Chopin's "The Awakening": A Semiotic Novel

by Rosemary F. Franklin

August 17, 2011


A most popular novel among feminist critics in the last forty years, Kate Chopin's "The Awakening", though obviously about the mistreatment of women by the patriarchy, has more often invited a psychoanlytic approach. Edna Pontellier's motherlessness has been briefly touched on by several critics, but has not received a full-scale treatment. Julia Kristeva, a pre-oedipal theorist, offers in "Black Sun" and "Tales of Love" concepts for an all-inclusive examination of themes, characters, Edna's death, and a Semiotic structure and style.


                 Chopin's The Awakening: A Semiotic Novel


            Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1900) has perhaps enjoyed the most critical attention from American literature scholars of realist novels.  Though almost completely forgotten since its publication, it was  brought back to life, ironically,  by a male Scandinavian critic, Per Seyersted, who published Chopin's complete works in 1969,  earlier than the feminist recovery movement. The reprinting of the novel in paperback form began in 1972.   Shortly, an outpouring of feminist criticism followed, which continued unabated into the end of the 20th century. Because it is a novel about a woman attempting to find and express herself in a patriarchal culture, early in the critical renaissance commentators were  naturally drawn to a political reading: Edna Pontellier is forced to the extreme of committing suicide to escape the bonds of patriarchy and motherhood.  As the renaissance continued, critics approached the novel in a variety of ways turning more and more to an examination of Edna's psyche, many of them  producing polar interpretations: is Edna heroic or is she a victim of a deteriorating emotional condition?


            What is it about The Awakening that has provoked this volume and variety of critical commentary?  I want to suggest that it is an elliptical novel:  Chopin leaves much unexplained, and the text is filled with gaps and implied questions.  Rather than a well-made novel like those by Jane Austen and other novelists well-known to Chopin, The Awakening resembles  the definitive modernist poem, “The Wasteland”.  Of course, the prevailing question is whether Edna goes to Grand Isle with the determination to commit suicide or whether she simply swims to her physical limit and drowns because  the Gulf's arms are embracing and magnetic?  Really, one can make a  long list of gaps: no information about Edna's years of marriage before Robert; a nameless mother; her unexplained affair with Arobin, even though she knows Robert is returning to New Orleans; recurring motifs of the inscrutable pair of lovers and the woman in black;  Mlle. Reisz's motivation to sustain and feed Edna's romantic longings with passionate music like that of Chopin and Wagner's love-death theme in Tristan and Isolde's duet; Edna's father, who drove his wife to an early grave, but who is also a patriarch in the Presbyterian church; the issue of whether Dr. Mandelet is truly sympathetic with Edna or a chauvinist who makes remarks to Leonce that women must be indulged because all of them have whims and moods that will pass.  Of course, Chopin is notably ironic and intentionally ambiguous in such stories as “The Story of an Hour,” “A Respectable Woman,” and “The Storm.”  Also, she may write elliptically because she had been a successful short story writer and was not interested in writing a long novel like James's The Portrait of a Lady.


            Although The Awakening is plotted as a novel of romantic love, Edna finally realizes that her feelings for Robert will fade away just as those infatuations did in her girlhood.   So we must ask Freud's question: what does Edna want?   To attempt an answer to this many critics have recognized for some time that a psychoanalytic explanation  must be constructed.  As early as 1973,  Cynthia Griffin Woolf chose a Freudian approach  in “Thanatos and Eros:  Kate Chopin's The Awakening.”  Subsequently, a number of critics began to suggest that Edna's motherlessness is a key to her life-long emotional distress. Suzanne Wolkenfeld  says that Edna's “instinct” is “to return to the unbroken bond with her mother,” which involves a regression to the “unconsciousness” (222).  Michelle Gremillian's essay “Edna's Awakening: A Return to Childhood” says Edna is led by her “immature beliefs” to want a “womb-like” world.  Ruth Sullivan and Steward Smith claim Edna's emptiness and despondency are related to the early loss of her mother (153). In fact, Edna's mother is mentioned only three times in the novel.  But this nameless mother seems to these critics a significant loss in her life.  Ivy Schweitzer briefly says Edna seeks to return, in her act of suicide, to her lost mother, the maternal semiotic, but Schweitzer pursues this line of interpretation for less than two pages (184 passim).  Elizabeth Fox-Genovese examines the gap of motherlessness at more length than the others:  “In my judgment, Edna's emotional neediness cannot easily be exaggerated,” and Fox -Genovese attributes the magnetism of the ocean to its connection with a motherly embrace.  She also feels that Edna's erotic “longing. . . has its roots deep in her childhood. . .” (227).  Edna's loves for Adéle and Robert “partake of, even as they mask, the longing for the lost mother. . .  . for the mother's death shaped Edna's subsequent expectations of true love as necessarily ending in dissolution.” (280).  Furthermore, she says, Edna's girlhood “infatuations” are longings for the lost mother.  Nevertheless, Fox-Genovese does not pursue this fruitful subject further.  A full- scale study has not appeared on the subject of Edna's motherlessness  as a shaping force in the entire novel, including its style.[1]


            In a search for a psychoanalytic and explanatory model for motherlessness in TheAwakening and Edna's ensuing depression and death, we need to examine a pre-oedipal theory   that stresses  the relationship with the mother, whom the infant fantasizes as an unconditionally loving Maternal Presence who fulfills all needs. Julia Kristeva, a psychoanalyst and linguist,  demonstrates the inevitability of separation from the Maternal Presence and the developing self, which always nevertheless desires a return to  focus on the subjectivity of the infant and its separation from the all-giving mother, a shock that can leave permanent marks on the child's psyche. She takes a linguistic approach to infant development and the acquisition of language, with an emphasis on the baby’s relation to the mother.  The infant begins to acquire a self when it learns to speak, and thus  enters the “Symbolic” realm.  The pre-oedipal experience, which cannot be described because it has no language, becomes the unconscious when the speaking subject enters the “Symbolic.”  Kristeva calls this pre-oedipal space the “Semiotic,” which makes itself known in literary texts by gaps, rhythm, discontinuities, ambiguity, inarticulate voices, and many other non-verbal and non-linear "pulsions." According to Kristeva, all creative pieces balance the Semiotic and the Symbolic. 


