The Song of the Sea: Water and Music in Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening”

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The Song of the Sea: Water and Music in Kate Chopin’s
Editor’s Note: This piece is about the book The Awakening by Kate Chopin, a story about a woman named Edna Pontellier’s desire to truly find herself. Edna is searching for a way to escape the chains of the patriarchy and her domestic life. Whether you have read this book or are planning to read it—or even if you may not read it at all—we hope this piece speaks to you in a meaningful way.

Edna Pontellier does not exist in a neutral state. Her moods ebb and flow, crescendo and decrescendo. Throughout the course of The Awakening, written at the turn of the 20th
century by Kate Chopin, Edna navigates the struggles of balancing her motherhood and her freedom. Concurrently, Edna takes pleasure in the ocean and in music. The constant
appearance of both of these elements emphasizes her difficulties living as an oppressed but free-spirited woman and the temptations and choices presented to her. She traces her identity as a person through music, and she finds it in the ocean.

Like the ocean, Edna is highly capricious. Instead of tides, she has mood swings. In some moments, she is happy with her life. In these times, she cherishes her role as a mother and wife in the strict Creole society of New Orleans, although “She was fond of her children in an uneven, impulsive way. She would sometimes gather them passionately in her heart; she would sometimes forget them” (86). Other times, she is depressed and only wants to get away. When this feeling comes around, she feels no connection to her family and her maternal role. Her once-beloved children go off to stay with their grandmother, and she even buys her own house to live in independently. When the ocean goes from high to low tide (as Edna’s moods do), nobody blames it for changing, that is the way nature works, and if the water is allowed to do this, so is Edna. By showing that such changes are natural, Chopin implies that expecting women to be full-time housewives is like trying to keep a wave upon the sand. Women aren’t the one-dimensional creatures that men and even many women expect them to be; they have shifting emotions and temperaments. Edna is a part of nature just like water is, and who can deny the validity of water?

The ocean is a forbidden world to Edna. She spends much of her time dreaming of what
her life could hold, and one of her greatest desires is to swim out into the ocean. However, her husband prevents her from swimming out too far. He is often controlling of his wife (as was the custom in Creole society), and her attraction to the ocean isn’t the only part of Edna he tries to limit. Edna, however, will not let herself be held back by her husband. In “The Role of the Sea in The Awakening by Kate Chopin,” Rich Christie suggests that the ocean seduces Edna with its “infinite temptation, passion, and forbiddence” (Christie), something that is hard to come by in her normal life. He argues that Edna lives her life looking for an escape and thrills, and that the ocean is able to supply these desires. In her world, she is out of place and needs somewhere to find herself. She wants something beyond her dull maternal existence, and the only outlet she can find is the beautiful yet dangerous ocean. At the end of the novel, Edna frees herself completely by swimming out by herself and drowning. Despite her tragic fate, Edna remains happy until the end because she is finally experiencing the exhilaration of which she has dreamed. Edna dies breaking the rules and doing what men had told her not to do, feeling liberated even as she drowns. She stands on the beach prior to her death feeling “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” (156). Christie draws attention to her love affair with the ocean, writing that “The danger of it’s [sic] massive flowing body, the long stretch of it’s [sic] waves reaching out for someone to seduce, and the way that it surrounds a body whole and complete taunted Edna with the satisfaction she had always searched for. Giving herself to the sea was her last venture into the world of passion, as it slowly seduced her and silently killed her” (1). The idea that the only way for Edna to escape is by drowning herself emphasizes her struggle with domestic life. Although the book is titled The Awakening, there is no direct indication of in what moment her “awakening” occurs. However, the time that Edna is described as feeling the most alive is as she swims out into the ocean alone, right before drowning. A major theme of the book is Edna’s gradual transition into a free woman, that “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. This might seem like a ponderous weight of wisdom to descend upon the soul of a young woman of twenty-eight—perhaps more wisdom than the Holy Ghost is usually pleased to vouchsafe to any woman” (17). Swimming freely is the final step in Edna’s personal journey, and her personal connection to water makes it even more poignant.

