CHOPIN, KATE [O’FLAHERTY] (1850–1904). Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Kate Chopin had no experience of the sea until her three-month
European honeymoon in 1870. On her return to the United States, she
moved with her husband to the coastal city of New Orleans, the setting of
her best-known novel, The Awakening (1899). Like Chopin’s other fiction,
The Awakening can be aligned with nineteenth-century local color and regional works; however, its complex representation of the sea and the protagonist’s response to it align it with symbolic, psychological, and
philosophical literature.
At the upper-middle-class seaside resort where the novel opens, Edna
Pontellier, a wife and mother, expresses a new consciousness of her senses
and of unlimited possibilities by learning to swim in the sea. In describing
Edna’s awakening, Chopin writes with a lyrical prose that reflects the sensuous whispering of waves. Aware of the sea’s danger, Edna nevertheless
defies that danger just as she increasingly defies social conventions in accordance with her own impulses. Chopin points to potential problems in Edna’s
romantic attitude when, charmed by Creole folktales regarding hidden pirate* treasure and a Gulf Spirit’s search for a lovely mortal, Edna leaves her
family for a day to sail away with a young man to a provincial island. (In her only story concerning the sea, “At Che ˆnie `re Caminada” [1894], which
is set on this same island, Chopin recounts the nearly tragic infatuation that
a young island man develops for a sophisticated New Orleans woman when
he takes her sailing on the enchanted Gulf waters.) In The Awakening’s
conclusion, Edna, alienated from society and family, returns to the seaside
resort, symbolically removes her incumbering bathing suit, and takes her
final swim. Readers of Chopin’s novel continue to debate whether Edna’s
suicide is narcissistic or liberating, self-destructive or self-fulfilling.