Repressing the Awakening
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In the 19th century, Sigmund Freud created a popular new method of psychological analysis, appropriately titled “psychoanalysis.” Dealing primarily with subconscious impulses and desires, this popular method of evaluation soon spread beyond the realm of science and in to the literary world. In reading The Awakening by Kate Chopin, psychoanalysis introduces a significant revelation in regards to the novel’s main characters. Using a Freudian analysis, the reader can see how both male and female characters exhibit subconscious signs of sexual repression and, in the more extreme cases, displacement of sexual passions and energy. When broken down, these characters can be divided into three categories: the decadent, the displaced, and the transitory.
To properly observe characters with displaced passions and repressed desires, one must first acknowledge their opposites, characters who freely commit overt sexual acts. Acting as a background, these “decadents” help us understand the repressed. Victor Lebrun, Alcee Arobin and Mrs. Highcamp are members of this first category. Through analysis, we find a common thread tying them together; each likes to fraternize with members of the opposite sex. There are subtle differences though. While Victor is simultaneously supported and spoiled by his mother, his male counterpart, Arobin, chooses to take on the airs of real work by attaching his name to a prosperous business.
He states that, “There are so many inquisitive people and institutions abounding that one is forced as a matter of convenience these days to assume the virtue of an occupation if he has it not” (146). The significance of these words rings clear when Arobin states the need to “assume virtue.” Despite appearances, these men are not as gentlemanly as they might appear. Mrs. Highcamp, however, chooses to follow an altogether different route of debauchery by using her daughter as bait to lure men into her own bed. Thus we see each character uses a different means to achieve the same end.
With a reference point established, we are now free to move into an analysis of the second character type, the repressed and displaced. Edna’s husband, Leonce Pontellier, is the best choice for this male archetype with Mademoiselle Reisz posing as his female counterpart. Proof of repression and a displacement of the sexual appetite are evident in both characters, but while Mr. Pontellier hungers for power, status, and possessions rather than sexual gratification, Mademoiselle Reisz pours her passion into her music. And it is with this peek into the richness and depth of each character that we become more selective in our analysis, beginning with an individual psychoanalysis of Leonce Pontellier.
Power, status, and possessions are all things Mr. Pontellier derives security from. One of the best examples of his preference for possessions comes during Chopin’s play on words. The man thinks of his property, not as his household goods, but his “household gods” (83), placing them high in the importance of his life. It is no wonder then that when it comes to the treatment of his wife Edna, he necessarily treats her as a possession. Mr. Pontellier’s most interesting reoccurring theme, however, is represented by the need to confirm social status when threatened. When his wife buys a new house, instead of suspecting a secret affair, as most men might, he fears that people will question his abilities as a provider. His solution, therefore, is to add more rooms to the main house, denoting an inferiority complex.
But it is when Mr. Pontellier is insecure in his social status, a symbol of his sex life, that we begin assuming insecurity in bedroom performance and even his role in the bedroom. Which introduces us to the possibility of Mr. Pontellier’s bisexual or even homosexual tendencies. Because Leonce’s self confidence is always in relation to the views of other men and not his wife, we see support for this reasoning. His attendance at the Men’s club satisfies the need for companionship so he does not worry about pleasing his wife when he comes home. And then there is the symbolism behind Leonce’s cigars. Posing as both a phallic symbol and a source of oral fixation, this can easily point to the confused sexuality of Edna’s husband.
But then again, given Freud’s famous quote, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” the great psychologist might not agree with me. Still, I will stand by my claim that Leonce’s cigars are a portrayal of phallic imagery, and thus, if not a sign of bisexual behavior, can be viewed as a sign of his virility and manhood. Given the trends of the time, all “gentleman” possessed a commonality in smoking cigars and therein lies the strongest support for this stance. Whether it be smoking cigars, painting a picture, or making cocktails, however, it appears that every character in the novel has some sort of outlet for their repressed energy. For Mademoiselle Reisz, it is the piano.
For Mr. Pontellier, the cause for displacement was a deep seated, subconscious desire for the company of men. For Mdm. Reisz though, a reason for her pent-up sexual passion and energy being reflected into her music could be easily written off as a superficial one. On page 103 we discover she is a “strikingly homely” woman who owns a three-room home, one that “often admitted…a good deal of smoke and soot” into the front room. Mdm. Reisz suffers from both a lack of beauty and a lack of wealth and, given the time period The Awakening was written, this is reason enough for the woman to find herself a social outcast. And as an outcast she must find other methods of bringing her passion to life besides sex. She does this in two different ways: by playing the piano and by living vicariously through Edna and Robert’s blooming affair. But ugliness and poverty will only account for so much.
