Reading Response: The Awakening, Kate Chopin
In this excerpt, Chopin plays with balance in various ways, to reflect the protagonist’s mental imbalance.
It was a large, beautiful room, rich and picturesque in the soft, dim light which the maid had turned low. She went and stood at an open window and looked out upon the deep tangle of the garden below. All the mystery and witchery of the night seemed to have gathered there amid the perfumes and the dusky and tortuous outlines of flowers and foliage. She was seeking herself and finding herself in just such sweet, half-darkness which met her moods. But the voices were not soothing that came to her from the darkness and the sky above and the stars. They jeered and sounded mournful notes without promise, devoid even of hope. She turned back into the room and began to walk to and fro down its whole length, without stopping, without resting. She carried in her hands a thin handkerchief, which she tore into ribbons, rolled into a ball, and flung from her. Once she stopped, and taking off her wedding ring, flung it upon the carpet. When she saw it lying there, she stamped her heel upon it, striving to crush it. But her small boot did not make an indenture, not a mark upon the glittering circlet.
—The Awakening, Kate Chopin
In this paragraph from The Awakening by Kate Chopin, the opening is unremarkable: a vague description, followed by Edna “looking out” on the garden. However, in the second sentence, “deep tangle” is interesting. “Deep” enhances the perspective of Edna looking down, and evokes water, the ocean. Also, a “tangle” is not a complimentary way to describe a garden; it suggests conflict, turmoil. The striking combination of these two words alerts the reader that this description is doing double-duty. The other deep tangle is in Edna’s mind. Later in the paragraph, the perspective shifts, and Edna is looking up, rather than down. Ominous voices come from above, from the darkness. This shift gives the impression that she is sinking, foreshadowing the novel’s ending.
The string of conjunctions in the third sentence speaks to the bifurcation happening in Edna’s mind. We get a sense of halves, and splitting. I like in particular “mystery and witchery” because of the complex way that these two words both do and no not go together. The words rhyme, each having three syllables, and so they should be balanced. But on semantic and morphological planes, they are not balanced. One is high-frequency (mystery), and the other, witchery, although it apparently was at its peak of usage around 1900, was still markedly lower in frequency. And the first is mono-morphemic, while the suffix-containing “witchery” is morphologically complex. Also, the idea of “witchery” lingers in the story. The suggestion is that her behavior, to the extent that she is bucking societal expectations of women and throwing away something that is conventionally important, if not strictly speaking witch-like, is unacceptable.
Chopin doesn’t shy away from adjectives. But “small” in the last sentence, “her small boot,” stands out as a well-chosen one. It highlights the degree to which Edna and her desires are overpowered by the patriarchy.
In the penultimate sentence, we have the verb “saw,” which is similar to her over-used “looked,” but is even more passive, suggesting movement in the direction of her opting out of the struggle that life presents.
The phrase “glittering circlet” in the final sentence works well to end the strong paragraph. Besides the fact that “glittering ring” would be a mouthful, each of the phonemes in “circlet,” save the [s] at the beginning, has a correspondent in “glittering,” giving the phrase a swirling effect evoking roundness.
In this excerpt, Chopin plays with balance in various ways, to reflect the protagonist’s mental imbalance. She also foreshadows the events to come, evoking deep water, vulnerability, passivity, and rejection of convention. Acoustic effects of coordination, rhyming, and repetition are used in ways that amplify these ideas in the context of the paragraph.
 To illustrate the correspondence, in case it is too opaque in the prose, here is the phrase in International Phonetic Alphabet (one symbol per phoneme). Corresponding sounds are noted below:
([g] and [k] differ only in their voicing, [matching in place and manner of articulation], which makes them close enough to the same sound; the [t] corresponds to a “flap,” which is a variant of the sound [t].)
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