Dropping Hints and the Power of Foreshadowing in Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening”
By Kimberly Garrett Brown
Writing a well-constructed novel is like building a house. It starts with a strong foundation. The writer pours her foundation by suggesting at the beginning of the narrative what’s to come at the end. She builds on this by deliberately placing hints throughout to create structural and thematic unity. Kate Chopin’s The Awakening demonstrates the value of foreshadowing. Set during the late 19th century, the novel is about a woman, Edna Pontellier, who discovers the stifling bonds of her marriage and the strength of her sexuality. She begins a quest for personal freedom only to realize that she will never be free in her mortal life. Chopin intentionally arranges information and events throughout the novel that foreshadow the protagonist’s eventual suicide.
The first instance of foreshadowing is found in the opening sentence of the novel. Chopin writes: “A green and yellow parrot, which hung in a cage outside the door, kept repeating over and over: “Allez vous-en! Allez vous-en! Sapristi! [Get out! Get out! Damnation!] That’s all right!”(1). This creates a foreboding feeling. Chopin’s use of the words “hung in a cage” leads the reader to think of suffering and death. It would have been just as easy to describe the bird as sitting in the cage, but by saying that it hung, we get the hint of strangulation or suicide. Chopin builds on this by having the bird say, “Allez vous-en! Allez vous-en! Sapristi!” There is the sense something or someone is trapped and freedom will lead to death and damnation. The opening line creates anticipation and curiosity. It also gives the reader clues as to what to look for. Who feels trapped? Why is he or she damned?
Chopin uses the next few chapters to establish the setting. Edna and her family are on summer holiday at the Grand Isle. She develops a friendship with Robert Lebrun, the son of the proprietor. Though Mr. Pontellier isn’t bothered by his wife’s friendship with Robert, he is disappointed in his wife’s attitude toward him and their children. This leads to a disagreement. It becomes obvious that there is trouble in the Pontellier’s marriage, and Edna starts to realize how unhappy she is:
She could not have told why she was crying. Such experiences [referring to an earlier interchange about the children] as the foregoing were not uncommon in her married life…. An indescribable oppression, which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar part of her consciousness, filled her whole being with a vague anguish. It was like a shadow, like a mist passing across her soul’s summer day. (6)
The deliberate foreshadowing of the opening line comes back to the reader’s mind. Edna is the green and yellow parrot. She feels trapped in her marriage. This insight into her feelings lead her to realize that she is a person: “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”(14).
Chopin follows this event with another instance of foreshadowing, when she connects the development of Edna’s inner life to the sea:
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 a maze of inward contemplation. The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. (14)
This creates a link between the allure of the sea and personal freedom. Chopin builds on this when Edna shares her musing with Madame Ratignolle:
…the sight of the water stretching so far away…made me think—without any connection that I can trace—of a summer day in Kentucky…. I could see only the stretch of green before me, and I felt as if I must walk forever, without coming to the end. I don’t remember whether I was frightened or pleased. I must have been entertained”(17).
The sea becomes this entity that offers refuge and freedom. Chopin is building on the idea she set in the beginning of ‘getting out’. This also foreshadows the significance the sea will play in bringing the novel to its conclusion.
Throughout the novel Chopin draws from the themes of the previous event to weave in additional hints. This is clearest when Chopin writes about a solitary swim Edna takes one night:
Edna had attempted all summer to learn to swim…. A certain ungovernable dread hung about her when in the water…. but that night she was like the little tottering, stumbling clutching child, who of a sudden realizes its power and walks for the first time alone, boldly and with over-confidence”(29).
The sea becomes a source of power. However, the reader is unable to ignore the phrase “ungovernable dread hung about her”. This interjects the sense of foreboding again. This is intentional. Chopin writes: “Once she turned and looked toward the shore…. She had not gone any great distance—that is… for an experienced swimmer…. A quick vision of death smote her soul, and for a second of time appalled and enfeebled her sense”(30). The vision of death, in some ways seems to come out of nowhere. Swimming has helped Edna discover she can trust herself and that she is powerful. But if we consider the hints that Chopin has been dropping throughout the novel, we aren’t surprised by it. We were expecting it.
As the novel progresses, Edna acts on her newly discovered sense of self and lives her life as she chooses, rather than the way society prescribes. She makes radical decisions. She rents a little house and moves out of her husband’s home. She openly expresses her feelings for Robert. She’s happy:
There was with her a feeling of having descended in the social scale, with a corresponding sense of having risen in the spiritual. Every step which she took toward relieving herself from obligations added to her strength and expansion as an individual. She began to look with her own eyes: to see and to apprehend the deep undercurrents of life. (101)
It seems that Edna has found her place. However, Chopin drops a hint to the reader when she adds “the deep undercurrents of life”. Undercurrents can be dangerous and are associated with drowning.
The novel quickly comes to a climax when Edna helps with the delivery of Madame Ratignolle’s baby. Madame Ratignolle’s comments to Edna as she is leaving: “Think of the children, Edna. Oh think of the children! Remember them!” (119) and a good-bye letter from Robert: “I love you. Good-by—because I love you.” (121), leads Edna back to Grand Isle. Once she arrives she heads straight to the sea:
Despondency had come over her there in the wakeful night and had never lifted. There was no one thing in the world she desired. There was no human being whom she wanted near her except Robert; and she even realized that the day would come when he, too, and the thought of him would melt out of her existence, leaving her alone. The children appeared before her like antagonist who had overcome her; who had overpowered and sought to drag her into soul’s slavery for the rest of her days. But she knew a way to elude them. (123)
The opening line clearly comes to mind—get out, get out. The reader knows where this is going. All of Chopin’s foreshadowing and development has lead us to this place. So, when Edna goes to the bathhouse to put on her bathing suit, we know what’s going to happen. All the hints have suggested that she is trapped. The sea is her only refuge. Edna walks into the sea, a new and free creature.
Chopin’s use of foreshadowing makes this a satisfying story, because the reader is prepared for each event as the story unfolds. It helps to develop the plot. This may seem like a daunting task for an apprentice writer, but the foundation for foreshadowing is often inherent in early drafts of the writing. It’s present in those little things that don’t entirely make sense as you write. These hints serve as blueprints for the writer to follow to shape the prose. As the foreshadowing falls in place, the well-structured novel unfolds.
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. New York: Signet Classic, 1976. Print.