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The Ocean as a Final Escape From Social Order in The Awakening

By Mercedes Lingle

In the final pages of The Awakening (1899) by Kate Chopin, Dr. Mandelet, Edna’s family doctor, poses that “Nature takes no account of moral consequences, of arbitrary conditions which we create, and which we feel obliged to maintain at any cost” (Chopin 112). This sentence aptly summarizes the draw Edna, the novel’s protagonist, feels toward nature as a refuge from society. The Awakening discusses the limiting nature of being a woman in the high-class American South, controlled by her husband and the social pressures around her. Edna is expected to be a mother, a housewife, a budding artist, a friend, a lover, and a trailblazer, but the accumulation of these expectations overwhelms her and drives her to seek a natural identity, free of external expectation, in natural spaces (Chopin 50, 54, 97). Edna’s appreciation for natural spaces expands to include natural states of being, such as sleep or nakedness. For Edna, the ocean exists as the ultimate space away from society, and she finds comfort in its harsh impartiality, proving that her death reflects her journey to find her identity outside of society. When Edna finds herself in nature she is taken back through memory to her childhood, a time in which she was free of external pressure and could be most genuinely herself. It is this journey that highlights Edna’s driving motivation throughout the novel: to preserve her basic sense of self. In The Awakening, nature and natural states of existence serve as safe spaces for Edna in which she conducts her resistance to societal standards. Thus, when she returns to the ocean and does not rise again, it is not a suicide or defeat, but rather a final act of protest. 

Edna uses the acts of sleeping and undressing to exercise control over societal expectations, as she chooses to sleep and be naked in times when neither is socially acceptable. In this way, she resists the desires of others and acts according to her will, using these natural states to oppose human constructions. The initial instance of this occurring is when Edna takes her first fateful swim in the ocean, and becomes aware of her power to make her own decisions. Later that evening, when Edna is sitting outside, her husband Léonce, asks her to come inside, but instead of obeying, Edna “settled herself more securely in the hammock” From the description of her body movement to her emotions, it is evident that Edna will no longer bend to the will of others, including her husband. She refuses to go inside and sleep, regardless of the fact that this may be an illogical choice. Edna “could not at that moment have done other than denied and resisted” (Chopin 33). She is fueled only by her desire to resist, “her will had blazed up, stubborn and resistant” and she decides to stay outside and stay awake, away from the domestic household and the responsibility of listening to her husband (Chopin 33).

Another way in which Edna uses natural states as an act of resistance is through the loss of her societal-mandated clothes. In the final pages of The Awakening, as Edna approaches the ocean for her last swim, she strips off her swimming garments and thinks “How strange and awful it seemed to stand naked under the sky! How delicious!” (Chopin 116). By literally removing the reminder of organized society from her body and tossing it aside, Edna feels “like some new-born creature, opening its eyes in a familiar world it had never known” (Chopin 16). The image of the creature opening its eyes is representative of Edna’s own feeling of ‘awakening’ to the pleasures of being raw and naked in nature. By choosing to be naked, Edna again refuses to conform to the expectations and desires of others. These examples of Edna’s resistance through assuming natural states of existence demonstrate how she changes her relationship with society through the help of nature. Ultimately, this connects to her longing for the uncaring waves of the ocean in which she finds her final rest, as it too represents a natural space. 

The ocean is the catalyst for Edna’s ‘awakening,’ and it acts as a place where she can embrace her genuine identity. Edna goes to the ocean for the truth because the water is a harsh, immoral substance that represents the most natural place for her to be. Thus, when she goes back to the ocean in the last scene, this is a final act of protest and her way of proclaiming her allegiance to nature, rather than society. It is established in Edna’s first near-death swim that she finds comfort in the ocean, away from the demands of life. When she swims farther from shore, it is stated that “As she swam she seemed to be reaching out for the unlimited in which to lose herself” (Chopin 30). The phrase “to lose herself” does not imply that Edna would like to lose her true identity in the ocean, but rather her ‘put-on’ identity, which consists of all the ways she acts in order to please others and meet demands. She really finds herself in the expanse of the water which affirms that the ocean is a haven that provides her with the insight to grasp her own individuality. This first encounter with the ocean brings Edna closer to understanding herself and what she wants, as it is her state of being in the water, fearful yet free, which allows her to understand her desire to break free from societal norms. 