            Most pertinent to The Awakening is Kristeva’s Black Sun, a discourse on melancholia and depression, which examines the illness as an ontological barometer of the human condition. Melancholy, she says, is related to “Man’s anxiety in Being” (7).  “Without a bent for melancholia there is no psyche,” a condition which the depressed feel more intensely.  In the chapter of Black Sun  entitled “Melancholia--Sombre Lining of Amatory Passion,” Kristeva says we are “conscious of our being doomed to lose our loves, we grieve perhaps even more when we glimpse in our lover the shadow of a long lost former loved one,” the Maternal Presence (5). The Kristevan approach locates Edna’s source of emptiness, not in Robert’s abandonment of her at the end of the novel, but in a profound disturbance that began in her early childhood.  Another passage from Black Sun  seems to sum up Edna’s difficulties: the melancholic symptoms “point to a primitive self--wounded, incomplete, empty . . . an unnameable narcissistic wound, so precocious that no outside agent. . . can be used as a referent. . . sadness is really the sole [love] object. . . .” (12).  “In such a case, suicide is. . . a merging with sadness and beyond it, with that impossible love [the Maternal Presence], never reached, always elsewhere” (12-13). Kloepfer supplements this, saying, “A dead mother is a trope for textlessness, a way of speaking the unspeakable, a way of inscribing a silencing, a failure, or a repression of the female speaking/writing subject” (15). Examining The Awakening through Kristevan lenses results  in greater explanatory power, which leads me to the conclusion that it should be deemed more accurately a “Semiotic novel” rather than a realist or a naturalistic one.  Gaps, pulsions, and ambiguity fill the novel  because the Semiotic  inevitably intrudes into the Symbolic,  resulting in a text that that has provoked many critical arguments over the last forty years.  


            First I want to analyze the thematic material in the novel, and later I will take up the Chopin's semiotic style.  Edna's motherlessness calls attention to the mother surrogates in the novel, Adéle Ratignolle and Mlle. Reisz, who are as instrumental  in Edna's awakening and death as Robert Lebrun.  Ratignolle's friendship with Edna is so intense that Chopin describes it as a "subtle bond which we call sympathy, which we might as well call love" (VII).[2] Adéle seduces Edna into a "homosocial" relationship that Edna has never before experienced. “At a very early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life--that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions” (VII). Edna’s reserve was manifest even in her sisters and her girlfriends, who were all “self-contained”. She has preserved her secret inner world and presented herself as detached.  Carroll Smith-Rosenberg has written famously of the homosocial nineteenth-century phenomenon in the life of women  As Rosenberg finds in their letters, friendships between nineteenth-century women were quite romantic, often lasting a lifetime.  Contextually, then, we can understand that Edna's "repression," even with her sisters, is unusual. Adéle's sympathetic and maternal questions draw out of Edna information about her life that she has told no one.  Containing these confessions, chapter VII is a long one by Chopin's standards. It is preceded by the one-page chapter VI, this juxtaposition suggesting that the lyrical symbolism of the ocean and self-discovery is followed by an important dramatization of Edna's development vis-a-vis Adéle.


            In chapter VII, we are told how Adéle’s sensuous beauty loosens "a little the mantle of reserve that had always enveloped [Edna]."  A good listener, Adéle  persuades Edna to tell something of herself--the inward life.  Edna tells her that as a girl she remembers running through a Kentucky meadow like she was swimming, "beating the tall grass as one strikes out in the water." She explains this as running away from her father's reading prayers "in a spirit of gloom" to a Presbyterian congregation.  In addition to being connected to Edna's achievement of swimming, this run-away behavior is evident when she feels she must get out of the Catholic church at Chênière Caminada, when she runs from her husband's house to her own "pigeon house," and when she escapes from her family through suicide.  Adéle listens sympathetically to Edna's account of "walking. . . idly, aimlessly" through this summer.  She responds by holding Edna's hand "firmly and warmly," and she "even  stroke[s] it and says "pauvre chérie."  Though Edna is startled by this physical gesture, she "soon lent herself readily to the Creole's gentle caress." The fact that Edna had no one to mother her accounts for both her reserve and her neediness.


            That Edna is able finally to speak about her secrets indicates an advance in her development in the Kristevan sense because Edna is replicating the manner in which a child enters  the Symbolic realm through language and moves toward what was formerly unspeakable. Perhaps she will be able to control and render conscious what is chaotic and "forgotten"--the Maternal Presence.  During these conversational moments, though Edna mentions her mother, who died when the girls were quite young, Chopin renders this information in indirect discourse and gives Edna's mother no name.  Chopin's spare mention of the mother renders her absence all the more significant. That the mother has no name suggests that she is the Unspeakable Mother, one who dwells unconsciously in Edna’s psyche.


            In addition to her behavior as a good listener, Adéle has perhaps much more power over Edna visually  as an embodied Maternal Presence, accounting largely for Edna's loosening of reserve.   Adéle is the epitome of the "mother-women" at Grand Isle: “It was easy to know them, fluttering about with extended, protecting wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened their precious brood.  They were women who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels" (IV). Chopin is, of course, constructing a society devoted to the era's domestic ideology, but to figure these women as “brood hens” could be one of her subtle ironies along with the possible satiric tone implied in such religious diction as "idolized," "worshiped," "holy privilege," and "ministering angels."  The phrase "efface themselves as individuals,” however, is the most important phrase because it is a major thematic motif in a novel about a woman attempting to find herself.



