The Awakening: Death by Water

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Kate Chopin’s controversial novel, The Awakening, presents the protagonist, Edna Pontellier, on a quest of self-questioning and fulfillment. Edna alienates herself from the flawed society of the Victorian Era that is her unfortunate reality. Her process of transforming from the imprisonment of her marriage to an individualistic woman highlights aspects of realism, specifically the social problems and ethical struggles that confront Edna. Chopin utilizes the association of empowerment and liberation of the sea to show Edna’s physical and spiritual awakening through her refusal to conform to society’s gender roles in order to convey that an individual who separates themselves against an oppressive society may be able to discover a new sense of freedom and empowerment.

Edna’s neglect of society’s norms reveals her rebellious nature, serving to showcase her empowerment from society. After Mademoiselle Reisz plays a heart-rending piano performance for Edna, Edna succumbs to her emotions and ponders deeply how she “wanted to swim far out where no woman had swum before” (Chopin 30). The symbolism behind the sea showcases Edna’s quest of fulfillment towards the formation of her own identity. The phrase “no woman had swum before” signifies Edna’s realization of her potential as an independent woman, illustrating her fixation on acting as a nonconformist to society. She is among the few, hence “no woman”, that disregards society’s code on their definition of a stereotypical woman.

Significantly, Edna is beginning to create the mentality that she sees herself as a human being that is not confined to the roles of either wife or mother. Her intimate relationship with the sea, the symbolism of empowerment, provokes her to view the world from a different perspective – eliciting Edna to discover a newfound courage to challenge society’s gender codes; in this case, conventional marriage. After having lunch with Mr. Ratignolle and Mrs. Ratignolle, witnessing their harmonious marriage, Edna fumbles between disgust and repulsion, later “stamp[ing] upon her wedding ring” (Chopin 58). The phrase “stamp[ing] upon her wedding ring” asserts Edna’s refusal to be her husband’s possession. She dismisses the customs of society and acts out on her conscience.

The sea’s influence on Edna gives her a sense of empowerment, allowing her to have control of her life, both within the walls of her home and without. She validates her courage by summoning the audacity to neglect the obligations from her husband, Mr. Pontellier. With this in mind, he gradually comes to the realization Edna is mentally unstable; thinking, “she was not herself” (Chopin 59). The phrase “she was not herself” defines Edna’s rebellion against the constraints and dissatisfaction of her marriage, abandoning her role as a wife and mother into taking an interest in her self-discovery. Importantly, by releasing herself from the imprisonment of her marriage, she begins to make a name for herself, forming her own identity, a critical aspect of her empowerment.

Lee R. Edwards validates Edna’s empowerment by stating in his article, “Sexuality, Maternity, and Selfhood”, “Edna’s waking into an awareness of her body’s… alter[ing] the physical and social structures that orient her in the world” (265). As an empowered woman who defies the male-dominant society of the Victorian Era, Edna is transitioning out of her domestic role at home, thus, “ alter[ing] the physical and social structures that orient her in the world”. Edna finally expresses her authentic self; released from the bonds of marriage that coerce her to play the role of a submissive wife and the eternal bond of her children that confined her to motherhood. For that reason, Edna’s breakaway from the stereotypical representations of women as well as the sea’s influence on her self-expression, empower her to take control of her life, her decisions, and ultimately lead her a step closer towards her liberation.

Edna’s empowerment grants her the strength and confidence to be liberated from the enslavement of society. After Mr. Pontellier addresses to Edna his disapproval of her relocation, Edna understands purchasing her own home relieves “herself from obligations,” adding on “to her strength and expansion as an individual” (Chopin 95). Edna’s yearning for freedom is “fulfilled” by this action; believing that she will no longer be chained by neither her husband nor society expectations and will finally be liberated. Edna enjoys a temporary moment of isolation and liberation, freeing “herself from obligations.”

The phrase ”strength and expansion as an individual” is crucial to Edna’s development as a free woman. Only then does she realize this is her first taste of freedom and will serve to be a catalyst for her complete liberation. Towards the end of the novel, Edna swims far out into the sea where she experiences her death. Edna’s realization that she can not escape the roles of either wife or motherhood compels her to suicide. Her eternal confinement to these roles, as dictated by society, forces her to never truly feel liberated. In the light of achieving complete liberation, Edna drowns herself in the water and afterward “felt like some new-born creature”. The phrase “felt like some new-born creature” symbolizes the freedom Edna finds in the sea.

Edna understands that her role as a wife and as a mother will “appear before her like antagonists” and “possess her body and soul” (Chopin 116) The word “antagonists” and the phrase “possess her body and soul” demonstrates Edna’s fate that is already predetermined by society. Edna’s desire for freedom is limited by society’s conception that women must serve domestic roles. From this, it is evidence that Edna will be “liberated in some ways, [but] confined in others (Edwards 267). The sea’s symbolism of liberation is revealed through Edna, fulfilling her life with self-worth. Edna centers her life on freedom, but simply cannot achieve it by the society she places herself in. Her willingness to discontinue highlights how society is unfit for her. To that end, Edna’s suicide is the only way out, and the sea illuminates the ultimate act of liberating herself from the restrictions of her society.

Edna’s internal conflict affects her relationship with others, forcing her to take deliberate actions to shun society gender roles, and ultimately painting her as an outcast to the oppressive society she resides in. She is aware that a piece of herself is missing and the sea functions to represent this missing piece – the empowerment of herself and the liberation of her soul; this is her “awakening.” Having said that, Edna’s abandonment of the submissive role of women in her society, the struggles she faces as a mother and wife of her society, reflect everyday life – realism. Between realism and enlightenment, Edna’s dilemma reflects her process of becoming enlightened, in the sense that her inner self is more powerful than the external self. In the view of the enlightenment, physically, Edna conforms to the gender codes, however, her external self convinces Edna to defy society. Towards the end, Edna’s suicide is neither black nor white and leaves many questions unanswered. The sea symbolizes her “awakening” and her death in water can be seen as contradictory to it. All things considered, Kate Chopin’s way of ending her novel leaves readers to answer their own questions and determine whether Edna’s choice was a sign of victory or defeat.


  1. Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. Third Edition. Edited by Margo Culley, Amherst, Norton and Company.
  2. Lee R., Edwards. “Sexuality, Maternity, and Selfhood.” The Awakening. Psyche as Hero: Female Heroism and Fictional Form.Middletown, Connecticut. 1984. 265-268.

Cite this paper

The Awakening: Death by Water. (2021, Oct 31). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/the-awakening-death-by-water/

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