Edna as an Artist
Art is a function of life. It derives from how people live or desire to live. The artist is someone who takes his or her feelings and expresses it through a certain medium. The profile of an artist does not lie in any specific realm. An artist can be any color, faith, age, or class. The traits usually associated with all artists are passion, depth, focus, and rebellion. An artist has the ability to express his or her feelings and is willing to defy normal standards. In The Awakening, Edna Pontellier becomes aware of certain feelings within herself. These feelings are of a passionate nature and stir her from the depths of her being. Edna also sketches and paints in the story. Edna has several traits of an artist and tries to be one, but lacks the courage and hunger to express her soul.
The first acknowledgment of Edna having artistic tendencies comes early in the story. The narrator tells us that Edna “handled her brushes with a certain ease and freedom which came, not from long and close acquaintance with them, but from a natural aptitude” (30). Edna obviously has some natural talent, but she does not spend much time with it. Her brushes are not familiar to her. Also, Edna crumples her sketch after she is done and Adele expresses disappointment with it. The narrator tells that although the sketch bears no resemblance to Adele, it “…was a fair piece of work, and in many respects satisfying” (30). From this first encounter with Edna as an artist, certain insight is gained. Edna relies upon others for judgment of her work and rejects the work if she receives a negative response.
Another example of Edna’s dependence on others for assurance comes the night that Mademoiselle Reisz plays the piano on Grand Isle. Edna is moved to tears by the music she hears. Something evil inside stirred within Edna and when the group goes swimming later that evening, Edna swims out alone for the first time. Before this, Edna has not been able to swim out alone. She always has needed the constant prescience and reassurance of others to guide her. This night she broke free and explored the ocean for the first time on her own, but at the height of her accomplishment, she is overwhelmed with feelings of death in her soul. She makes her way back to shore heavily affected by this experience and is told by her husband that she was not very far out in the ocean. This scene can be mirrored to Edna’s art, the passions she feels, and how people view this inside of her. Edna’s art before this awakening moment had always been dependent on others. Edna lacked the courage to look within herself for her passions. That night, she went out by herself and felt the power she holds within. She realizes that the feelings that Mademoiselle Riesz’s playing had evoked were present inside of her also. She experiences something else in this discovery. She experiences the feelings of solitude and fear that being an artist holds. These feelings drive her back to shore. Then she is told that she really did not go that far. Thus, her discovery of self was not a major achievement. This opinion deeply affects her and she ends up leaving the others to be alone.
When Edna leaves Grand Isle and returns to the city, the swimming scene seems to happen again. Before Grand Isle, Edna had lived a life dependent on her home life and the opinion of those around her. Her summer at Grand Isle is like Mademoiselle Reisz’s piano piece. It awakens her inside to passions and art. The rest of the story seems like Edna swimming for the first time by herself. She leaves the safety of those who were always there to hold a hand out. She rejects her role as a homemaker, wife, and mother and pursues her artistic independence. Her behavior is similar to that of an artist, yet it is not caused by hunger to create art, but rather by desire to be an artist. Edna wants to be the artist and tries to experience the solitude and consumption that an artist feels, yet she lacks the hunger. An artist does not create out of boredom, but out of necessity. Edna does not reject her past life out of hunger, but in an attempt to create hunger. She swims for a while by herself. She is a piece of driftwood floating in this ocean. She lets the water guide her. She has an affair with Arobin yet does not really desire him. She walks the city with no particular direction or destination. And like before, Edna again feels solitude and death in her soul as she did in her first swim, the feeling that she is alone and will be consumed by the water.
When Robert returns from Mexico, Edna goes to him as she went to her husband after her swim. She wants reassurance from Robert of her accomplishments. She wants him to be with her and justify her work. Robert is not able to fulfill this role, just as her husband did not. Looking to another person to judge one’s personal work will only bring disappointment. Yet Edna lacks the courage to judge her work herself and leaves the judgment to another. Edna fears being alone and having to judge herself. She would rather take comfort in another than explore the realm of her own existence. She sees it is a void that will suck her in and retreats back to safety.
Edna’s suicide is the final part of her swimming experience. It is a testament of her inability to achieve artistic independence. Edna broke free from the shore that had bound her and swam out on her own only to be turned back from the fear and the realization that she lacked courage in her soul. When she realizes that she could not use another person to guide her, she leaves. Although she masks her reasoning in the freedom of her soul, it really has to do with fear. She is afraid of the lonely depths of discovering her soul. She is afraid to dive within herself and face the consequences of her self expression. Edna lacks the strength to exist in a world of so many other opinions and express hers. She is afraid even to explore hers. If Edna possessed the hunger of an artist, she would not have walked away from life. She would have accepted the pain and loneliness and tried to swim again. She would have gone back into the world and tried to discover what was burning inside of her because that would be the only choice for her art. She was not staying true to herself when she threw away her life, she was rejecting herself the same way she rejected her sketch of Adele. She had not received reassurance from anyone in regards to her creation of herself, so she destroys it.
Edna could be considered a tragic figure. The question is how much of her tragedy is created by herself. In a way Edna is a piece of art, not an artist. Not a beautiful image as Adele, but a picture of frailty and lost hope. Edna spent her awakened life trying to make herself hungry. She did feel passions, yet she lacked the burning desire to express them. She tried to look to others for the answers that only she could ever know. When faced with herself, she walks away from everything with the exit of a failed artist. Her suicide may have been the only real art she ever achieved.