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Edna’s Discovery of Self in Chopin’s The Awakening: A Jungian Psychoanalysis
“A girl should be two things: who and what she wants” (Coco Chanel). This powerful mantra, which cries out strongly in a voice of female empowerment, serves as the central ideal prevalent throughout Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. Edna Pontellier, an inattentive mother of two who feels trapped in a loveless marriage, feels her senses awakened by her newfound passion for Robert Lebrun, an attractive man whom she meets while on a family vacation in the Grand Isle. Edna struggles with the blending of her identity with the expectations of women to fulfill the demanding roles of wife and mother. She then experiences an overwhelming surge of freedom as she breaks away from the social structures that keep her down and hold her back from being her true self. She uncovers the many facets of her own being, including her inner desires, sexuality, and need for cognitive unity. Chopin’s The Awakening demonstrates the Jungian principles of syzygy, the mask, and several archetypes portrayed in Edna Pontellier’s unsuccessful quest to find herself amid the pressure to conform to female gender roles.
Jungian approaches stem from Freudian principles; therefore, it is necessary to first provide background knowledge of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) is the “father” of psychoanalytic theory, which according to his argument, is based upon the conflict between subconscious repressed (often sexual) desires and the reality of moral principles. These animalistic urges are caused by the id and suppressed by the superego, leaving only the ego to be seen on the surface. This tension is caused by the drive of the human libido, or need for gratification and pleasure. Freud is perhaps most famous for coining the controversial term, “Oedipus complex,” which states that a boy longs for his mother but is turned away from his incestual desire by the father. Conversely, Freud referred to women as “the dark continent,” leading many critics to reject his vague offers of explanation for female development. Freudian theory also provides perspective on the interpretation of the meaningful content of dreams, coping mechanisms, and the relationship between Eros meaning “love, or sexual intimacy” and Thanatos meaning “death” (Pennington and Cordell). In The Awakening, Edna Pontellier is an excellent example of woman as “the dark continent,” whereas even she herself is unable to define her own being and identity. Driven by sexual desires, she explores both the realms of life through intimate love with her lover Robert and death through her suicide at the end of the novel. In addition to these Freudian elements, several Jungian principles play a role in Edna’s fatal journey to find her complete self as well.
Carl Jung, a former Freudian, moved the focus of psychoanalytic theory away from the intensity of sexual desire and repression. Instead, Jung proposed the theory of collective unconscious, “a universal storehouse of images that are common to all humanity” (Pennington and Cordell). The collective unconscious makes it possible for people to identify archetypes, or common images, such as the Self, shadow, and anima and animus. These Jungian elements are present throughout the novel as Edna Pontellier attempts to find herself on her quest to uncover her identity.
Jung’s concept of syzygy is portrayed in Edna’s battle to become her ideal self. Syzygy is “the fulfillment of unity and of balance” (Pennington and Cordell). Edna finds it difficult to balance her own desire to be independent with being a good mother. She says, “But I don’t want anything but my own way. That is wanting a good deal, of course, when you have to trample upon the lives, the hearts, the prejudices of others–but no matter–still, I shouldn’t want to trample upon the little lives” (Chopin 121). While Edna longs to be her own woman, she cannot comprehend doing so at the expense of her children. In a related way, she grapples with balancing independence with passion through her relationship with Robert Lebrun: “A hundred times Edna had pictured Robert’s return, and imagined their first meeting. She always fancied him expressing or betraying in some way his love for her” (106). Despite being the tenacious woman she is, Edna still finds herself torn between independence and her longing to be with Robert. Trying to find harmony between these varying of aspects of her life proves difficult, and she inevitably finds it impossible to consolidate these parts of her identity into one state. At the end of the novel, after realizing she has failed her children by being a poor mother and throwing herself into despair when Robert leaves her, she commits suicide because she simply cannot cope with the chaos and lack of cognitive unity in her life. She has realized that Leonce and the children “need not have thought that they could possess her, body and soul,” and that “Robert would never understand” (124) how his abandonment of her has damaged her. Because of her failure to maintain these self-defining relationships, Edna never does attain the unity of syzygy by finding her true self. As a result, she culminates her unsuccessful quest in self-destruction. Perhaps, had Edna not pent up her emotions behind her mask of the typical happy mother and wife, she would not have felt as though she could no longer bear to go on living and instead fought off the urge to act so irrationally.
