One Woman’s Transformation from Other to Self - A de Beauvoirian Gender Interpretation of Kate Chopin’s: The Awakening
Thesis statement: By using Simone de Beauvoir’s understanding of women as Other opposed to Self in The Second Sex, I will demonstrate how the character of Edna Pontellier, in The Awakening, transitions from Other to Self.
Simone de Beauvoir tells us that, historically speaking, men have long set themselves up as the One, the Absolute, the Subject, and the Self; therefore relegating women to the place of Other: “She [woman] is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute—she is the Other”(de Beauvoir) Simone de Beauvoir tells us men have been defining women negatively for thousands of years: “‘The female is a female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities,’ said Aristotle; ‘we should regard the female nature as afflicted with a natural defectiveness.’ And St Thomas for his part pronounced woman to be an ‘imperfect man’, an ‘incidental’ being. This is symbolised in Genesis where Eve is depicted as made from what Bossuet called ‘a supernumerary bone’ of Adam . . . Thus humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being”(de Beauvoir).
Early in The Awakening (p. 33), Edna Pontellier begins to realizes that she is not, in fact, an Other—that is, a being defined negatively—but that she is, rather, a Self: “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” (p. 33). The character of Edna is caught-up within the patriarchal Self/Other cultural milieu of her time but she does not feel as though she properly belongs to it: “In short, Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother-woman . . . 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” (p. 19).
Simone de Beauvoir describes the patriarchal Self/Other milieu, in which Edna is Other simply because she is a woman: “When man makes of woman the Other, he may, then, expect to manifest deep-seated tendencies towards complicity. Thus, woman may fail to lay claim to the status of subject because she lacks definite resources, because she feels the necessary bond that ties her to man regardless of reciprocity, and because she is often very well pleased with her role as the Other”( de Beauvoir).
In The Awakening, Edna is not at all content with her role as Other but she finds it difficult to break free of this role, which is constantly imposed upon her by the dominant patriarchal culture of which she is a part. The difficulty Edna has in learning how to break free of these patriarchal, cultural restraints is described metaphorically by the author: “Edna had attempted all summer to learn to swim” (p. 70). Edna’s “learning how to swim” is the author’s metaphorical description of Edna’s learning how to be free or liberated—in the feministic sense—of patriarchal dominance.
The first time Edna senses freedom, and the first time she realizes herself as Self rather than Other, is when she swims out to sea; and the experience terrifies her: “As she swam she seemed to be reaching out for the unlimited in which to lose herself. Once she turned and looked toward the shore, toward the people she had left there. She had not gone any great distance—that is, what would have been a great distance for an experienced swimmer. But to her unaccustomed vision the stretch of water behind her assumed the aspect of a barrier which her unaided strength would never be able to overcome. A quick vision of death smote her soul, and for a second of time appalled and enfeebled her senses. But by an effort she rallied her staggering faculties and managed to regain the land” (pp. 70-71).
As she swims out into the sea, Edna seems to be “reaching out for the unlimited in which to lose herself”, and when she turned and “looked toward the shore” she was aware of “the people she had left there.” Edna’s awareness of the people she’s left behind, by swimming out to sea, represents (metaphorically) her hesitancy to cut the ties to the oppressive, patriarchal Self/Other milieu of which she is a part, which de Beauvoir speaks of, and Edna’s perception of “the stretch of water” as “a barrier, which her unaided strength would never be able to overcome,” represents her present inability to lay hold of the freedom and independence (i.e., the realization of herself as Self rather than Other) that her swimming out to sea or “reaching out for the unlimited in which to lose herself” represents.
In this episode, the exploit of Edna’s swimming out to sea functions (metaphorically) as a mode of existential, feminist transcendence. As de Beauvoir points out, such “exploits or projects . . . serve as a mode of transcendence,”( de Beauvoir ) yet when Edna catches a glimpse of her potential freedom—a brief moment of existential, feminist transcendence—she shrinks away from it in ( deathly) terror, and it is only by great effort that she manage to swim back to shore. Edna resists, here, that which (alone) can set her free: the liberating ability to transcend the artificial boundaries that patriarchy has imposed upon her which limit her existence to that of Other. Edna tastes feminist liberation, but this taste of freedom frightens her and she swims back to shore. She fears both her separation from the world she is accustomed to and the world of feminine liberation, and she senses that in order to gain the freedom she desires and the freedom she has glimpsed in this one, terrifying moment of liberation, she must swim deep into the unknown.
It is not until the end of The Awakening that Edna finally embraces, what I believe to be, her one, true Lover; whose desire for her is simply that which Edna desires for herself: to become a Self rather than an Other. A hopeless romantic—with an artistic, mercurial temperament and given to fantasies—Edna makes the romantic, realistic, and courageous decision to embrace the only, true Lover who is able to speak to her feminine soul; the only, true Lover whose sensuous, feminine touch enfolds her body in its soft, close embrace; the only, true Lover who can help Edna to embrace her feminist liberation: the sea. The author of The Awakening, Kate Chopin, personifies the sea as a feminine Lover in precisely this way: “The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace” (p. 34).
Standing naked by the sea, Edna’s transcendental, feminist transformation—from unenlightened Other to enlightened Self—begins: “How strange and awful it seemed to stand naked under the sky! How delicious! She felt like some new-born creature, opening its eyes in a familiar world that it had never known” (p. 301). Here, on the beach, Edna realizes her new-born Self. This time, in swimming out to sea, Edna will realize (i.e. make real) that which de Beauvoir speaks of: “There is no justification for present existence other than its expansion into an indefinitely open future”(de Beauvoir).
Edna knows she will only find herself as Self by losing herself as Other within the deep, sensuous, open, and limitless embrace of her feminine Lover, the sea: “The foamy wavelets curled up to her white feet, and coiled like serpents about her ankles. She walked out. The water was chill, but she walked on. The water was deep, but she lifted her white body and reached out with a long, sweeping stroke. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace. She went on and on . . .” This time Edna will not retreat from her new-found existential, feminist transcendence, because “[e]very time transcendence falls back into immanence, stagnation, there is a degradation of existence . . . the brutish life of subjection to given conditions – and of liberty into constraint and contingence”(de Beauvoir).
Edna, now, has lost all desire for “life” as an Other and she embraces completely—although not without nostalgic longings—her new-found existence as a Self: “She did not look back now, but went on and on, thinking of the blue-grass meadow that she had traversed when a little child . . . She thought of Léonce and the children . . . They were a part of her life. But they need not have thought that they could possess her, body and soul . . . The artist must possess the courageous soul that dares and defies . . . ‘Good-by—because, I love you’ . . . but it was too late; the shore was far behind her, and her strength was gone.” This time, Edna is not afraid, and she swims deep into her Lover’s eternal embrace.
When she looks into the distance, the old (deathly) terror “flames up” for an instant, but then sinks again. Edna is no longer afraid; she embraces her Lover and in doing so she embraces her Self. She hears her father's voice and her sister Margaret's . . . the barking of an old dog chained to the sycamore tree . . . the spurs of the cavalry officer as he walks across the porch and she becomes one with her Lover, the sea, who—alone—helps Edna to realize her true being: “There was the hum of bees, and the musky odor of pinks filled the air” and Edna becomes one with the world—earth, sky and sea. Here, in her Lover’s soft and sensuous embrace—and only here—does Edna become one with herself as Self; she is no longer Other.