            Though Adéle may represent the smothering domestic ideology of the time, Chopin's description of her beauty is positive and moves the woman into near mythical status as a goddess, like Aphrodite or Demeter. Adéle, says Chopin, could be “the bygone heroine of romance and the fair lady of our dreams.  There was nothing subtle or hidden about her charms; her beauty was all there, flaming and apparent: the spun-gold hair that comb nor confining pin could restrain; the blue eyes that were like nothing but sapphires; two lips that pouted, that were so red one could only think of cherries or some other delicious crimson fruit in looking at them."  Adéle's "flaming" beauty definitely connects her to Aphrodite, goddess of love.[3] Her eroticism is her main feature, but we also must remember that Aphrodite was a mother--of Eros, the god of love.   Paul Friedrich, an anthropologist, addresses this dual nature in The Meaning of Aphrodite  where he states that a goddess who is both erotic and maternal is really a more powerful female figure than a culture can tolerate. Perhaps Demeter, a fertility goddess and the mother of Persephone, represents half of the Great Goddess. The erotic goddess is not detectable in her. Demeter is certainly powerful--the crops die as she weeps for her daughter lost to Hades--but she is not a temptress like Aphrodite.  Demeter is able to call Persephone out of death or the unconscious each year, an act that parallels Adéle's new power over Edna.  Like these goddesses and the Madonna, Adéle lives at the command of the patriarchy, though the men are absent during the week.  Even if the "mother-women" do form a tight matriarchy, sharing the same values of reproduction and self-sacrifice, it is a social one only.  Power is in the hands of the capitalist males, of whom Léonce is an example: he plays the commodities market all week long.


            As important as the mythical rendering of Adéle as Maternal Presence, is her cajoling Edna to speech, the realm of the Symbolic. When Edna speaks to Adéle, she feels newly “intoxicated with the sound of her own voice” (VII). Edna recounts her childhood delight of running through the meadow and  her infatuations with unattainable men, which  Edna unconsciously chooses  as representatives of her lost mother, leading to her depression and the motive for most of her actions.  After she has permitted Adéle to touch her in chapter VII, Edna recounts her girlhood  love of a "cavalry officer who visited her father in Kentucky."  But, of course, he "melted imperceptibly out of her existence," as did those who followed.  Again, when Edna was "just merging into her teens," a young man engaged to marry the girl at the next plantation occupied her mind before "he, too, went the way of dreams."  Finally when a young woman, Edna believed herself in love with a popular tragic actor: "The persistence of the infatuation lent it an aspect of genuineness.  The hopelessness of it colored it with the lofty tones of a great passion" (VII).   This chain of infatuations climaxes in absurdity as Edna passionately kisses the "cold glass" over the tragedian's picture. Edna’s kind of repetition-compulsion is explained by Kristeva: “. . . disinherited of the Thing [the Maternal Presence], the depressed person wanders in pursuit of continuously disappointing adventures and loves. . .(Black Sun 13). However, a surprising turn-around occurs: Edna soon marries Léonce, though she does not love him, because she believes she must enter the world of reality and close "the portals forever behind her upon the realm of romance and dreams."  Her habitual attempt to repress the Semiotic (a losing battle) and to perversely repress  her erotic feelings leads her, in her decision to marry Pontellier, to feel "satisfaction that no trace of passion or excessive and fictitious warmth colored her affection, thereby threatening its dissolution" (VII). Romantic love is thus connected in Edna’s unconscious with the inevitable failure to reunite with the Maternal Presence.


            As the narrator indicates, Edna does not tell all of this to Adéle, but Adéle facilitates bringing the Unspeakable into Edna's consciousness. Adéle, a creature of the patriarchy (the Symbolic realm), also has powerful influence as a moral mother, another aspect of domestic ideology.  Later in the novel when Adèle becomes aware that Edna has taken up with Alcée Arobin, she warns her to mind the social ostracism that could result from an affair. Adéle's influence seems to prevail: she demands that Edna  attend her childbirth, so Edna leaves Robert at the height of their declarations of love for one another.  After her childbirth,  Adéle cries frantically to the departing Edna, "Think of the children, Edna. Oh, think of the children! Remember them!" (XXXVII)   Adéle is, I believe, in part responsible as an initiator of Edna's suicide since, as the latter walks down the beach in the last chapter, she sees her children for the first time as "antagonists" dragging “her into her soul's slavery for the rest of her days" (XXXIX). Fulfilling her pledge to herself, she gives her life for them and arranges that the suicide will appear to be an accident, thus preventing the shame that the family might feel. It is  Adéle, then, who exerts as much as Robert does an ambiguous power over Edna, the Maternal Presence in both its nurturing and smothering aspects.


            Before Edna falls in love with Robert, she is further initiated into the Semiotic by Mlle. Reisz, who is a polar opposite to Adéle: she has never married, she is not beautiful but angular, she fears the water, and she wears a droopy bunch of artificial violets in her hair. Beyond that, she provokes the community by her ill temper and exists on its margin as a critic of the very group that acknowledges she is one of them.  Though Mlle. Reisz is not a professional performer (like the young woman in Chopin’s story "Wiser Than a God"), keeping instead most of her art to herself, she serves as a kind of conduit of the Semiotic in her music, chosen from the romantic era of composers: Chopin (probably the author's declaration that she too is magnetized by the Semiotic) and Wagner (the love-death aria in Tristan und Isolde).  The composers themselves and their music evoke the Semiotic: Reisz is only their instrument.  Mlle. Reisz's initial and initiating appearance occurs during the party and right before Edna finds herself swimming under a full moon.  Reisz tells Edna that she plays only for her. 


            Edna has never before  reacted so intensely to  music.  In the past, music evoked "pictures in her mind" like the figure of a solitary, naked man on a beach staring at a bird as it flies over the sea.  Edna named this one "solitude."  At the party, she is now ready "to take an impress of the abiding truth," and "the very passions in themselves [not pictures] were aroused within her soul, swaying it, lashing it, as the waves daily beat upon her splendid body" (IX).  This passage reflects the significant influence of Arthur Schopenhauer's pessimistic philosophy on Chopin.[4]  Simply summarized, Schopenhauer declares the Will to be the motive force of all life that, in the context of romantic love, drives us to reproduction.  Of all the arts, music is independent of the phenomenal world; in fact, it expresses the Will itself, a "direct copy of the whole will" (World I 333).  Schopenhauer rejects opera and song as hybrids and says we should resist clothing the music in pictures of nature; instead, "it is better to apprehend them in their immediacy and purity" (World I 235).  So Edna's shift from imagining pictures in music to feeling the music directly is significant, a part of the unfolding of a repressed emotional life.  Kristeva's concept of the Semiotic bears a similarity to Schopenhauer's Will in that both are available in the unconscious.  Though this is not the place to develop the concept completely, Schopenhauer also comments in his essay on love that all of it "is rooted in the sexual impulse alone" and that a baby is "the true end of the whole love story" (342).  Dr. Mandelet's remark that love seems "to be a provision of Nature, a decoy to secure mothers for the race.  And Nature takes no account of moral consequences. . ." (XXXVIII), reflects the tutoring in philosophy Chopin received from her friend Dr. Kobenheyer.[5]  Schopenhauer dismisses romantic love as "trash" and a "malevolent demon" (III 339).  Probably Chopin would not agree with his extreme pessimism nor would she want to live the life of renunciation that, according to Schopenhauer, is the only way to escape the Will.  Nevertheless, when an interviewer asked Chopin "Is love divine?" she replied it is a part of nature [the Will?] and thus could be called "divine.”[6]  Chopin seems to want to evade a question that might force her to say that nature does not include romantic love.


