Copyright Li-Dai Lu, 1998
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The Awakened One


     In discussing Kate Chopin's novel, The Awakening, critic Susan Rosowski categorizes the novel under the heading of "the novel of awakening" and differentiates it from the bildungsroman, the apprentice novel, in which the usually male protagonist "learn the nature of the world, discover its meaning and pattern, and acquire a philosophy of life and ‘the art of living'" (Bloom 43). In the novel of awakening, the female protagonist similarly learns about the world, but for the heroine, the world is defined in terms of love and marriage, and "the art of living" comes with a realization that such art is difficult or impossible; the price for the art is often tragic endings. Rosowski calls this female awakening "an awakening to limitations" (Bloom 43). Rosowski's reading of the novel emphasizes the role gender plays in shaping a male narrative versus a female narrative. If read as a suicide, then Edna Pontellier's last swim is a consequence of her awakening to the limitations of her femaleness in a male-dominant society. But on a metaphysical level, especially from the Buddhist perspective, The Awakening's final scene can be seen as Edna's ultimate gesture in trying to grasp the essence of her being.
     In my research, I found no material that connects Buddhism with The Awakening. There are, however, some things written about the book based on Christian theology. The criticism is that Kate Chopin's novel glorifies extramarital sexual relationships, relegates humans to the level of amoral animals, and generally denies the supreme importance of Christian doctrines' role in one's life. While I shook my head at the idea that religion can be taken so seriously that literature is seen only under the narrow light that a god casts from above, I realized that in doing a Buddhist reading of The Awakening, I am potentially operating under as narrow a light source.
     The remedy to the light source problem, I think, is to base the discussion on a few basic Buddhist philosophical concepts, rather than on Buddhism's ethical precepts, a few of which Edna Pontellier has certainly violated. Commenting on sexual intercourse in general, the Buddha is recorded to have said, "A wise man should avoid unchastity as if were a pit of burning cinders. One who is not able to live in a state of celibacy should, at least, not break the purity of another man's wife" (Saddhatissa 88). However, on the philosophical level, especially in analyzing the realizations that eventually lead Edna to her final swim, the novel can be read as a person's quest for nirvana, the final release from the cycle of reincarnations as a result of the extinction of ignorance and cessation of suffering. Nirvana comes at the end to a successful exploration of the meaning of life that examines three Buddhist concepts: impermanence/change (anitya), suffering/unsatisfactoriness (duhkha), and non-self/nonessentiality (anatman) (Bercholz 84). These three concepts are referred to in Buddhist texts as the "three marks of existence," the three facts of life. Proper acknowledgment of these three facts depends on a solid understanding of two fundamental Buddhist concepts: attachment/craving (trishna) and ignorance (avidya). Although the end of Edna Pontellier's exploration leads her to death, seen in the Buddhist light, her fate can be read symbolically as her attempt to achieve nirvana. Edna's final reach for nirvana—her attempt to understand the three marks of existence—is arrived at through a series of rising and ebbing realizations about her ego/self and her attachment to the mundane world.
     The ideas of impermanence, suffering, and non-self are bound up in the fundamental Buddhist concept of ignorance. A simple definition of ignorance is that it is "a state of mind that does not correspond to reality, that holds illusory phenomena for reality, and brings forth suffering… [and] occasions craving (attachment) and is thereby the essential factor binding beings to the cycle of rebirth" (Schuhmacher 26). Ignorance creates suffering by obscuring the fact that all things are essentially impermanent and transient. The idea is that the failure to acknowledge the impermanence of the world creates a false sense of self or ego that feeds on suffering.
     The Buddhist concept of attachment is defined as "the desire that arises through the contact between a sense organ and its corresponding object. It is the cause of craving and thus of suffering; it binds sentient beings to the cycle of existence (samsara)" (Schuhmacher 380). Attachment and ignorance, then, are obstacles to the proper understanding the three marks of existence. In The Awakening, the three facts of life interact with each other unceasingly, cyclically. The trouble begins when Edna's ego emerges.
