Author Kate Chopin enthralls and leaves behind powerful messages in two of her masterpieces – her novel The Awakening and her short story Desiree’s Baby, both of which have similarities not only in terms of literary devices used but in also being emblematic of the raging social issues of the 19th century era.
While there are also distinct differences in the two literary works owing mainly to their respective themes and genre, it can be easily gleaned that both selections were written by the same author. Kate Chopin’s endings, as gleaned from the two works, startle and stun.
Both selections are very riveting as they make use of the third person point of view. Each story unravels with an omniscient narrator delivering the details blow by blow. In terms of setting, The Awakening takes place in the Grand Isle, Louisiana and shifts to New Orleans, while Desiree’s Baby unravels in L’Abri. In The Awakening, the New Orleans setting, which is noted for its music and cultural development, serves both as a realistic backdrop and a symbolic manifestation of the female characters’ musical inclinations, which in turn symbolize their aspirations to gain some sense of freedom. Both selections mirror middle to upper-class bourgeoisie society during the 19th century. There is greater focus on the slave trade, though, in Desiree’s Baby. Nonetheless, in both literary work the distinction between social classes is portrayed, albeit in a more subtle way in The Awakening .
The central focus of both The Awakening and Desiree’s Baby is on the female lead characters – Edna Pontellier for the former, and Desiree for the latter, who are at once strong yet vulnerable and in search for acceptance and fulfillment. Edna and Desiree are both beautiful young women attempting to chart their respective destinies in life, evolve, and eventually come to terms with their own persons after encountering circumstances in life that, to their mind, are unfair or fall short of their expectations. The author reveals the characters through direct description and through other characters’ thoughts and comments about them. The Awakening and Desiree’s Baby are also similar in that they carry titles that depict what the story is about.
In terms of plot, both The Awakening and Desiree’s Baby clue the readers in on a conflict or trouble that is brewing which builds into a climax and leads to the surprise ending. The later incidents in both selections are alluded to or foreshadowed by the key characters themselves in the earlier part of each story.
In The Awakening, Mr. Pontellier’s thoughts and concerns are revealed to readers by an omniscient narrator, who states, “It sometimes entered Mr. Pontellier’s mind to wonder if his wife weren’t growing a little unbalanced mentally. He could see plainly that she was not herself. That is, he could not see that she was becoming herself” (Chopin 77). The narrator proceeds to explicitly describe Edna Pontellier’s inner turmoil, as follows:
There were times when she was unhappy, when life appeared to her like a grotesque pandemonium and humanity like worms struggling blindly toward inevitable annihilation (Chopin 78).
Desiree’s Baby, on the other hand, foreshadows the sad ending right at the start, when Armand Aubigny’s house was described in a gloomy kind of way: “The roof came down steep and black like a cowl… big, solemn oaks grew close… their thick-leaved, far-reaching branches shadowed it like a pall” (Chopin 181). Just like in The Awakening, Kate Chopin’s penchant for similes is evident during key events in Desiree’s Baby, from the moment Armand falls in love wit h Desiree to the great emotional pain he inflicts on her towards the end.
Both works also tackle great love. In Desiree’s Baby, Armand Aubigny and his kin are depicted as passionate beings when they fall in love: “The passion that awoke in him that day, when he saw her at the gate, swept along like an avalanche, or like a prairie fire, or lyk anything that drives head on over all obstacles” (Chopin 180). Chopin deals here with the universal subject matter of love by describing it in her trademark figurative style. Men get so enamored with the women whom they confine to roles limited to the home and hearth, a characteristic of Victorian era society. Early on, it can also be noted that the events and sentiments of the main female characters portend to a betrayal of some sort. The Awakening is distinct from Desiree’s Baby, though, with the way the author imparts the central theme. The Awakening highlights a woman’s transformation as she struggles to unmask her own worth & identity and strives to find her place in a male-dominated society, bringing to mind other great literary works like Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. On the other hand, Desiree’s Baby’s impact lies in its strong racial undertones. The lead characters themselves, Armand Abigny and Desiree, have obscure origins, and these characters are made to portray a high condescending tone and attitude towards black people. The jolting ending expresses Armand Abigny’s mother’s disdain for the Negro race, when she refers to her son as belonging to “the race that is cursed with the brand of slavery” (Chopin 186).
In The Awakening, the reader gets a very clear image of the angsts that the lead character, Edna Pontellier is experiencing. Her erratic mood swings are apparent, considering that earlier during the story, Edna Pontellier is shown being cheered on and complimented for learning how to swim with the help of the men and women around her (Chopin 37).
A major difference between the two selections is the female character’s love and devotion to her husband. Edna Pontellier, is depicted in The Awakening as a woman who entered into a marriage of convenience but soon grew fond of her husband, yet finds greater fulfillment through her lovers. She willfully leaves him, temporarily at first, then permanently when she decides to end her life. Desiree, on the other hand, is depicted as deeply in love with her husband, and he is the one who casts her out of his life towards the end of the story.
Chopin clearly displayed adept storytelling technique and brilliant use of language that delivers a powerful impact on generations of readers. Her elegant and refined writing style is suited for the main subject and themes of her two literary pieces. Moreover, the language and dialogue are very appropriate for the characters in the respective works. Chopin utilized numerous literary devices like figures of speech, specifically similes, metaphors, and personifications. One of the most stirring parts of the novel is the ending, when Edna Pontellier succumbs to the irresistible lure of the sea, which symbolizes an escape from life and all its shackles and disappointments. Chopin employed personification and rich imagery when she wrote, “The voice of the sea is seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander in abysses of solitude” (Chopin 154). Simile was used anew when the author likened the waves splashing on Edna Pontellier’s feet to “serpents about her ankles” (Chopin 155). Humanity is likened to worms. Learning how to swim, on the other hand, may correlate with Edna Pontellier’s momentary triumph or efforts to overcome the vicissitudes or blows dealt to her by life itself.
Indeed, images of nature were employed by the author in both The Awakening and Desiree’s Baby to illustrate the depth of emotions felt by the main characters, who seem so real with all their angsts and foibles. The lead female characters in both stories evolve as the story progresses, luring the reader to experience exactly what they are going through. Indeed, with her very fluid writing style and vivid descriptions and portrayals of life and issues faced by women in 19th century society, Kate Chopin delivers a very powerful statement.
Chopin, Kate. The awakening and selected short fiction. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 2003.