            Reisz's influence on Edna is ambiguous.  Students in my classes often express polar attitudes toward her: some see her as Edna's only sympathetic ear while others deem her  a negative influence because she appears to encourage Edna's longing for Robert by letting Edna read Robert's letters to Reisz and by intensifying Robert’s words with her passionate playing.  I see Reisz as an appropriately ambiguous type we find in myths and fairy tales, a witch-like enchantress, essentially amoral; nevertheless, she warns Edna that she must have strong wings to fly above society's mores. Chopin keeps the reader’s focus on Edna’s susceptibility to infatuation when Reisz queries her about why she loves Robert, a seemingly ordinary man.  Like a keeper of the gate or threshold, Reisz indicates the hero's path that must be taken alone when she cautions Edna to watch the stairs as she leaves the apartment (XXI).


            Edna and Mlle. Reisz’s conversations about Edna as a potential artist raise another question about whether Edna’s struggle suggests a Künstlerroman as a possible genre for this fiction. Edna paints erratically, depending on her moods: if it’s a pleasant day, she can paint; if she is melancholy, she can’t. Edna’s lack of discipline shows that  The Awakening is not an example of the  genre.  Indeed, Kristeva believes the true artist is both capable of evoking the semiotic and of maintaining control over language acts and necessary structure.  A victim of changing moods, Edna is undergoing a collapse of the Symbolic, but the successful artist intuits the loss of Maternal Presence, and finds Her again in signs or images; the melancholic person cannot accept or is not able to accept this possibility.  Intuiting Edna’s fragile ego, Mlle. Reisz’s skepticism about Edna’s “wings” is emblemized by the crippled bird dropping into the water before Edna takes her final swim.


             Adéle and Reisz participate in arousing Edna to the Maternal Presence, but are not sufficient role models for her.  From the point of view of the cultural context, very few women could be, especially in a patriarchal Creole society.  Nora, in Ibsen's A Doll's House, precedes Edna as a literary rebel by leaving her husband and children in order to find herself, but I think Chopin's portrayal is  more realistic, perhaps because the author is female.  Both Adéle and Reisz evoke the Semiotic Maternal Presence in Edna, but neither can offer Edna a way to balance the Semiotic and the Symbolic, Kristeva’s goal for the artist.


            Following Adéle and Reisz, rather than preceding them, Robert Lebrun is an odd figure viewed from the context of the conventional romantic love story.  Not wealthy, not a "man of the world" with many accomplishments, Robert, instead, is a denizen in the world of women, who each summer has been "the devoted attendant of some fair dame or damsel."  One he worshiped in the past, Adéle, characterizes him as a "troublesome cat" (V).  As the oldest son of Madame Lebrun, owner of the resort at Grand Isle, Robert appears to be a summer-long resident, but he is on vacation. Marginal both in the world of men and women, Robert seems somewhat androgynous and probably will not succeed in the capitalist business world.  Undoubtedly, Edna is attracted to him for these reasons. Chopin also suggests the pair, both young, mirror one another: the narrator says Robert was “not unlike his companion. A clean-shaved face made the resemblance more pronounced than it otherwise would have been. There rested no shadow of care upon his open countenance.  His eyes gathered in and reflected the light and languor of the summer day. . . . Each was interested in what the other said.. . . Robert talked a good deal about himself.  He was very young, and did not know any better.  Mrs. Pontellier talked a little about herself for the same reason.  Each was interested in what the other said” (II).  Robert has an aura of the Maternal Presence suggested by his shaven face.


            Like Mlle. Reisz, Robert stimulates Edna's budding eroticism, possibly without being aware of it at first.  After he has initiated the party's evening swim, he picks up on Edna's remark that spirits are out that night, and spins a fantasy that on the 28th of August a spirit rises up and "takes some one mortal worthy to hold him company, worthy of being exalted for a few hours into realms of semicelestials" (X).  Edna probably begins to idealize Robert here, a typical element in romantic love.  In Tales of Love, Kristeva says idealization always arises in the subject's relation to the Other and transforms that into Desire for the Other.  She warns that if idealizing becomes extreme it can turn manic, and the subject could commit suicide (Lechte 168).  Love promises to defuse the pain of separation from the Maternal Presence, but, instead, as seen in Romeo and Juliet, death and suicide can result (Lechte 177). 


            In Edna's story, separation and idealization enkindle romantic love as Robert departs for Mexico, just as he leaves her again in the penultimate chapter of the novel.  Immediately after they say good-bye, Edna "recognized anew the symptoms of infatuation which she had felt incipiently as a child, as a girl in her earliest teens, and later as a young woman. . . . The past was nothing to her; offered no lesson which she was willing to heed.  The future was a mystery which she never attempted to penetrate.  The present alone was significant, was hers, to torture her as it was doing then with the biting which her impassioned, newly awakened being demanded" (XV).  Since an "infatuation" is defined as "irrational attraction," Edna consciously and recklessly abandons what most would call common sense and appears to invite an almost masochistic, certainly manic, passion. She refuses to remember how all her early infatuations have melted away.


