The Awakening is a story about a young married woman, Edna Pontellier. Readers can use several perspectives to analyze this story. Amongst the most common perspectives are historical, feminist and psychoanalytical perspectives of analysis. In a historical analysis, readers understand the story in the story’s historical context. For example, the society’s expectation of women in the 1800s and the author’s depiction of characters in this period. In such an analysis, a reader would explain how and why characters are deviated from their historical roles. In addition to this, a historical perspective would explain the changing importance and status of women in society. A feminists’ perspective explains the story’s position on women’s empowerment, the society’s influence on the thoughts and actions of women, as well as the story’s events that conformed or contradicted the perceived women’s expectation. It would also look at women’s empowerment and the consequences women faced during this empowerment. However, this paper analyses the story from a psychoanalytical perspective. In this perspective, a reader focuses on the characters’ behaviors and personalities that are explainable through Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis theory.
At the beginning Edna who is an obedient wife and mother has a holiday at Grand Isle. During the holiday she becomes close to Robert Lebrun, a young man she has met at Grand Isle. However, Robert goes to Mexico before the couple could act in the romantic interest they both have for each other. Edna remains lonely and goes back to her home in New Orleans. While in New Orleans, Edna meets Alcee Arobin who awakens some passion in Edna. Simultaneous with the sexual awakening, Edna has a determination to be independent. She neglects the household issues and seeks painting; afterwards she moves to her own house. Later, Robert returns to Edna, confessing his love and willingness to marry her. However, Edna can no longer handle certain societal issues such as marriage. Realizing Edna’s stubbornness, Robert leaves her during a conversation. Heartbroken, Edna goes back to Grand Isle where she swims and presumably drowns in the sea. Readers can utilize Freudian psychoanalysis to understand the behaviors of both male and female characters in the novel, as they exhibit the subconscious repressions of desires.
Sigmund Freud has founded Psychoanalysis in his psychological studies of human development and behaviors. Psychoanalytic theories emphasize on the human mind’s dichotomy, psychosexual stages and defense mechanisms in his explanation of human behaviors. All the three areas of emphasis are intertwined to function in bringing up an individual’s personality and behavior. Freud explains that the human mind consists of the id, the ego and the super ego. The three elements interact with each other, helping in the building of a personality.
Through the psychosexual stages Freud explains the development of personality through human life stages, which include the oral, anal, phallic and genital stages. Because the novel’s major conflict lies on its character’s sexual and emotional awakening, an analysis of the novel would also center on the same. Amongst these four stages the phallic stage is the most concerned with the sexual orientation and development. In his explanation Freud argues that both male and female children fall in love with their mother, as she is their primary caretaker. However, at the phallic stage, male children start identifying themselves with their fathers, hence forming their masculinity. On the other hand, female children define their sexuality by identifying themselves with their mothers. If fixation occurs at this stage, children suffer from Oedipus complex, which is the children’s unconscious desire to obtain the opposite parent’s attributes and eliminate the same sex characters. Closely related to this argument, Freud explains that women suffer from penis envy, which is an inferiority condition. Because women lack the penis, they compete with men and find ways of attaining equality (Gibson, 2009).
The most credible point of analyzing the Awakening psychoanalytically is the understanding the importance of the phallic phase. In psychoanalysis, phallus means penis, hence equating masculinity with activity. The sexual orientation during the phallic stage is simpler for boys as compared to girls. This is because once boys realize that their mothers lack penis, they easily choose to identify with their fathers for fear of their father castrating them. The identification process is much more complex for female children. This is because the girl first falls in love with the mother, then after realizing that she lacks the penis, too, gets attracted to the father, thus causing competition between the two.
At the beginning Edna appears to be in a semi-conscious state, comfortable with her family position. In the family setting, Edna seems unaware of her unconscious needs. In this state her passions seem latent until she meets Robert Lebrun. In this analysis readers can see a form of defense mechanism from psychoanalysis called repression. Freud’s repressive defense mechanism states that human beings usually push to the back of their minds certain unpleasant feelings or those that they fear facing. Such feelings remain repressed at the unconscious level of the mind until a trigger uncovers them.
