Ecocriticism in the Awakening

Nature in The Awakening was used symbolically to represent the freedom to break free from the traditional placement of women during the nineteenth century - Ecocriticism in the Awakening introduction. Although The Awakening is not typically applauded for its emphasis on “nature writing”, the direct correlation between the environment and the main character’s (Edna) choice to break free from society’s tendency to categorize women as sinners or saints. Using The Awakening and Glotfelty’s definition of ecocriticism, it will be shown that the environment plays a major part in the theme of the novel.

In order to fully grasp the environmental connection between what is usually determined as a “gender” novel, because of the character’s fight for an alternative path for women, it must be realized how Kate Chopin addresses nature as an alternative escape from “good or evil. ” According to Glotfelty, ecocriticism “shares the fundamental premise that human culture is connected to the physical world, affecting it and affected by it” (Glotfelty). The first connection between the physical world and The Awakening would be the fact that Edna is on an island.

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The island represents her physical body and mind stuck in one place. The island is described as, “a breeze blowing, choppy stiff wind that whipped water into froth. It fluttered the skirts of the two women (Edna and her friend) and kept them for a while engaged in adjusting, readjusting, tucking in, securing hair pins and hat pins” (Chopin p. 16). The importance of this description is that it shows the wind and water trying to distract the women from their traditional focus of “womanly concerns”.

The women are so concerned with being viewed as saints that they ignore nature when it tries hard to persuade them to pay attention, to break free of society’s hold and walk into the ocean, to accept freedom outside of traditional categories. Edna later says to her friend about the ocean, “first of all, the sight of the water stretching so far away, these motionless sails against the blue sky, made a delicious picture that I just wanted to sit and look at” (Chopin p. 16).

Edna acknowledges the water but doesn’t put the connection together that the sail is working to convince her to make an escape to nature. The sail could take her away to a place where she is not a mother, a woman, or put into a category. She thinks of the ocean as a picture, as a dream, but not a place where she could realistically escape, despite that the environment is almost pushing her out of the tight hold of a nineteenth century “typical” woman. Another aspect of nature that is symbolically affecting the way the reader views The Awakening would be the parrot.

The parrot says, “Go away! Go away! For God’s sake! ” (Chopin p. 3). The parrot is literally telling Edna to leave society, to not be stuck living in a world where she cannot escape tradition, but to face who she really is. The parrot knows she is not happy being a mother; it knows that she wants more, but if she were to announce that she is unhappy, society would deem her as a sinner. Edna, after being annoyed with the parrot, leaves with a look of disgust. She is disgusted by the thought of actually leaving her comfortable place as a saint.

Even though she is not happy, she does not want to risk being a “sinner”. She does not know that she does not have to choose. She can live outside of society’s tyranny, freely in nature. At the end of the book, the readers are able to clearly see how the environment relates to Edna’s decision to leave society. In fact, using Glotfelty’s definition of ecocriticism, we are able to use that connection to justify how the whole novel represents nature interacting with humans.

Glotfelty’s definition is simply, “the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment” (Glotfelty). The ocean, at the end, becomes an escape from her life. When Edna jumps into the water and swims, she is symbolically choosing to leave society. The ocean, or nature, opens up its arms for her, and when she “was besides the sea, absolutely alone, she cast the unpleasant 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 invited her” (Chopin p.

108). When she is in the ocean swimming, she takes on a new role. This role is neither a sinner nor saint; the ideal woman and mother nor an outsider desiring other dreams and relationships outside of traditional acceptance for women. And so she turns into a fish. In the ocean she feels no pressure but only the freedom to swim, to swim and be without constraints. Throughout the book, Edna’s struggle to stay as the ideal women or be pushed out of society’s ranking system was represented clearly.

Yet, Edna could not make a new path for herself in ‘her world’, so she entered into a state where she is at peace with nature, a place without judgment, without criticism, without fear. The Awakening used nature to show the relationship between the environment and humans. When Chopin chose to use Edna’s inner conflict of choosing which life she wanted to live and her outside conflict from pressure from her family and class, she allowed nature to present itself as an alternative route from a sinner or saint.

The Awakening, which is not “nature writing” uses the ocean, the parrot, and the wind to convince Edna that she can be free from society. Glotfelty’s definition of ecocriticism facilitated a bridge to demonstrate that nature was incorporated as a theme throughout. This book used the environment not only as description, but to show where Edna was at physically and where she wanted to be at emotionally. The Awakening was simply Edna realizing that she could live outside of “good and evil”, that she could be free in nature.

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