            Separated from Robert, Edna desires him more.  As Kristeva says, "Love nevertheless involves  a drive toward fusion: a deathly fusion with the mother. . . .  Such a fusion is also the equivalent of the death of the symbolic and conscious subject" (Lechte 177).  In her blind love, Edna returns to New Orleans and thinks of nothing but Robert:  "She was still under the spell of her infatuation.  She had tried to forget him, the inutility of remembering.  But the thought of him was like an obsession, ever pressing itself upon her" (XVIII). Then immediately after this thought, Edna mentally transforms Robert into the Maternal Presence:  "It was not that she dwelt upon details of their acquaintance, or recalled in any special or peculiar way his personality; it was his being, his existence, which dominated her thought, 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" (XVIII).  Here, Edna is close to bringing to consciousness--to the Symbolic--an understanding of the pain of being motherless, but one of the most ironic moments in the text occurs two pages later when Edna expresses her reservations about the Ratignolle’s marriage:  "If ever the fusion of two human beings into one has been accomplished on this sphere it was surely in their union."  But as Edna leaves, she thinks that the couple lives in "an appalling and hopeless ennui. . . .  [Edna] was moved. . . [to] pity for that colorless existence which never uplifted its possessor beyond the region of blind contentment, in which no moment of anguish ever visited her soul, in which she would never have the taste of life's delirium. Edna vaguely wondered what she meant by ‘life's delirium.’  It had crossed her thought like some unsought, extraneous impression" (XVIII).  Love does seem to be blind indeed: what she longs for with Robert is what she disparages in the Ratignolles.  It is notable, too, that the narrator has a distance on this by pointing up the irony in having Edna not understand what she means by "life's delirium."


            Edna is now in a psychological dilemma: she longs to unite with Robert, the beloved Other, but she wants to find her "self."  In her fragile state, to have both is impossible.  Kristeva says that separation is necessary for development, but that "Love nevertheless involves a drive towards fusion: a deathly fusion with the mother. . . .  Such a fusion is also the equivalent of the death of the symbolic and conscious subject" (Lechte 177).  As Edna prepares to leave Leonce's home and  move into her own little house (but just around the corner), she decides to have a birthday party, double acts of change.  She decorates her house and table in an especially luxurious way: a yellow satin table cloth topped by "strips of lace work," candles "burning softly under yellow silk shades; full, fragrant roses, yellow and red abounded" (XXX).  She places soft chairs around the table, and the distant music of mandolins is heard as well as the splash of a fountain.  Dressed in a golden gown decorated by lace, she appears to be "The regal woman, the one who rules, who looks on, who stands alone."  But her sense of triumph and control is immediately undercut as she beings to feel the "old ennui overtaking her, the hopelessness which so often assailed her, which came upon her like an obsession, like something extraneous, independent of volition.  It was something which announced itself; a chill breath that seemed to issue from some vast cavern wherein discords wailed.  There came over her the acute longing which always summoned into the spiritual vision the presence of the beloved one, overpowering her at once with a sense of the unattainable" (emphasis mine).  More than any other in the novel, this passage, reveals Edna's "acute longing" for the "unattainable" "beloved one," not Robert, but the Maternal Presence.  In fact, even though Edna knows Robert will soon be returning, she has achieved sexual awakening and liberation in her affair with Arobin. Indeed, Chopin seems to be suggesting, as she does in “The Storm,” that sex and love can be successfully separated.  At her end, Edna realizes "that the day would come when [Robert], too, and the thought of him would melt out of her existence, leaving her alone" (XXXIX).  She intuits that the union with the Maternal Presence is impossible and that she cannot be with Her in life, so she chooses death in the sea, the surrogate for the Presence: "the touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace" (XXXIX).  Evoked here is chapter six from which this sentence comes.  In addition to the maternal touch, the "voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation" (VI).


            The unreality of Edna's fantasy about Robert is quite evident in her unexpected feelings when he returns from Mexico, where she first encounters him in Mlle. Reisz's apartment. Edna is alone, awaiting the older woman's return.  She has imagined what might happen on his return: he would seek her out at once.  "She always fancied him expressing or betraying in some way his love for her.  And here, the reality was that they sat ten feet apart, she at the window, crushing geranium leaves in her hand and smelling them, he twirling around on the piano stool. . . " (XXXIII).  And at the end of chapter XXXIV she senses "some way he had seemed nearer to her off there in Mexico."  Romantic love is always intensified by separation.  In Tales of Love, Kristeva analyzes the Romeo and Juliet plot to demonstrate this.  Robert is an unwilling suitor even though he returns to Louisiana to see Edna.  He appears quite passive, in fact, compared to Edna's passion for him.  She kisses him first and says they will be everything to one another.  But when she says she is not any man's love object to give up or possess, Robert's face turns white and soon his membership in the patriarchy is confirmed when he leaves her: "Goodbye because I love you" (XXXVIII).  But before that, ironically, Edna also leaves him to be with Adéle in her childbirth, a complication to the love story genre that moves Edna's character toward further complexity.  It is as if Edna must witness herself as coming from her own mother, both fascinated and horrified. After Adéle gives birth, Edna returns to find herself alone, and during that night, she realizes that, some time in the future, Robert will cease to be her love object. She will give up her life to save her “self.”  The Semiotic sea awaits her.


            An understanding of the Semiotic pulsions sheds revealing light on the style of  The Awakening.  In fact, we find at least two styles in the novel, the plain style and the semiotic. The semiotic  is characterized by rich diction and poetic sounds.  Kristeva's Semiotic, which is actually repressed to become the unconscious after the subject enters the Symbolic, is the maternal music which makes itself felt in a balanced work of art,  an effective voicing of both the Symbolic and the Semiotic.  Order is necessary, but poetry is what makes language live. Edna's efforts to repress the Semiotic in order to be more "rational" and conventional, especially in marrying Léonce, even though she is not in love with him, is quite dangerous.  Edna tries to block her Semiotic energy, but it finally overwhelms her by the end of the novel as she returns to the maternal embrace of the sea.  A Kristeva scholar, Kelly Oliver, says that the theorist believes accessing "the semiotic in language poses the threat of falling back into a pre-oedipal identification with the mother, which is psychotic. . ." (111).  Individuals who do return to the mother  often  commit suicide, according to Kristeva in Black Sun.  On a more positive note, Kristeva believes that great art can attend to the Semiotic and thus create a harmless expression of  "violent, aggressive, and antisocial drives" (Oliver 8).  A work of art expresses the creative embodiment of both the Semiotic and the Symbolic; neither can be ignored.