Edna’s vacation to Grand Isle seems to her trigger for sexual satisfaction desire as well as the need for freedom. She begins to see the world differently and ignores conformity to the society’s rules. Throughout the novel, Edna seems to be seeking subjectivity, hence accepting a masculine definition of herself by attempting to be self-possessed and independent of both men and women. During Edna’s search for this discovery, she loses all notions of sisterhood that could bind her to women. Edna’s father observes that she is lacking womanly consideration and sisterly affection, even appearing to devalue women. Psychoanalysis would explain this as an extended state of the Oedipus complex where the female child ignores the same sex parent, seeking approval from the opposite sex. This could be due to Edna’s need to return to an “unbroken” bond she shared with her mother, leading to the formation of a false identity. Her lack of a mother figure could be blamed for her unconscious regression into childlike attachment to her mother.
The novel title “The awakening”, could also be understood in psychoanalytic terms. Awakening refers to an individual’s realization of an underlying need. Edna’s needs seem to be deeply rooted in her childhood. The death of her mother, who the author refers to three times in the novel, seems to have affected Edna’s overall personality. The author highlights Edna’s vulnerability in chapter seven when Adele implores Edna to reminisce about her childhood. During her recollection, Edna remembers as a girl, a time when she ran out of her father’s church, feeling gloomy, into a meadow, which she relates to swimming in the ocean. Edna also recounts her girlhood infatuations with a cavalry officer and a theatrical star. This process is synonymous to Freud’s psychoanalysis of healing through mind opening. When Edna starts her awakening, she seems to realize the unconscious needs that she has. Readers can understand Edna’s behavior only by analyzing it psychoanalytically. An individual’s behavior largely depends on the individual’s background, upbringing and his or her environment (Gibson, 2009).
Readers can also summarize Edna and Robert’s relationship as a childish one, as they constantly regress to childish behavior. They seem have been swept into a different life. Edna sleeps and when she wakes up Robert childishly feeds her. The author seems to imply that at this point Edna has primitive needs - eating and sleeping. This is synonymous to a baby’s primary needs, which are reflective of the id’s control. Psychoanalysis explains Edna’s depression that finally leads to her drowning as an effect of frustrations and possessing of the overwhelming feelings. When an individual is frustrated and feels deafened, he or she may repress such feelings using various defense mechanisms. This repression usually leads to depression that may result to suicide.
Edna seems to form a fond and close relationship with Mademoiselle Reisz. Reisz understands Edna’s passion for life and music. Reisz is unconventional, hence becoming an inspiration to Edna. Edna talks to Reisz about her love affair with Robert. Conversely, Robert also talks to Resz about his love for Edna. Reisz and Adele seem to symbolize Edna’s need for a mother figure in her life. She can easily talk to Reisz but Adele tries to keep her conformed to her responsibilities to the society as a woman. Her attraction to these women is also an unconscious need of her wanting a mother.
The Awakening is a life story about a young woman, Edna, coming to terms with her awakening. The author writes the story from different perspectives to explain the role, position and strength of women in history. A psychoanalytical analysis of Edna’s story focuses on her personality and behaviors in the context of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory. Psychoanalysis emphasizes the role of the mind, defense mechanism and psychosexual developmental stages in its explanation of human personality. In the Awakening, Edna’s problems begin when she awakens a feeling that she had repressed over the years. Her interactions with others are an indication of a hidden personality and need for freedom, independence and sexual satisfaction. Psychoanalysis explains individual’s sexual orientation through psychosexual development stages. At the phallic stage women identify with female figures present in their lives while men form masculinity by identifying with their fathers. Edna’s situation is different as she lacked a mother figure during her development. This affects her entire life, influencing her decisions, behaviors and interactions with people.
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