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Deviating from the Norm: A Deviant Analysis of Kate Chopin's The Awakening as Coming Out Story

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Although rationalism would suggest that the appropriate and comfortable role for women is to be their husband’s wife, reason alone is an inadequate guide for living. Edna needed to participate fully in life and experience existence actively, directly, and passionately. Indeed, if reason were to have any bearing on individual lives, thought must not be simply abstract speculation. Rather, thinking and creating and discovering must have some bearing on life: it must be translated into actions, deeds, experiences, and human behavior. When swimming in the Gulf off Grand Isle, Edna Pontellier experienced the general condition that ultimately people are alone in a universe that is indifferent to human desires, expectations, needs, and passions. Edna’s awareness of this elementary fact of existence while breaking the surface of the deep water on a moonlit night evoked an overwhelming sense of freedom. (Chase, et. al, 813-814; Gilbert, 1-176)

It is absurd for Edna to imagine that her life is confined within the musty, long forgotten vows of a loveless marriage. There was no longer any purpose for her presence in the marriage. Mr. Pontellier was either unwilling to fulfill her need for sensuality or incapable of quenching her desire for passion. In reflecting on the larger scheme of things, compared with the long duration of time that preceded and will follow Edna Pontellier’s marriage, liberation, and death, the infinitesimal duration of her own existence must surely have seemed trivial and inexplicable. (Chase, et. al, 813-814; Gilbert, 1-176) 

The realization of her radical freedom to create her own essence and meaning amidst the chaos of this world afforded Edna the opportunity, however short, of squarely facing the brute conditions of human existence: that death is inevitable and existence is purposeless and absurd. In doing so, Mrs. Pontellier---for one brief moment---came out of the closet and gave meaning to her life. It was in the act of freely choosing to leave her marriage that Chopin’s heroine shaped an authentic, genuine existence. In doing so Mrs. Pontellier demonstrated that she had the potential to become more than she had been. (Chase, et. al., 813-814; Gilbert, 1-176)



Eli Coleman in “Developmental Stages of the Coming Out Process” surveys current social scientific and behavioral research and proposes a five stage model of the coming out process (Coleman, 32-39). He identifies the following stages of the coming out process: Pre-coming Out; Coming Out; Exploration; First Relationships; and, Identity Integration.  (Coleman, 32-39) The pre-coming out stage is associated with feelings of alienation, being alone and different, and low self-esteem. Moreover, as Coleman notes, individuals in the pre-coming out stage often employ the psychological defense mechanisms of denial, repression, reaction formation, sublimation, and rationalization to prevent the existential crisis that may occur when the individual, family, and society confronts a deviant sexual orientation. (Coleman, 32-39)  

Clearly, in the first several chapters of The Awakening, Edna Pontellier appears to be in the pre-coming out phase of self-identity development. In a broken marriage burdened with the responsibility of children she may not have chose, but was expected to bear, Mrs. Pontellier experiences an existential, pre-conscious crisis:

Mrs. Pontellier sprang out of bed and went into the next room. She soon came back and sat on the edge of the bed, leaning her head against the pillow. She said nothing, and refused to answer her husband when he questioned her. When his cigar was smoked out he went to bed, and in half a minute he was fast asleep. (Gilbert, 48)

Here, the very thought of another night in bed with her husband induces anxiety in Edna as “…by that time she was thoroughly awake. She began to cry a little, and wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her peignoir.” Although late at night and after a full day in the sun at the beach, Edna is full of dread at the idea of laying in bed with a symbol and instrument of the patriarchy that stifled her fulfillment. (Gilbert, 48)

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The tears came so fast to Mrs. Pontellier’s eyes that the damp sleeve of her peignoir no longer served to dry them…Turning, she thrust her face, steaming and wet, into the bend of her arm, and she went on crying there, not caring any longer to dry her face, her eyes, her arms. She could not have told why she was crying. Such experiences as the foregoing were not uncommon in her married life. They seemed never before to have weighed so much against the abundance of her husband’s kindness and a uniform devotion which had come to be tacit and self-understood. (Gilbert, 49)

She goes on to express feelings of “indescribable oppression, which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar part of her consciousness, [and] filled her whole being with a vague anguish.” (Gilbert, 49) This “strange and unfamiliar” longing to be free of the constraints of marriage “was like a shadow, like a mist passing across her [soul]” (Gilbert, 49) Unknown, pre-conscious, like a dawning perception, a queer feeling that something, alas, is wrong. Here, Mrs. Pontellier is in the pre-coming out stage.

Coleman writes that the individual in the coming out stage is signified by conscious and semi-conscious perceptions of oneself as something other than what they are assumed to be or labeled as being. In the case of Edna Pontellier, this dawning perception is that she is an autonomous, self-defining agent; more than just the significations that married life has cast upon her as mother, spouse, and wife. Although she may not, perhaps, have a clear understanding of this new authenticity as a self- directed human being, there is awareness, acknowledgement, and the rudiments of a more genuine self-identification. (Coleman, 33-34)

A certain light was beginning to dawn dimly within her,--- The light which, showing the way, forbids it. 

At that early period it served but to bewilder her. It  moved her to dreams, to thoughtfulness, to the shadowy anguish which had overcome her the midnight when she had abandoned herself to tears.

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In short, Mrs. Pontellier was 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. This may seem like a ponderous weight to descend upon the soul of a young woman of twenty-eight---perhaps more wisdom than the Holy Ghost is usually pleased to vouchsafe to any woman.

But the beginning of things, of a world especially, is necessarily vague, tangled, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing. How few of us ever emerge from such beginning! How many souls perish in its tumult!

The voice of the sea 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.

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