Edna often looks to music as a way of escape. Music energizes her and fills her with an
energy that motivates her to live independently. When she listens to her friend Mademoiselle Reisz play piano, she feels strong emotions. For example, at one party listening to the piano she senses that “The shadow deepened in the little room. The music grew strange and fantastic—turbulent, insistent, plaintive, and soft with entreaty. The shadows grew deeper. The music filled the room. It floated out upon the night, over the housetops, the crescent of the river, losing itself in the silence of the upper air” (86). The vivid imagery describing music provides a hint of what Edna wants for herself. In a similar fashion to how Edna connects with the turbidity of the ocean, she also finds inspiration for freedom in the music. The music is free and wild, just as Edna eventually becomes.

The differences between the two musicians in the novel, Mademoiselle Reisz and Adele
Ratignolle, emphasize the differences in Edna’s life influences. The pianist Mademoiselle Reisz is the type of woman that Edna dreams of being. Unmarried, she lives by herself and makes beautiful music. As Edna slowly leaves her family, she follows Mademoiselle Reisz’s example; Mademoiselle Reisz is a sort of outcast, living by herself with no family, a life that Edna slowly adapts over the course of the novel. As their friendship blossoms, Edna constantly admires her friend’s music which is free and soaring like Edna wishes to be. In her article, “Kate Chopin’s The Awakening: Struggle Against Society and Nature,” Megan P. Kaplon writes that the most significant part of Mademoiselle Reisz’s music is how it differs from the music of Edna’s friend Adele, a woman who fully embraces her role as a mother and housewife. Kaplon points out that Adele only plays music to please her family, but Mademoiselle Reisz plays to please herself. Adele’s music is tame and conventional, nothing that Edna particularly admires. The difference in the playing of the two woman makes an important point about women during this time period: women either could either live solely as homemakers as Adele does, or they were outcasts from society, as Mademoiselle Reisz is. According to Kaplon, “These women are the examples that the men around Edna contrast her with and from whom they obtain their expectations for her. Edna, however, finds both role models lacking and begins to see that the life of freedom and individuality that she wants goes against both society and nature” (1). Thus, Edna is forced to choose the soundtrack to her life. Does she want it to be familial, or does she want it to be unconventional and free? By including this important question, Chopin portrays the choice women were forced to make about how they wished to live their lives.

Edna Pontellier loves the ocean and music, both of which are strong influencing factors
for her life path. While water and music are a great comfort to Edna, they are also factors that lead to her tragic fate. She escapes into both to get away from the drudgery of being a housewife, but the escape they lead her to is dangerous and ultimately leads to her death. Edna’s unfortunate fate demonstrates how the traditional place of the woman in society can be destructive to women who don’t fit the mold as housewives. In her unhappy life, Edna follows the hypnotizing waves of water and of sound, which although leading to her demise, are still preferred over a forced existence in an uncomfortable role. Edna’s death embodies the idea that at times it is preferable to live a short and good life over a long, unenjoyable one.

Christie, Rich. “The Role of the Sea in The Awakening by Kate Chopin.” The Role Of the Sea In The Awakening by Kate Chopin, richchristie.tripod.com/papers/theawakening.html.

Kaplon, Megan P. “Kate Chopin’s The Awakening: Struggle Against Society and Nature.” Inquiries Journal, Inquiries Journal, 1 July 2012, www.inquiriesjournal.com/articles/657/kate-chopins-the-awakening-struggle-against-society-and-nature.

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Leah Jaffe is 17 years old, and a junior at Cambridge Central School in upstate New York. She enjoys participating in many forms of the performing arts, as well as reading, writing, gardening, and petting dogs.
Accompanying photo: “Oceanview” by Alex Garrow