Illustrating Freedom and Responsibility as an Opposing Dichotomy in Kate Chopin's "The Awakening"

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In Kate Chopin's The Awakening, the author frames the notions of freedom and responsibility by contrasting them within an opposing dichotomy portrayed through the main character, Edna Pontellier, and through her subconscious denial of Creole responsibility while attaining freedom for her body, mind, and soul. Within this dichotomy the notions change inversely: the more freedom that is exercised by Edna because of unknown, and undisclosed, subconscious analysis deep in her mind, her sense of Creole responsibilities ebb proportionately. As these opposing forces ebb and flow, Chopin shows freedom in its basic and natural light—as being instinctive and as the normal state of a human being, evidenced by Edna Pontellier's actions flowing smoothly as proscribed deeds in spite of Creole social norms. Creole responsibility is shown as an unquestioning, requisite, often repressive duty, an iron mandate: that of the mother-woman, a steel parasol under which Edna must function. This is the cultural norm in the society in which Edna Pontellier is trapped, which translates for her into an abnormal state of being. Chopin uses Edna's growing subconscious self-awareness as the vehicle in which to portray the push-pull of these concepts of freedom and responsibility.

As Edna is imbued with a nascent subconscious knowledge of personal freedom, her compliant response to her tormenting role of a staid, responsible Creole wife and mother-woman in a static society lessens as her freedom grows. Her apparent sense of responsibility wanes proportionately, encouraged by Chopin's portrayal of Creole Society as the catalyst. The author shows Edna growing warmer to the idea of her own personal freedoms with a corresponding coolness toward her responsibilities as a wife and mother, concomitant with her increasingly physical self-awareness, need for personal space, and her longing for Robert. In keeping with the instinctual nature of acquiring her freedom, she does not actively seek Robert out in the beginning. The concept of Robert as a lover gradually grows in her from within, when, after Mademoiselle Reisz's spine-tingling piano performance, Chopin says, “Perhaps it was the first time she was ready, perhaps the first time her being was tempered to take an impress of the abiding truth” (Kindle location 491-505). The “abiding truth” was the onset of the knowledge and understanding of her personal freedom.

Following Mademoiselle Reisz's piano recital, as the small audience was walking to the beach for a midnight swim, Robert willfully lagged behind. Chopin writes, “She missed him the days when some pretext served to take him away from her, just as one misses the sun on a cloudy day without having thought much about the sun when it was shining” (Kindle location 505-19). There is no conscious act to have Robert for her own; it happens as a consequence of her growing subconscious self-awareness, which takes place out of sight of the reader and makes itself known by Edna's deeds which just seem to flow from her naturally.

Chopin contrasts this nascence of freedom through Edna's portrayal of a gradual release from within herself of her old persona, instead of the overt shedding of it through forced open rebellion. Indeed, at times Edna simply drifts into freedom as her natural state of being. Although hidden from the reader, one can safely assume her instincts of right and wrong, what is fair and unfair, grow in her subconscious mind to a point in which they overcome and displace the artificial, imbedded notions of Creole society and the Victorian world at large, as seen in the metaphorical exchange with Robert, “'...Will you get my white shawl which I left on the window-sill over at the house?'” “...When he returned with the shawl she took it and kept it in her hand. She did not put it around her” (Kindle location 560-70). One possible metaphor here is that the white shawl represents her supra-marital chastity which she now holds in her...
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