Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening is often thought of as an important work of feminism, charting the emotional entrapment of a woman bound by a loveless marriage in a patriarchal society. Protagonist Edna, left desolate by the failure of her affair with her young lover, calmly decides that there is only one solution to her misery…
“What time will you have dinner?” asked Edna. “I’m very hungry; but don’t get anything extra.”
“I’ll have it ready in little or no time,” he said, bustling and packing away his tools. “You may go to my room to brush up and rest yourself. Marie will show you.”
“Thank you,” said Edna. “But, do you know, I have a notion to go down to the beach and take a good wash and even a little swim, before dinner?”
“The water is too cold!” they both exclaimed. “Don’t think of it.”
“Well, I might go down and try—dip my toes in. Why, it seems to me the sun is hot enough to have warmed the very depths of the ocean. Could you get me a couple of towels? I’d better go right away, so as to be back in time. It would be a little too chilly if I waited till this afternoon.”
Marie ran over to Victor’s room, and returned with some towels, which she gave to Edna.
“I hope you have fish for dinner,” said Edna, as she started to walk away; “but don’t do anything extra if you haven’t.”
Edna walked on down to the beach rather mechanically, not noticing anything special except that the sun was hot. She was not dwelling upon any particular train of thought. She had done all the thinking which was necessary after Robert went away, when she lay awake upon the sofa till morning.
Despondency had come upon her there in the wakeful night, and had never lifted. There was no one thing in the world that she desired. 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. She was not thinking of these things when she walked down to the beach.
The water of the Gulf stretched out before her, gleaming with the million lights of the sun. The voice of the sea is seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander in abysses of solitude. All along the white beach, up and down, there was no living thing in sight. A bird with a broken wing was beating the air above, reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water.
Edna had found her old bathing suit still hanging, faded, upon its accustomed peg.
She put it on, leaving her clothing in the bathhouse. But when she was there beside the sea, absolutely alone, she cast the unpleasant, pricking garments from her, and for the first time in her life she stood naked in the open air, at the mercy of the sun, the breeze that beat upon her, and the waves that invited her.
How strange and awful it seemed to stand naked under the sky! how delicious! She felt like some newborn creature, opening its eyes in a familiar world that it had never known.
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. She remembered the night she swam far out, and recalled the terror that seized her at the fear of being unable to regain the shore. 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, believing that it had no beginning and no end.
Her arms and legs were growing tired. Exhaustion was pressing upon and overpowering her.
“Goodbye—because I love you.” He did not know; he did not understand. He would never understand. Perhaps Doctor Mander would have understood if she had seen him—but it was too late; the shore was far behind her, and her strength was gone.
She looked into the distance, and the old terror flamed up for an instant, then sank again. Edna heard her father’s voice and her sister Margaret’s. She heard the barking of an old dog that was chained to the sycamore tree. There was the hum of bees, and the musky odour of pinks filled the air.