     In the early chapters, Edna is referred to only as Mrs. Pontellier, as a subset of Mr. Pontellier. At this point, Edna's sense of self is still defined in terms of her connection with her husband, Léonce. At the same time, but on another level, Edna as a fictional character has not yet materialized from the text. For Mrs. Pontellier, suffering manifests itself early and is the easiest of the three marks of existence to identify. A few pages after making her entrance, Mrs. Pontellier fights with Mr. Pontellier and finds what Chopin describes as "an indescribable oppression, which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar part of her consciousness, [and] filled her whole being with a vague anguish" (49). On account of her still undelineated character and primordial sense of self, Mrs. Pontellier's suffering is appropriately "indescribable," "unfamiliar," and "vague." But in this unformed self, Edna is 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" (Chopin 57). In perceiving the world around her, Mrs. Pontellier's self is emerging from her non-self. Symbolically, Edna's sense of self is accompanied by the voice of the sea, which is "seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation" (Chopin 57). The sea, in this case, symbolizes samsara, the cyclical rebirths of existence, and is a product of ignorance and the failure to recognize the impermanent nature of things. On the other shore lies another rebirth.
     And it is by the sea that Kate Chopin first pulls Edna out from the narrative and gives her an ego by referring to her by her given name and, after walking through a sea of grass, recounts Edna's previous love interests—the cavalry officer, a young gentleman, and the tragedian—attachments of previous reincarnations. In other words, Edna's self is born here by "inward contemplation", with the aid of the "seductive odor" and "sonorous murmur" of the sea and its "loving but imperative entreaty" (Chopin 56-7). The objects of her previous attachments were men, or perhaps her desire for the men of her past. In Edna's present lifetime on Grand Isle, her attachment is to Robert Lebrun, who draws Edna's ego to its fullest from Chopin's narrative and makes Edna's suffering more intense and tangible.
     Shortly after the reader meets Robert Lebrun and realizes that Edna Pontellier is strangely drawn to the young man (Chopin 56)—the seed of Edna's attachment is thus planted—Chopin prepares a series of events that expands Edna's senses and makes her fully aware of her self. In the first episode following the beach scene mentioned above, Edna begins to feel things more intensely. In listening to Mademoiselle Reisz's music, Edna no longer simply detachedly sees pictures of feelings but experiences them intensely; the encounter is almost orgasmic, according to Chopin, "the very passions themselves were aroused within her soul, swaying it, lashing it, as the waves daily beat upon her splendid body." Chopin tells us that "perhaps it was not the first time she was ready, perhaps the first time her being was tempered to take an impress of the abiding truth" (71-2). This "abiding truth," I would argue, is Edna's emerging belief in permanence, which, once it takes hold, allows Edna to feel the world around her and further reinforces her sense of self.
     While the Mademoiselle Reisz's music is still playing, the voice of the sea of samsaracan be heard and its shore is within easy reach. In this second key event, under a moonlit night, with the moon's "mystic shimmer… casting a million lights across the distant, restless water" (Chopin 70), Chopin takes Edna for a swim in the ocean, baptizing her selfhood. It is somehow appropriate that Robert, the object of Edna's attachment/craving should propose "a bath at that mystic hour and under that mystic moon." In this pivotal chapter (Chopin 72-7), Edna has a physical, a bodily epiphany; she suddenly knows how to swim. However, the epiphany carries little weight in Edna's inner mental workings. Chopin does not spend time telling the reader what Edna realizes about her position in society or the universe. On paper, Edna's epiphany is a purely physical one, a mastery over her own body, and for a moment, over the mystic sea. This mastery over her physical self gives Edna "a sense of exultation…, as if some power of significant import had been given her to control the working of her body and her soul. She grew daring and reckless, overestimating her strength. She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before." Edna turns her face "seaward to gather in an impression of space and solitude" (Chopin 73-4). What Edna Pontellier feels is the self, her physical boundary, her separateness from the world.
