Kate Chopin’s The Awakening is a haunting examination of the consequences of one woman’s burgeoning self-awareness. The novel follows the journey of Edna Pontellier from one who experiences “an indescribable oppression, which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar part of her consciousness” (Chopin 8) to an individual who “began to do as she liked and to feel as she liked” (Chopin 76). Edna’s transformation is a remarkable departure from the usual life trajectory of the ideal mother-woman, and it occurs after a summer on Grand Isle, where she becomes romantically attached to Robert Lebrun. Her feelings for Robert contribute to Edna’s abandonment of her husband and children and ultimately to her suicide.
The author chose to examine this story through the use of an omniscient point of view. Harmon and Holman define this as when the “narrator is capable of knowing, seeing, and telling all…characterized by freedom in shifting from the exterior world to the inner selves of a number of characters, a freedom…in both time and place, and a freedom of the narrator to comment on the meaning of actions” (384). While clearly the protagonist is Edna, the reader is able to gain insight into a number of characters, including her husband Leonce and Robert Lebrun, as well as more minor characters like the Farival twins and Doctor Mandalet. By choosing to write the novel in this way, Chopin expands the possible interiority for each character, thus allowing the reader to experience this tale in a number of ways. Furthermore, by allowing the reader to experience Leonce’s point of view, the reader gains sympathy for his wife.
As Edna’s self-awareness increases, so does the amount of interiority the author provides. Interiority into the protagonist is necessary for the reader to gain some clarity into the metamorphosis that she is experiencing, as it was out of the realm of the ordinary, particularly for the time in which the story was written. For example, at the end of the novel when she is on the verge of suicide, she reflects
There was no human being whom she wanted near her except Robert; and she even realized that the day would come when he, too, and the thought of him would melt out of her existence, leaving her alone. The children appeared before her like antagonists who had overcome her; who had overpowered and sought to drag her into the soul’s slavery for the rest of her days. But she knew a way to elude them. (Chopin 155)
By following Edna closely here, a reason, whose sufficiency is up for debate, is provided for the actions she has taken and will take. The reader sees here that this is how she ultimately views her escape from slavery into freedom.
By using the omniscient point of view and thus providing interiority for Leonce Pontellier, Edna’s husband, Chopin strengthens the case for Edna’s behavior in the book. While he is more than supportive monetarily, his expectations for her to remain submissive and thoroughly conventional help drive her towards a more experimental lifestyle. Furthermore, his criticisms of the way she does maintain aspects of the more traditional gender role, as a mother for instance, show his displeasure as they seep through his composed exterior. Leonce reflects, “It would have been a difficult matter for Mr. Pontellier to define to his own satisfaction or anyone else’s wherein his wife failed in her duty toward their children. It was something which he felt rather than perceived, and he never voiced the feeling without subsequent regret and ample atonement” (Chopin 10). Later still, upon hearing that Edna will be moving to the little house around the corner, he is more concerned with “what people will say” and how such an action by his wife “might do incalculable mischief to his business prospects” (Chopin 126). His lack of concern for her as a person, and lack of focus on fixing issues within the marriage instead of maintaining appearance for societal approval, lends sympathy towards Edna.
By choosing to write the novel through the omniscient point of view, rather than one character’s perspective only, Chopin broadens the reader’s experience of The Awakening. Not only is more interiority provided for a number of characters, but the switches between them strengthen sympathy for Edna Pontellier, the clear protagonist. There is no doubt that The Awakening is an important work, and its intricacies will no doubt continue to be studied for generations.