            The music of the maternal body before birth creates a rich, safe world for the growing fetus.  It is a realm of rhythm, the beating of the mother's heart, her surging blood, and  the mother's inarticulate voice from outside the womb.  Immediately after birth, the baby  expresses its outrage by crying; the return to the physical oneness with the womb soon becomes only an unconscious memory, but that lack will result in longing and desire for a Presence never to be reached again. The Semiotic can be evoked especially by sounds and rhythms that remind the person of its maternal Eden.  The mother reproduces the sounds, comforting the infant, and s/he will respond with one of her first words--"Mama."  Analogously, the semiotic poetry of a text is "characterized by an attention to the materiality of words, their rhythms and tones, which connect them to the repressed semiotic" (Oliver 98).  In turn, the reader is lured into an emotional link to the text, which, in the case of The Awakening, encourages us to sympathize with Edna as we simultaneously realize, unlike Edna, the impending doom.  She will become a victim of her regression while we shall be witnesses to it.  


            A close reading of The Awakening (and probably it should be read aloud) with the maternal voice in mind turns up dozens of examples of poetic sound and diction which occur usually in clusters and only in relation to Edna's subjectivity. First, frequent repetition of a word signals thematic concerns as well as emotional states. The word "alone" occurs twenty-six times.  Several "alones" can occur on one page.  This word points to Edna's solitary quest for herself and perhaps to the condition that leads to her death.  The novel's original title, "Solitary Soul," may well reflect the melancholy of the novel better than "The Awakening," whose title, of course, may be taken ironically.  But "The Solitary Soul" best describes our protagonist's psychological being.  I have counted thirteen instances of "soul."  In "alone" and "soul" are the "o" sound which is mournful (as is this word).  This repetition is reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe's "Philosophy of Composition" where he states that "nevermore" is the saddest word in the language.[7]  In chapter III, as Edna sits on the outdoor porch crying about her husband’s  imperious attitude,  a descriptive passage that is almost poetry inundates us with "o" sounds of various types and liquid consonants that add to her feeling of depression:  "There was no sound abroad except the hooting of an old owl in top of a water-oak, and the everlasting voice of the sea, that was not uplifted at that soft hour.  It broke like a mournful lullaby upon the night." Further, the semiotic consonant "m" ushers into the diction a plethora of "m" words.  The text contains about a dozen examples of "melting," almost as many "murmurs," and several "muddled" and "muffled." These words also express the vague borderland of the Semiotic where the autonomy and definition we find in the ordered Symbolic are missing.  Numerous words and phrases describe such "muddled" boundaries: "vague anguish," "shadowy," "mist," "hazy," "vague, chaotic, tangled," "drifting," "murky night," "mood," "drowsy," and "maze."


            In closely tracking the text for these examples, I discovered that most of the Semiotic diction occurs in clusters, which in turn point up the otherwise plain style of the narrative. I am using "Semiotic" and "narrative" to distinguish these styles.  All the Semiotic passages are the indirect discourse of Edna's emotions.  Following the text  chronologically, I found that there is a continuum of Semiotic words, which traces Edna's state of mind from being vulnerable and erotically aroused to depressed.


            Edna's new susceptibility to becoming engaged with the Semiotic is described negatively in chapter III after Léonce has upbraided her for inattention to the children while he was gambling at Klein's. She is sitting and crying on the porch: "An indescribable oppression, which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar [because it is Semiotic] part of her consciousness, filled her whole being with a vague anguish.  It was like a shadow, like a mist passing across her soul's summer day. [alliteration is common in these Semiotic passages].  It was strange and unfamiliar; it was a mood."  The narrator tells us that her husband's treatment of her is not uncommon, and that he has had tirades numerous times in the past; however, something has occurred that marks this moment as an awakening.


             Semiotic passages, revealing Edna's vulnerability,  occur in chapter VII as  Adéle encourages her to reminisce about her girlhood.  Edna remembers as a girl running out of the Presbyterian church where the service was being conducted by her father "in a spirit of gloom" and into a Kentucky bluegrass meadow, that she now connects to swimming in the ocean.  She recounts to her empathetic friend  the series of infatuations she indulged in when she was a girl and a teenager. The first infatuation with a cavalry officer who visited her father finally "melted imperceptibly out of her existence."  The next "went the way of dreams," and, finally, she thought she loved a theatrical star, clearly the most unattainable of all.  Undoubtedly, verbalizing her past to a sympathetic friend is a step forward, Kristeva would say, in bringing the Semiotic to language, but it is dangerous as well since Edna has repressed the experiences so long.  In fact, her marriage to Léonce is almost a joke (if it were not so dangerous): she married him because she felt no passion, thus not endangering the marriage with the possibility of "dissolution."


            Before Edna becomes a child of the sea when she naturally masters swimming, a sensuous, descriptive prelude of the night appeals to many senses: "There were strange, rare odors abroad--a tangle of the sea smell and of weeds and damp, new-plowed earth, mingled with the heavy perfume of a field of white blossoms somewhere near. . . .  The white light of the moon had fallen upon the world like the mystery and the softness of sleep. . . . The sea was quiet now, and swelled lazily in broad billows that melted into one another and did not break except upon the beach in little foamy crests that coiled back like slow, white serpents" (X). Edna is embraced by nature as well as by Mlle. Reisz's music she has just heard. Chopin’s skillful and poetic olfactory and tactile imagery in the passage echo Semiotic bursts found elsewhere. The following morning Edna takes the initiative erotically by "commanding" Robert to sail with her to the Chêničre Caminada for mass.


            On their way to the island, Robert and Edna conspire together for an erotic future and another Semiotic cluster occurs. Robert suggests tomorrow that they go to Grande Terre where they can "climb up the hill to the old fort and look at the little wriggling gold snakes. . . " (XII). Edna feels "she would like to be alone there with Robert in the sun, listening to the ocean's roar and watching the slimy lizards writhe in and out among the ruins of the old fort." This is perhaps the most phallic language in the novel. Throughout the history of western world culture, the snake suggests fertility, e.g. the plumed serpent in the Mayan culture, as well as danger in the Judaic/Christian tradition.  ". . . writhing in and out among the ruins of the old fort" represents sexual congress that takes place in a "ruined fort," perhaps a symbol of Edna's rejection of the patriarchy.


