The first time I read The Awakening, I saw the story I described yesterday. The second time, a couple of years later, I had read a lot more (and a lot more Flaubert), and I saw the other story, about a woman who regresses to her childhood, and whose “awakening” is that of a child. All of this is tied to her father somehow. This story contrasts with the surface story, and in some ways contradicts it. Complicates it, at least.
The reason I keep mentioning Flaubert is because this under-story is told mostly in a combination of memories, images, and metaphors, not at all through ordinary plotting. It is a startling and artful method. It is basically invisible to all but the keenest first-time readers.
The sea was quiet now, and swelled lazily in broad billows that melted into one another and did not break except upon the beach in little foamy crests that coiled back like slow, white serpents. (Ch. 10)
Edna has been trying to learn to swim, and suddenly she can. She is like “like the little tottering, stumbling, clutching child, who of a sudden realizes its powers, and walks for the first time alone, boldly and with over-confidence.” Once I am on the alert for metaphorical references to children, this seems almost like giving the game away. Edna’s “awakening” is repeatedly described as if the heroine has just reached the age of reason, as if she is not twenty-eight but eight.
Edna’s awakening and childhood are linked to the sea, which is odd, since she grew up in Kentucky, but here’s how:
“’The hot wind beating in my face made me think – without any connection that I can trace – of a summer day in Kentucky, of a meadow that seemed as big as the ocean to the very little girl walking through the grass, which was higher than the waist. She threw out her arms as if swimming when she walked, beating the tall grass as one strikes out in the water. Oh, I see the connection now!’” (Ch. 7)
She wonders if she was “’running away from prayers… read in a spirit of gloom by my father that chills me yet to think of it’” – the father always appears somewhere. Edna does not see all of the connections. Note that we are a few chapters back, before Edna learns to swim in a sea that smells like “new-plowed earth, mingled with the heavy perfume of a field of white blossoms somewhere near” (back in Ch. 10). All of this is tied to Edna’s love life, too, her childhood crushes through her loveless marriage. Again, I have to follow the imagery, not what Edna is doing.
Those serpents, for example. “The foamy wavelets curled up to her white feet, and coiled like serpents around her ankles.” Now I am in the last chapter, a few lines from the end of the book. Chopin has paraphrased her earlier line, bringing the serpents back, moving the color to Edna, who has regressed even more – “She felt like some new-born creature.” The meadow is mentioned; her father is mentioned; some other thematic elements are mentioned. A new theme appears in the last sentence – “There was the hum of bees, and the musky odor of pinks filled the air” – which must mean something new, since there were no bees or pinks until now.
Reading The Awakening for the third time now, after a gap of twenty-five years, the under-story still seems full of fresh ambiguities.