     Metaphysically, Edna's comprehension of her body and the illusion of permanence to which she clings mutually reinforce each other. Here the never ceasing sea of samsara becomes a powerful symbol. In knowing how to swim, in validating the presence of her physical self, Edna harbors a false sense that she has overcome the cyclical existence, that she has reached nirvana. "How easy it is!" Edna proclaims; she is "intoxicated with her newly conquered power" (Chopin 74). Life is real after all. How easy it is to master samsara. Indeed, in many Zen Buddhist texts, the realization of the essential emptiness of the world is described as popping into a meditator's mind effortlessly, but often this realization comes only after hours of intense meditation on an object, whether a physical object or a thought object. The idea is to exhaust the mind with the fierce meditation of and attachment to an object, thereby letting the object's essential emptiness comes through to an overtaxed mind, and thus making the meditator realize the falsehood of his or her attachment. In Edna's case, her attachment to Robert leads her into water.
     The time Edna spends in water is a suspension of space and time; this is her first attempt at realizing Robert's impermanence. In a strange way, Edna is taking her self as an object of meditation, where at the extremity of self absorption, she should be able to see through her own selflessness. "As she swam she seemed to be reaching for the unlimited in which to lose herself[emphasis added]" (Chopin 74). Edna has left her earthly existence on the shore and looked forward to a new existence, with the "unlimited", or nirvana as a tantalizing prize on the other shore. Her mistake lies in looking back.
     When Edna looked back toward the shore, she notices the people she left there. She also notices that she has not covered a great distance. Then a "quick vision of death smote her soul" (Chopin 74), a sense of death that reaffirms her selfhood and reminds her of her clinging to Robert. Her meditation is broken by the wavering of her mind to other objects and senses. Her struggle to regain the shore becomes a kind of near-death experience, at the end of which comes an utter physical exhaustion, a stretching of her self's physical boundary. Edna's intellectual self, the mind, another creation of ignorance, awakens as well. She begins to "feel like one who awakens gradually out of a dream, a delicious, grotesque, impossible dream, to feel again the realities pressing into her soul" (Chopin 78).
     As Edna's fortified ego emerges ashore, her attachment to Robert is strengthened. The intimate moment they share at the end of the chapter bespeaks an "acme of bliss," where "no multitude of words could have been more significant than those moments of silence, or more pregnant with the first-felt throbbings of desire" (Chopin 63, 77).
     After Edna's rebirth from the sea, her sense of self blossoms. She pulls away from the crowd and begins to do as she pleases. Léonce Pontellier's stern command for her to come inside after the swim goes unheeded. Edna realizes that her will has "blazed up, stubborn and resistant." In Buddhist philosophy, the concept of the will is one of the five aggregate that forms the self. Edna's recognition of her will is a good indication that her ego is fully formed, and that in a sense she has moved farther away from achieving nirvana. Chopin further describes Edna as "blindly following whatever impulse moved her, as if she had placed herself in alien hands for direction, and freed her soul of responsibility" (79). The otherness of the people on Grand Isle becomes sharply defined against Edna's new vigor. Even Robert, the object of her attachment, becomes an other. When Robert claims to understand her fatigue, Edna lashes out, "You don't know anything about it. Why should you know? I never was so exhausted in my life [emphasis added]" (Chopin 75). Othering Robert, therefore objectifying him, gives rise to Edna's desire to possess him, creating suffering when the inevitable truth comes that one can't ever possess another, because there is nothing to possess.
     In the subsequent chapter, Edna and Robert spend some quality time on Chênière Caminada. This is an ego affirming experience for Edna, setting her up for her fall. The chapter is sensually written, continuing Edna's discovery of her sensual self in the ocean. Edna notices the "fine, firm quality and texture of her flesh," and eats her lunch with a healthy appetite, tearing into a piece of bread with her "strong, white teeth" (Chopin 84-5). The fact that the couple travel by boat to the shore of Chênière Caminada suggests a dream-like journey to another reincarnation. With a vehicle aiding her navigation of the sea of samsara, Edna is transported to a distant shore, another life where she and Robert can experience another "acme of bliss," one that perhaps approximates Edna's dreams of nirvana.