            This idyllic day on the island will be the only day she and Robert can be alone together until after he returns from Mexico.  This new intimacy is also undoubtedly what drives Robert away to Mexico because he realizes he is in love with Edna.  After she is oppressed that morning by the atmosphere of the Catholic church, she and Robert spend the day at Mme. Antoine's.  There Edna lies on a big, white bed and sleeps.  When she awakens, Robert broils her a fowl and is "childishly gratified" to feed her, rendering him as the Maternal Presence.  Chopin implies that sleeping and eating are the primitive needs that represent Edna's emotional neediness.[8]  She has been swept into another life.  The couple stay until sundown when another Semiotic burst appears: "The shadows lengthened and crept out like stealthy, grotesque monsters across the grass."  And "When she and Robert stepped into Tonie's boat with the red lateen sail, misty spirit forms were prowling in the shadows and among the reeds, upon the water were phantom ships, speeding to cover" (XIII).  The two are childishly excited to fantasize pirate gold, and as soon as the gold appears they want to fling it out on the world.  Their regressive behavior and fantasies represent a welling up of the Semiotic and the drives that threaten to carry them off.  At the dinner with Mandelet after the return to New Orleans, Edna tells a story of lovers in a boat disappearing into the mist and shadows. At that point, Mandelet is certain that Edna is involved in an affair.  Edna is drawing nearer to a powerful Semiotic breakthrough, and evidently Robert himself is as well because, soon after, he leaves for Mexico to save Edna's reputation.


            When Edna returns to New Orleans, her infatuation with Robert grows, reminding us (if not Edna) of the girlhood pattern of  attraction to unattainable men. "She was still under the spell of her infatuation. . . . the thought of him was like an obsession, ever pressing itself upon her. . . . it was his being, his existence, which dominated her thought, 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" (XVIII).  Edna projects on Robert her desire for the Maternal Presence.  She really does not remember any of the details of his person, as she tells Mlle. Reisz later.  Her recognition of her infatuation marks a beginning of her restlessness and her depression.  Obviously, Edna is not given to wise introspection or she would examine the sources of her infatuations.


            The depression that finally leads to her suicide commences in the scene when Léonce cannot bear the dinner and stamps out of the house to find it at his club.  Although the beauty of the night occupies Edna first, the diction in this cluster becomes more negative and "all the mystery and witchery of the night seems to have gathered there amid the perfumes and the dusky and torturous outlines of flowers and foliage.  She was seeking and finding herself in just such sweet, half-darkness which met her mood.  But the voices were not soothing. . . .  They jeered and sounded mournful notes without promise, devoid even of hope" (XVII).


            Edna's moods oscillate between the positive and negative, suggesting that the conscious mind is dominated by the Semiotic, leading to a deeper depression that borders on cynicism and despair: "There were days when she was unhappy, she did not know why--when it did not seem worthwhile to be glad or sorry, to be alive or dead, when life appeared to her like a grotesque pandemonium and humanity like worms struggling blindly toward inevitable annihilation" (XIX).  The image of the worms recalls by contrast the snakes and lizards in her conversation with Robert.  Now death becomes linked with love. 


            The climax of these Semiotic passages occurs at the dinner party she arranges for her friends, anticipating it with great enthusiasm because she is leaving Léonce's house to move into her own "pigeon" house.  But even amidst the gaiety, she is separate like one "who rules, who looks on, who stands alone" (XXX).  Edna's aloneness is the vacuum in her, the lack of Maternal Presence that nothing can ever fill.  Coming to her through the merriment, "she felt the old ennui overtaking her, the hopelessness which so often assailed her, which came upon her, like something extraneous, independent of volition.  [Because this is emerging from the Semiotic/unconscious.]  It was something which announced itself; a chill breath that seemed to issue from some vast cavern wherein discords wailed [a cavern that can never be filled].  There came over her the acute longing which always summoned into her spiritual vision the presence of the beloved one, overpowering her at once with a sense of the unattainable" (XXX).


            This passage contains linguistic bursts in its diction, a good example of Kristeva's notion that the Semiotic comes to the "surface" in our customary narrative.  By contrast, the "plain style" in the novel is spare:  "Edna spent an hour or two in looking over some of her old sketches.  She could see their shortcomings and defects, which were glaring in her eyes.  She tried to work a little, but found she was not in the humor" (XVIII).  Although these lines state Edna's feelings ("not in the humor"), Chopin does not choose to use semiotic imagery here. Most of the novel is, in fact, in the plain style, but it is punctuated with the emergence of the Semiotic clusters illustrated above, which  highlight the despair and cynicism Edna comes to: she sees humanity as "worms struggling blindly  toward self-annihilation."


            Chapter VI is distinct in being one large Semiotic cluster only one page long that importantly  foreshadows Edna’s struggle to come by introducing the major symbol of the novel, the sea, and in trying out various narrative voices. In this chapter Edna is called “Edna Pontellier” or “Mrs. Pontellier,” but this practice changes to “Edna” most of the time after chapter VI as her psyche emerges for the reader. A “light” is beginning to dawn, but what that light symbolizes is  never  explained in the chapter.  Edna's confusion is evident: she has opposite impulses, whether to go for a swim, or avoid it, “the light dawning dimly within her both shows the way and “forbids it.”  In paragraph five, what is “the beginning of things” that is “disturbing” and why do souls “perish”?  What does the “voice of the sea” have to do with souls perishing?  Of course, the novel  subsequently answers most of the questions put to it in chapter six. The gaps of interpretation here are thrown at us and intimate foreshadowing, yet they are powerfully confusing to a first-time reader of the novel. Chopin may have wanted the reader to return to chapter VI at a later time and attempt to undo the knot because Chopin repeats phrases of the chapter even as Edna walks into the water at the end of the novel.