Edna’s mask prevents her from revealing her inner desires and convictions, causing her to feel constricted by her womanly roles. Jung’s mask is defined as “the outward face that a person wears into the world that hides the true self” (Pennington and Cordell). Edna, who wears the mask of an obedient wife, is not like the common woman who accepts her assumed responsibilities, whereas her identity is split into a “dual life–that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions” (Chopin 16). Unlike other women of the time, Edna possesses an inner desire for freedom, a fiery spirit longing to do as she pleases despite the gender norms she is placed into by the inheritance of her birth. Even her marriage to Leonce, which is described more as a business arrangement than loving relationship, feels to Edna like a “masquerade” lacking any passion whatsoever, “closing the portals forever behind her upon the realm of romance and dreams” (20). Leonce can see Edna pulling away from the mask she has worn their entire marriage, noting that “she was becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world” (62). Strict societal expectations of females trap Edna into concealing these inward inclinations, leading her to act out in seeking out her own personal, forbidden interests. The greatest example of this is when she neglects her duties to her family and instead chooses to engage in a passionate love affair with Robert. In doing so, Edna removes her mask and begins exploring her identity as an independent human being. Nonetheless, as Edna strips herself away from the reality of being Leonce’s wife and the mother of his children, choosing to delve deeper into her personal desires proves to be just as problematic as it is spiritually liberating.
Edna’s archetypal shadows–that is, her fears of being a bad mother and being trapped in an unhappy marriage–cloud her self-concept, thus hindering her awakening throughout the novel. Jung’s archetype, the shadow, is a “Key archetype that challenges the concept of self; the shadow is the dark side of the Self, or the moral problem that the Self must confront” (Pennington and Cordell). Edna’s husband complains that she has “failed in her duty toward their children” (Chopin 9), an issue that is Edna’s primary concern yet she consistently tries to ignore. However, when her world falls apart after Robert leaves her, she comes face to face with the issue, which has now made her look foolish for intentionally trying to “forget them” (20) and separating from her husband. Suddenly, as in a vision, “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” (124). Devastated by her blunder, she reasons the only way she can “elude them” (124) and the guilt the children make her feel is by committing suicide. Edna also faces the hardship of suffering in her passionless and responsibility-laden marriage to Leonce. Wifely duties do not sit well with Edna, who often cries uncontrollably in the middle of the night out of misery during bouts of depression that “are not uncommon in her married life” (7). To Edna, marriage is “An indescribable oppression… filled her whole being with a vague anguish. It was like a shadow” (7). The social structures of motherhood and marriage forcefully define Edna for who she is; therefore, her subconscious desire for freedom is stifled by what others see and expect from her. Because “To understand the unconscious is… to begin to understand how one understands oneself in relation to the world” (Zacharias 320), Edna’s inability to directly express her inner desires perpetually coerces her to hide her true self. These negative aspects of Edna’s self are reflected in the shadow of her animus through her sexual desire for Robert.
In Edna’s longing for Robert, she yearns to complete her identity by becoming one with him through the uniting of their animus and anima. Serving as male and female counterparts, the “animus is the masculine part of the female” while the “anima is the female part of the male.” The anima and animus are the shadows of the Self and are repressed by a refusal to display the side of the opposite gender; therefore, they “project its opposite onto others, which explains erotic homosexual love: the male and female are united, finding their anima or animus completed by their partner” (Pennington and Cordell). Edna explores the sexual component of her identity in her romantic relationship with Robert, with whom she is “under the spell of her infatuation… an incomprehensible longing” (Chopin 59) and desires to become sexually intimate. She wishes for her and Robert to be one just like the Ratignolles, whose ideal relationship she holds on a pedestal: “The Ratignolles understood each other perfectly. If ever the fusion of two human beings into one has been accomplished on the sphere it was surely in their union” (60). After thirsting for Robert during his long absence and finally receiving the confession of his mutual passionate love for her, Edna senses their unity coming near and begins to feel complete in the fullness of her awakening: “‘I love you’ she whispered, ‘only you; no one but you. It was you who awoke me last summer out of a life-long, stupid dream. Now you are here we shall love each other, my Robert. We shall be everything to each other. Nothing else in the world is of any consequence” (117). This driving force of unity is so strong that once Robert leaves her, Edna can no longer conceive the meaning of her own identity and kills herself. Although Edna’s drastic actions may appear to be somewhat shocking and irrational, her suicide makes a poignant statement about the archetypal Self, which can never be attained.
