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
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
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 nirvanaher
attempt to understand the three marks of existenceis 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
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 intereststhe
cavalry officer, a young gentleman, and the tragedianattachments
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 plantedChopin 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
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
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 herselfher present
selfwas 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 swimmingmini-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
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
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
" (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
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 rightexcept children, perhapsand even then,
it seems to meor 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
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
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.
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,