands alone, naked on the beach, just as the solitary man from her vision. An in-depth study of this scene leads one critic to suggest the following analysis:
Edna's quest into the historically masculine world of self-discovery mirrors her image of the naked man on the seashore. By emulating this male-centered scene, she sheds her passive female role. Only by moving away from social roles can Edna achieve the solitude she unsuccessfully sought from Mademoiselle Reitz's [sic] piano playing. In striving to define herself, Edna discovers a sense of her own capabilities as she liberates herself from the roles of mother and wife. (McCoy 27)
Unfortunately, these newly discovered capabilities have no outlet in a male-dominated social order. By this time, Edna’s solitude has become overpowering, effectively dissolving any hope of a connection with the standards of the Creole culture.
Legends and myths have always revolved around the ocean. From the lore of the earliest known civilizations to the most modern mythos and legend, the sea is a central symbol in humankind’s feeble attempt to explain the inexplicable. In Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening, the Creole society possesses a sea legend of its own. According to Robert Lebrun, a spirit inhabits the waters of the gulf at Grand Isle. Each August, "the spirit seeks some one mortal worthy to hold him company, worthy of being exalted for a few hours into realms of the semicelestials . . . " (Chopin 49). Robert goes on to reveal that Edna is the only worthy mortal to be exalted among divine spirits, and that once she has been exalted, Edna will never again be quite the same (Chopin 49-50). Chopin repeatedly refers to the gulf spirit which invades Edna throughout the work. If Edna represents the only mortal at Grand Isle with a soul worthy of communing with the gods, she is also doomed to remain forever changed after the incident. The change in Edna causes her to abandon the mere unfeeling mortals who surround her, leaving her to face the storms of the sea alone.
Chopin’s use of the sea as a central symbol in The Awakening is best portrayed through personification. Chopin gives the ocean human qualities such as voice, smell, and touch to reflect the intensity with which an inanimate body can entice an innocent victim. During the time Edna and Robert spend together at Grand Isle, the sea is said to emit "a strange new odor" which mingles with the surrounding smells of nature to create an unusual sensation (Chopin 46). Such an odd combination of scents parallels Edna’s self-discovery mingled with her Creole surroundings. Like the aroma of the earthy island setting, the Creoles appear natural and harmonious. Edna, much like the wild scent of the ocean, disturbs the natural setting with an unusual desire to levitate beyond traditional customs. Edna’s unusual sensations, however, have no lasting place in the Creole world of chastity and submission. Her desire to "‘soar above the level plain of tradition’" leaves Edna a "‘sad spectacle . . . fluttering back to earth . . . ’" (Chopin 138).
In addition to its aroma, Chopin also humanizes the sea with an intoxicating voice. The voice of the ocean in The Awakening, like the voice of a human, fluctuates between a quiet whisper and a "mournful lullaby" (Chopin 13). As Edna begins to feel a forbidden attraction toward Robert Lebrun, her feelings parallel the symbolic call of the ocean. As Edna’s longing intensifies, Chopin places special emphasis upon the summoning voice of the sea, stating "the voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to . . . lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation" (25). The calling sea, or the forbidden attraction, continues to lure Edna into her own self-destruction. Even in the final scene, Chopin reiterates the exact passage, revealing the intense power of persuasion evoked by the personified sea. Chopin also creates an ocean that is physically alluring, calling the touch of the sea a "sensuous, . . . soft, close embrace" (25). The allure of the voice and touch of the sea beckon Edna forward as she moves to complete her solitude in the endlessness of the ocean.
Practical, legendary, and near-human, the sea once again seals the fate of her unsuspecting prey. Chopin’s choice of an ocean motif, with its fluctuation, tempestuous qualities, and summoning power, effectively symbolizes Edna’s tumultuous isolation. Edna Pontellier, the only mortal soul worthy of communing with the gulf spirit of Grand Isle, is overpowered by her own passion. Forever changed and unable to conform, Edna feels that she cannot go forward and cannot go back. The choice to override tradition leaves Edna ostracized and alone. Her only choice is submission to the summoning temptress that offers her escape. Like all those who have succumbed before her, Edna gives in to the seduction of the sea. As one critic suggests, "the Gulf is the repository and graveyard of legend and dreams, and the entirely logical site of Edna’s willing death . . ." (Taylor 177). Accordingly, Chopin utilizes the sea as Edna’s final resting place. Edna Pontellier, like her predecessors at sea, rests in solitude.
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"Solitude of Surrender" was written for Dr. Barbara Murray’s ENGL 1102 class during spring 2004 semester by Jill Blackmon, then a freshman majoring in English.