Throughout the novel Edna strives to discover Jung’s archetype of Self, as demonstrated by her titular “awakenings”. Jung’s Self is defined as “the image of wholeness or individuation; the total personality but is unknown, leading to the quest or search for ‘self’” (Pennington and Cordell). After years of pretending to be someone she is not, Edna is on a quest to discover her Self as a whole person, a free and independent entity–unlike the way society has previously regarded her. She begins 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” (Chopin 15). She searches for her identity by exploring the various aspects that are “asleep” within her and “awakens” them through personal discovery. She accomplishes this by doing things she’s never done before, specifically by expressing her sexuality as a strong, independent woman as well as through her affair with Robert. In several moments in which this victory occurred, “A feeling of exultation overtook her, as if some power of significant import had been given her to control the working of her body and soul. She grew daring and reckless, overestimating her strength” (31). However, as prophesied by the basic definition of Self–which can never be fully known–Edna fails to unearth her complete identity, whereas she tragically commits suicide before completing her journey.
Edna’s failure in her quest to find wholeness and her identity is directly related to her failed relationships. With Robert no longer in her life, “There was no human being whom she wanted near her” (123) who could motivate her to continue on—not even her own children. Nor was there “one thing in the world that she desired” (123) anymore, including her own life and the ultimate answer to her quest for Self. Despite having spent the entire novel desperately trying to break free from the relationships that tethered her to society’s sexist notions, she realizes that it is these very relationships with her husband and children that have, in a sense, defined who she is all along. Without her defined roles of mother, wife, and lover she cannot comprehend her place in the world merely as a woman. With these ties to her family broken and her one chance at escape from oppression and anonymity suddenly vanished (that is, Robert), Edna’s feels lonely, empty, and hopelessly lost. Caught between the two sides of these failed relationships, Edna is convinced that she now has no one to turn to; therefore, her only available option is to simply end her life. By doing so, Edna finally has control over her own freedom, which would therefore complete her quest and thus give herself a synthetic form of completion by providing closure to her problems.
In The Awakening, Chopin utilizes Jungian psychoanalytic principles such as syzygy, the mask, and the archetypes of shadows, anima and animus, and Self to add hidden dynamism to the text, which reveals much about Edna Pontellier’s disastrous search for her identity as she battles subjection to oppressive gender roles. Although Edna is ultimately unable to successfully find her identity on her brave quest, her inspiring rebellion against the misogynistic culture that cages her provides an urgently needed sense of feminist awareness to readers, both male and female. This novel is perhaps one of the most telling of its kind in recent history in terms of the cognitive and emotional aspects of a woman’s psyche regarding women’s rights. It makes brutally bare the soul of the oppressed woman to the rest of an intolerant society, whose control is still prominent today. Edna Pontellier’s death is a martyrdom in the name of feminism, whose goal is to instill in each and every reader their own spiritual, intellectual, and emotional Awakening.
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. Middletown, DE: Mockingbird Classics, 2016.
Pennington, John, and Ryan Cordell. Writing About Literature Through Theory. Vol. 1.0. N.p.: Flat World Education, 2016.
Zacharias, Greg W. “A Psychoanalytic Perspective.” Turn of the Screw. 3rd ed. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2010. 320-32.
*See Abstracts section of blog for abstract and keyword search on Zacharias’s A Psychoanalytic Perspective