If one returns to the same line of thinking that introduced Mr. Pontellier’s bisexual tendencies, the same conclusion can be drawn about Mdm. Reisz. Because she “(hasn’t) been in the surf all summer” (80) it seems odd at first that the woman should choose to walk Edna down to the beach. Then, despite Edna “hoping that Mademoiselle Reisz would not wait for her,” (82) the old woman does so, being “very amiable during the walk back, and (raving) much over Edna’s appearance in a bathing suit” (82). Mademoiselle then proceeds to talk about her music, one of her existing sexual outlets, and asks Mrs. Pontellier to come see her in the city, giving her the address of her home. Whatever her sexual orientation though, the point is that Mdm. Reisz must repress these feelings, limiting her sexual expression to acceptable outlets, such as her music and Edna and Robert’s relationship.
The third and final character type to be evaluated is the transitory character or the person caught between the two extremes of the decadent and the displaced. Robert Lebrun represents the men in this category. When he is first introduced to us, one of the first lines describing Robert is regarding his Casanova nature. “Since the age of fifteen, which was eleven years before, Robert each year at Grand Isle had constituted himself the devoted attendant of some fair dame or damsel. Sometimes it was a young girl, again widow; but as often as not it was some interesting married woman” (20). Nevertheless, these women do not believe Robert to be a threat. When speaking to Madame Ratignolle regarding Mrs. Pontellier, Robert asks, “Why shouldn’t she take me seriously? …Am I always to be regarded as the feature of an amusing programme? I hope Mrs. Pontellier does take me seriously. I hope she has discernment enough to find in me something besides the blagueur” (35-36).
This gives us proof of Robert’s potentially decadent nature, while at the same time shows that he wants to be more than a blagueur. He wants to be a gentleman, and therein lies his conflict. Robert’s journey in the story is unique in that it is one from a decadent to a gentleman. This transition is symbolically represented in Robert’s smoking, much the same way that Mr. Pontellier’s cigars are a sign of his manhood and Alcee Arobin’s cigarettes are a sign of his decadence. Robert moves through the novel smoking only cigarettes because “he could not afford cigars” (9). Once again, money shows itself as sign of independence and achieving manhood. However, when we reach the last meeting between Edna and Robert, he has finally made the transition from boy to man; He brings a cigar with him. When Edna asks who gave it to him, his response is “I bought it. I suppose I’m getting reckless. I bought a whole box” (176). This final choice of transition though, does not bode well for Edna.
Mrs. Pontellier begins the novel as a conservative married woman; a “lady.” We see this when Edna comes in contact with a book suggesting iconoclastic behavior and “(feels) moved to read the book in secret and solitude” (19). Throughout the novel, however, we find rampant examples of Edna reaching an “awakening” of her own, one of the best examples being when she learns to swim. As described on page 47, this transformation is wonderful. “A feeling of exultation overtook her, as if some power of significant import had been given her to control the working of her body and her soul” (47). With power comes a price though, for her transition is the opposite that of Robert’s and, as such, is the ultimate source of conflict in the novel. Thus, as the two characters struggle to reach their final transition, they meet each other in the middle and fall in love. But as they continue their journey, each discovers that they have missed the other and are now once again standing on opposite sides of the same line.
Robert’s change is foreshadowed in his trip to Mexico where he chooses to pursue business over pleasure. In the end, his final decision is to join the world made Leonce Pontelliers, cigars, and Men’s clubs. Edna, however, is not so lucky. Caught between a rock and a hard place, she is forced to choose between a world of decadence (one without Robert) and the constricting world she has just left. Fraught with the choice of two existences that do not please her, she can make the final leap of independence and live her life as she chooses, even if she must do it without Robert. Instead, Edna continues to repress her feelings and desires and, by internalizing this conflict and giving herself no alternative outlets, she resolves to take her own life. The first indication of potential suicidal impulses is foreshadowed on page 47. “She grew daring and reckless, overestimating her strength. She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before.” All of these factors are evident through psychoanalysis.
In the end, psychoanalysis helps us to discover things we did not see at first, both subtle and obvious. From Edna’s often observed sexual repression, to the more subtle displacement of sexual passions and energy shown by her husband Mr. Pontellier, and back to the symbolism behind cigar imagery, readers can find themselves rediscovering these characters and their motives for the first time, providing deep insight as literary critics. These three categories: the decadent, the displaced, and the transitory, are the wonderfully complex ingredients that make up Kate Chopin’s novel, elevating it to the position that so many critics proclaim it deserves.