     But something happens when Edna wakens from the Chênière Caminada dream. Chopin tells us that Edna realizes that "she herself—her present self—was in some way different from the other self" (88). Here is a hint of recognition of the transient nature of the self. Chopin goes on to say that Edna "was seeing with different eyes and making the acquaintance of new conditions in herself that colored and changed her environment, she did not yet suspect" (88). Although Edna herself does not see it clearly, Chopin is pointing out that Edna's sense of self is changing again. Edna's subtle realization in this chapter is presented quickly, almost carelessly, but it has planted a seed. The movement of the novel from this point on is toward Edna's fuller realization of the impermanence of the self.
     The catalyst that accelerates the flowering of the seed is Robert's physical departure from Edna's life. At this point in the novel, Edna's sense of self is so bound up with Robert's presence that once he leaves, she has to build her ego back up again. At the dinner when Edna learns about Robert's impending trip to Mexico, Robert's voice reminds her "of some gentleman on the stage" (Chopin 90), a recognition of a previous life. Here Edna begins to recognize "the symptoms of [her] infatuation." However, the "recognition did not lessen the reality, the poignancy of the revelation by any suggestion or promise of instability" (Chopin 94). Chopin goes on to describe Edna Pontellier's revelation,

The past was nothing to her; offered no lesson which she was willing to heed. The future was a mystery which she never attempted to penetrate. The present alone was significant; was hers, to torture her as it was doing then with the biting conviction that she had lost that which she had held, that she had been denied that which her impassioned, newly awakened being demanded (94).

After some stagnation in the sensual realms, this is the beginning of another journey toward nirvana, although Edna is having a difficult time getting started; the shock of Robert's going away is too great for her to move ahead.
     After Robert is gone, Edna spends time in the ocean swimming—mini-voyages in samsara— but she always returns to shore. Her problem is that she cannot recapture the sense of self she felt when Robert's physical presence was there to motivate her. Consequently, Edna becomes obsessive about the memory of Robert. She looks at pictures of Robert, as a baby, at age 5, as a teen, etc., but which one is the real Robert? Edna cannot find a "recent picture [of Robert], none which suggested the Robert who had gone away…, leaving a void and wilderness behind him" (Chopin 95). Because the physical form changes, Edna can never find the "essential" Robert. While this illustrates the impermanence of self, Edna does not see the futility of her quest.
     Nevertheless, this is still an awakening of sorts for Edna. It differs from the swimming awakening in that the latter was achieved through an exploration of Edna's physical self. The second awakening, which never fully materializes, is a result of an agitation of Edna's mental self. The focus of her attachment is still Robert, although now it becomes a mental process.
     The mental exploration of Edna's self is to be conducted on land, with Edna traversing New Orleans' landscape. Spatially, Chopin moves Edna inland, away from Grand Isle. After Edna moves back into the city, it is difficult to say what is sustaining her sense of self. "She began to do as she liked and to feel as she liked." Occasionally she thinks about Robert and "could hear again the ripple of the water, the flapping sail" (Chopin 107, 109). She is sometimes happy, sometimes unhappy, "when it did not seem worth while to be glad or sorry, to be alive or dead; when life appeared to her like a grotesque pandemonium and humanity like worms struggling blindly toward inevitable annihilation" (Chopin 109). It seems that Edna is in limbo. On her unhappy days, Edna's sense of self seems to shrink into a kind of basic animal nature. The movement toward nirvana has slowed considerably in these chapters, but sometimes there are echoes of Edna's knowledge of the self she knew in the Grand Isles days.
     We see one of these flashes when Edna goes to visit Robert's mother, Madame Lebrun, whose house "from the outside looked like a prison" (Chopin 110). Edna refuses to enter the prison-like house, refusing to imprison herself in memories of Robert and the walls in which he grew into the Robert she knew. But she realizes "the inutility of remembering. But the thought of him was like an obsession, ever pressing itself upon her. It was not that she dwelt upon details of their acquaintance, or recalled any special or peculiar way his personality; it was his being, his existence, which dominated her thought…" (Chopin 105).