            Narrative voice in chapter six also gyrates rather wildly[9].  In the last two paragraphs we seem to enter Edna’s psyche as the effect of the sea’s voice is poetized: “The voice of the sea speaks to the soul.  The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft close embrace.”   The Maternal/Lover seduces us to come nearer, but the danger is announced in  chapter VI by a more objective narrative voice in paragraph five: “How few of us ever emerge from such beginning!  How many souls perish in its tumult!”  The soul may fall into “abysses of solitude” and “lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation.”  This voice seems to have experienced such a psychic revolution and can thus be sure of the dangers.  And an even more objective voice in paragraph four pronounces Edna’s problem and sounds somewhat masculine, even satirical near the end of the paragraph: “In short, Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her.  This may seem like a ponderous weight of wisdom to descend upon the soul of a young woman of twenty eight--perhaps more wisdom than the Holy Ghost is usually pleased to vouchsafe to any woman”. The tone here strikes me as condescending  and male, the Symbolic voice.


            Despite the competing narrative voices in chapter VI, the Semiotic voice has the last word in the closing sentences on the sound of the sea. One might say that the novel is deeply dialogical, operating between these Semiotic clusters that express Edna’s inner moods and the alternative plain narrative voice.  To make this  distinction is essential; otherwise, the reader confuses Edna’s bizarre Semiotic thoughts with the voice of the narrator, or even the author. The reader is drawn into sympathy with Edna, but is also aware at some level that she is deeply disturbed. The dialogical  result clearly masters the balance between the Semiotic and the Symbolic, a balance which Kristeva argues is the artist’s victory.


            Julia Kristeva’s works, especially Black Sun and Tales of Love based in linguistics and psychoanalysis, are keys to understanding Edna’s moods, the ambiguities in the novel, the poetic language, and her ultimate suicide. Edna’s friendships with  Ratignolle and Mlle. Reisz help Edna embark on her initiation into her inner self.  These women have as powerful and important an influence on Edna as Robert does. As Edna grows more disturbed, she longs for the Maternal Presence, impossible to rejoin in this life.  She finally realizes that Robert will, sometime in the future, be inadequate to satisfy her desire. The Awakening  is a Semiotic novel filled with gaps and ambiguities, and its poetic style dramatizes the pulsions that Kristeva says are the expression of the Semiotic breaking through the Symbolic.  Kristeva’s theories, I believe, offer  the reader a  comprehensive framework for understanding the novel.




   [1] Walter Taylor and Jo Ann B. Fineman also consider Edna's lack of a mother, but in their Freudian reading emphasize rather the stern and cold father's rearing of his three daughters.


   [2] Because so many editions of this novel exist, I will refer to chapter numbers.


   [3] See Sandra W. Gilbert's “The Second Coming of Aphrodite”


   [4] Bert Bender's essay on the Darwinian influence is also useful as well as provocative when he suggests the novel is quite pessimistic about the constancy of love (463).  Darwin shared Schopenhauer's ideas about music's profound effect.

   In “Edna Pontellier's Art and Will: The Aesthetics of Schopenhauer,” Penelope A. LeFew outlines Schopenhauer's ranking of music above all the other arts because it is the most expressive of the Will.


   [5] Seyersted, 49.


   [6] Toth Interviews


   [7] See Franklin on Poe and Chopin, which also includes a discussion of Whitman's influence on Chopin.


   [8] Cynthia Griffin Woolf's Freudian reading (“Eros and Thanatos”) illustrates in detail Edna's eating and sleeping behavior.


   [9] The indirect discourse is often ambiguous: who is thinking, the narrator or Edna?








Works Cited



Bender, Bert.  “The Teeth of Desire: The Awakening.American Literature 63 (1991): 459-473.


Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth. “Kate Chopin’s The Awakening,” Southern Studies 18 (1979): 261-90.


Franklin, Rosemary F. “Poe and The AwakeningMississippi Quarterly 47 (Winter 1993): 47-57


Friedrich, Paul. The Meaning of Aphrodite. Chicago: Chicago U P, 1978.


Gilbert, Sandra M.”The Second Coming of Aphrodite: Kate Chopin’s Fantasy of Desire. Kenyon Review 5 (Summer 1983): 42-66.


Gremillian, Michelle. “Edna’s Awakening: A Return to Childhood.” In Perspectives on Kate Chopin.  Natchitoches: Northwestern State U P, 1990.


Kloepfer, Deborah Kelly. The Unspeakable Mother: Forbidden Discourse in Jean Rhys and H.D. Ithaca: Cornell U P, 1989.


Lechte, John. Julia Kristeva . London: Routledge, 1990.


LeFew, Penelope A. “Edna Pontellier’s Art and Will: The Aesthetics of Schopenhauer in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening.” In  Perspectives on Kate Chopin.  Natchitoches: Northwestern State University Press, 1990.


Oliver, Kelly. Reading Kristeva: Unraveling the Double-bind. Bloomington, 1993.


Schopenhauer, Arthur.  The World As Will and Idea. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1948.


Schweitzer, Ivy. “Maternal Discourse and the Romance of Self Possession in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening.” Boundary 2 17(1990): 158-186.


Seyersted, Per. Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State U P, 1980.


Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll.  “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America..” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 1 (1975): 1-29.


Sullivan, Ruth and Stewart Smith. “Narrative Stance in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening.” In Critical Essays on Kate Chopin, ed. Alice Hall Petry.  New York: G.K. Hall, 1996.  147-58.


Taylor, Walter and Jo Ann B. Fineman.  “Kate Chopin: Pre-Freudian Freudian.” Southern Literary Journal 29(1) (1996): 35-45.


Toth, Emily. “Kate Chopin on Divine Love and Suicide: Two Rediscovered Articles” American Literature 63 (1991): 115-120.


Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. “Thanatos and Eros: Kate Chopin’s The Awakening.” American Quarterly 25 (1973): 449-71.


____________. “Un-Utterable Longing: The Discourse of Feminine Sexuality in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening.” Studies In American Fiction 24 (Spring 1996): 3-22.


Wolkenfeld, Suzanne.  “Edna's Suicide: The Problem of the One and the Many” in Kate Chopin's  The Awakening. NY: W.W.Norton, 1994 . Pp.241-47.

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Rosemary F. Franklin "Chopin's "The Awakening": A Semiotic Novel". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available March 4, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: April 26, 2011, Published: August 17, 2011. Copyright © 2011 Rosemary F. Franklin