When Edna goes back to the ocean in the final pages of The Awakening, her return to the water does not signal her defeat but rather her final act of resilience. As she stares out at the water, Edna observes that there is “no living thing in sight” (Chopin 116), demonstrating again that, to Edna, the ocean represents a place free from the pressures of human society. As she continues down into the water, the narrator states that “The voice of the sea is seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander in abysses of solitude” (Chopin 116). This supports the first portrayal of the ocean as a place away from people, where Edna can think solely of her own needs, wants, and desires. Here, the ocean is given a human-like voice, characterizing it as something which has external power over Edna. This demonstrates that Edna finds the sea alluring because it represents a place where she can be completely independent. In the ocean, she can “wander,” with no goal in mind or outside need to meet. Thus, Edna’s final, life-ending encounter with the ocean is an escape, not a prison. She is not locked out of the world of the living but invited to move beyond it in the uncaring waves of the ocean.

Finally, Edna’s resistance is proved by her repeatedly reminiscing on her childhood as she gets closer to dying, showing that her drowning is a way for her to get to her most essential self, as unencumbered by social expectations as she was in childhood. As previously discussed, it is evident that Edna feels the freest when she is in natural spaces, and she reflects on this in an early exchange with Madame Ratignolle; “Sometimes I feel this summer as if I were walking through the green meadow again; idly, aimlessly, unthinking and unguided” (Chopin 19). As Edna recalls what she felt like as a child in nature, the adjectives she uses emphasize what she longs for: a space without rules, where she can do as she pleases. This is the driving force behind her actions, and when she is shirking social responsibility in nature, she feels the most like herself. In the final passages before her death, Edna is reminded again of spending her time in nature during childhood, with the final line reading as follows; “There was the hum of bees, and the musky odor of pinks filled the air” (Chopin 116). These vivid images are the last thing that Edna thinks of before she presumably dies. She does not think of her husband or children, or how she has final regrets, only that her current state reminds her of when she felt the freest as a child, wandering “aimlessly, unthinking, and unguided” (Chopin 19). Edna gets closer to her childhood self through memory as she approaches her death because her death is not a departure but a return. Edna has found a place of solitude in death and the ocean, a place where no expectations could possibly be placed on her. She is finally free to “wander in abysses of solitude” just as she has been seeking from the start of The Awakening (Chopin 116). 

In the final pages of The Awakening, Edna does not go to the ocean to hold up her white flag; instead, she goes there to find comfort in nature, a place that cannot judge her. Edna finds freedom in natural states and spaces such as the ocean, sleep, nakedness, and her thoughts surrounding childhood; whereas, she finds only constriction in society. Her motivation for leaving society is clarified in an essential line exchanged between her and Madame Ratignolle, her close friend and fellow mother. When asked about how she feels for her children, Edna struggles to express that she “would give my life . . . ; but I wouldn’t give myself” (Chopin 49). Though this line is specifically said in reference to Edna’s children, it captures a much larger internal issue for her. To Edna, her life is not who she truly is; instead her identity represents her true self. Her identity is what she cannot sacrifice, so when she dies in the ocean, in spite of losing her life, she does not give up what matters most: her identity. Additionally, by dying she never yields to what Léonce or Madame Ratignolle wanted from her, and thus she never loses herself. In this way, Edna’s death cannot possibly signify defeat, but only triumph, as her last paddle into the uncaring waters of the sea prove that she would rather die in nature than give up her “self” (Chopin 49).

Works Cited 

Chopin, Kate. The Awakening, An Authoritative Text, Biographical and Historical Contexts, Criticism. Third Edition. Culley, Margo. Editor. London, New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 1976. 

About the Author: Mercedes Lingle, more regularly referred to as “Mercy”, is a U2 English Literature student minoring in Communications Studies. She prefers Modernism to Post-Modernism, wishes that everyone knew more about Ezra Pound’s fascist tendencies (and therefore re-evaluated their opinions about him), and dreams of a day when English courses are not held in the dingiest possible rooms in the basement of Burnside.