Kate Chopin’s inclusion of the reference to Emerson creates an interesting intertextual dialogue within The Awakening. Emerson’s transcendentalism is an attempt to find knowledge, truth, and enlightenment through introspection and a one on one communion with nature. A follower of Emerson would retreat to a cabin in the woods and learn the secrets of the universe through direct observation of nature. Edna’s awakening follows the Emerson model in a few key ways.
Her process of awakening begins with her epiphany inside the ocean. She seems to have a miraculous shift from non-swimmer to swimmer (31.) But following Emerson’s logic, Edna did not miraculously or accidentally learn to swim; she had finally opened herself to the enlightening influence of nature. The ocean imagery shows where Edna’s sudden learning came from. Chopin writes, “The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in the abysses of solitude; to lose itself in inward contemplation” (16.) The next sentence goes on describing the touch and embrace of the sea (16.) The personification of the sea is not just a poetic flourish of language, but also the way of showing Edna’s transcendent interconnectedness with nature. Edna’s new knowledge was imparted to her from the seductive voice of the sea. And the sea is another source of solitude which is another of Emerson’s requirements for transcendence.
However, Edna’s strength to follow through with her Emersonian quest for transcendence is called into question on at least two occasions. Mademoiselle Reiz checks Edna for wings then says, “The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings” (92.) This conversation brings into question Edna’s ability to follow Emerson’s path to transcendence. In fact, Edna had only been seeking transcendence through half measures. Edna seeks her solitude while still surrounded with people. While communing with nature in the ocean she is still surrounded by the rest of her party (31.) She glorifies in her solitude when her family leaves the house (80.) And in many other cases where Edna is alone she is able to see the world in a new perspective. But as Chopin writes, “Then Edna sat in the library and read Emerson until she grew sleepy” (81.)
Edna’s full transcendent potential is thwarted by an only partial adherence to Emerson’s teachings. She is not strong enough to remove herself from society completely, and therefore, she is continually held back from her goals of a happy fulfilled life. And in the end, when she comes to the conclusion that she must leave the city to truly commune with nature, Edna only makes it back to her family vacation home (125.) Since she is still surrounded by connections to society and her family life by the mostly empty vacation homes and her mostly empty happy memories, Edna is incapable of reaching the solitude and contentment. Because of her inability to let go of her past, the only way that Edna can reach total emersion in nature and undisturbed solitude is to strip naked and swim out into the ocean and drown (128.)