     Her tie with Robert is maintained by her association with the community from Grand Isle: Madame Ratignolle and her soirées musicales, Mademoiselle Reisz and her music, and most immediately, Robert's letters. These people help her keep thoughts of Robert alive. Her sense of self is still largely defined by her sensual self and reinforced by her contacts with the Grand Isle community, but it is no longer opulently sensuous. Robert isn't there to provide the lushness to her ego and her existence, but her memories of him signal a melancholy reminder of impermanence that she is not yet consciously acknowledging. Here sadness is another defining emotion that solidifies attachment and reinforces selfhood. Through this sadness Edna begins to transcend her attachment to Robert.
     The more Edna indulges in her sensual self, the more keenly she feels Robert's absence. However, often her longing for Robert is coupled with feelings of emptiness. This can be seen at the last party she gave at the Pontellier house. "There came over her the acute longing which always summoned into her spiritual vision the presence of the beloved one, overpowering her at once with a sense of the unattainable" (Chopin 145). Even when she is with Alcée Arobin, with whom in another lifetime she would have fallen in love, her thoughts goes to Robert. However, at the same time she is thinking about Robert, she has also "resolved never again to belong to another than herself" (Chopin 135). Little by little, without consciously realizing it, Edna integrates her attachment to Robert into her own sense of self. Her attachment to Robert and the senses and emotions it triggers, are distilled into a part of Edna's self. She has somehow possessed Robert, integrating his self into her being, but the result is that Edna is no longer the same self that fell in love with Robert; her conscious notion of Robert always remains the Robert on Chênière Caminada. In a different sense, Edna's attachment now is to the past, to the paradisiacal times on Grand Isle.
     The news of Robert's return rekindles Edna's longing for him afresh. But when she finally see him in the flesh, his hesitant response to her is not what she expected. Walking Edna home from Mademoiselle Reisz's, Robert stands in Edna's house, "irresolute, making some excuse about his mother who expected him; he even muttered something about an engagement" (Chopin 157). Edna anticipated that Robert would want to stay with her; she tries hard to recapture their past intimacies. On some level she must understand that neither of them are the same people they were on Grand Isle. But the thought is not registering; her attachment to the past is in the way. She does, however, acknowledge that in "some way he had seemed nearer to her off there in Mexico" (Chopin 161).
Perhaps the faint realization of the impermanence of the self Edna experienced on Grand Isle is coming back to her. A critical moment comes when Edna and Robert finally kiss, when Edna finally gets the confession of love she so desired from Robert. But with the confession comes aspects of Robert that she did not perceive before on Grand Isle, aspects that she did not equate with Robert's self. Robert's admission of his dream to marry Edna is something wholly unexpected. Edna's concept of Robert has always been the romantic young man on Grand Isle, that he has a conventional side is not in Edna's formulation of Robert's being. Here she must re- evaluate her concept of self. She cannot reject parts of Robert that she doesn't like, but seeing the undesirable sides of Robert calls new questions to mind: the Robert that she fell in love with is not the same as the Robert that is standing before her. Which Robert is real? Is there an essential aspect of Robert that defines his being?
     It is interesting that Chopin sends Edna away to witness Madame Ratignolle's childbirth at the verge of her comprehension of non-self. In Buddhist philosophy, birth is the culmination of ignorance, desire, and attachment into an impermanent false self. It is one of the major causes of suffering, as well as the beginning of another cyclical existence based on suffering. Edna remembers her own childbirthing experience, which Chopin describes as, "an ecstasy of pain, the heavy odor of chloroform, a stupor which had deadened sensation, and an awakening to find a little new life to which she had given being, added to the great unnumbered multitude of souls that come and go [emphasis added]" (Chopin 170). "Stupor" and "deadened sensation" are often used in Buddhist texts to describe an unenlightened mind and the suffering of birth. "Great unnumbered multitude of souls that come and go" recalls the sea of samsara, teeming with karmic seeds. At the end of the scene, Adéle Ratignolle, the new mother and the one who is content to dwell in the cycle of samsara, attempts to bring Edna back, "think of the children, Edna. Oh think of the children! Remember them!" (Chopin 170).
     Madame Ratignolle, whose mundane existence demands that she places children as women's ultimate earthly attachment, does not realize that Edna has moved beyond this point. She doesn't seem to remember that Edna made it clear that while she would give up her life for her children, she would not give up herself for them: "I would give up the unessential; I would give up my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn't give myself [emphasis added]" (Chopin 97). Madame Ratignolle had replied, "I don't know what you would call essential, or what you mean by the unessential… but a woman who would give her life for her children could do no more than that [emphasis added]" (Chopin 97).
     For Adéle, "life" and "self" are synonymous, therefore both essential. Edna, on the other hand, clearly separates "life" and "self." Edna considers her life and her money unessential, but it is not clear whether she considers her children essential. Speaking with Dr. Mandelet after leaving the Ratignolles, Edna voices her indecision again, "I want to be left alone. Nobody has any right—except children, perhaps—and even then, it seems to me—or it did seem—" (Chopin 171). This is a point that Edna is not able to articulate clearly. But Dr. Mandelet articulates the meaning of life for Edna, "youth is given up to illusions. It seems to be a provision of Nature; a decoy to secure mothers for the race. And Nature takes no account of moral consequences, of arbitrary conditions which we create, and which we feel obliged to maintain at any cost" (Chopin 171). If "Nature" is read as "the inherent or essential quality or constitution of a thing" ("Nature"), in this case, the essential quality of human existence, then it becomes clear that Dr. Mandelet is explaining the "essential emptiness" of all things, the "three marks of existence": impermanence, suffering, and non-self. This passage then can be rewritten thus:

An inexperienced, unenlightened mind is prone to the illusion of self. This illusion is the cause of our karmic existence in samsara. The essential emptiness of all things is a neutral, empty space. The suffering of our existence comes from our attachments to the illusions of reality, which create our false sense of self and populate this empty space with objects that we take to be permanent and strive to maintain at any cost.


     By having Dr. Mandelet impart the words of wisdom, Chopin gives Edna something like the Zen thought object on which to meditate. Robert's final departure signals the departure of one of Edna's final attachments as well. When dawn comes, she finally realizes that "the day would come when he [Robert], too, and the thought of him would melt out of her existence, leaving her alone" (Chopin 175). With Edna's realization of the impermanence of her attachments, Chopin takes Edna back to Grand Isle, back to the sea, the symbolic samsara.
     In the final chapter, the lingering thought on Edna's mind is her children, her last attachment. It seems that the issue of filial ties is one that Chopin cannot quite sort out; it is perhaps her own personal attachment. But for the fictional Edna, the seductive voice of the sea has the answer. The sea here has "no beginning and no end" (Chopin 176), just as the Buddhist empty space has no boundaries. In her final swim, Edna does not look back toward her earthly attachments on the shore like she did at her first swim at which her sensual self was aroused into action. As Edna swims out toward nirvana, her mind travels back to the her early experiences. The last vestige of Edna Pontellier's existence is the sound of the spurs of the cavalry officer, her first love, first attachment, and first reincarnation. It is as if Edna is retracing her reincarnations to go back to the empty space from which her first attachments came and created her self. And thus we come to the end of Edna's spiritual journey.

 



Works Cited


Bercholz, Samuel, and Shearb Chödzin Kohn, eds. Entering the Stream: An Introduction to the Buddha and His Teachings. Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1993.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Kate Chopin. Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening and Selected Stories. New York: Penguin Books, 1986.
"Nature." The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. 1993 ed.
Saddhatissa, Hammalawa. Buddhist Ethics: The Path to Nirvana. London: Wisdom Publications, 1987.
Schuhmacher, Stephan, et al., eds. The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion. Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1989.