In this lesson, we learn about the literary device situational irony and discover how Kate Chopin uses it to develop characters and themes in her novel ”The Awakening”.
What Is Irony?
Have you ever had something happen that is totally unexpected and then thought, ‘Well, that’s interesting…
and that certainly explains a lot’? If you have, then you’ve experienced irony. Irony, or more specifically situational irony, is a literary device authors use to provide unexpected insight into a character or event. The author presents a situation that is the opposite of what the reader expects, and through this unexpected event, the reader discovers a whole new level of meaning. In The Awakening, Kate Chopin uses irony to provide glimpses into the lives of the book’s characters.
The Most Unlikely of Companions
Social status is incredibly important in late 19th century New Orleans, where this novel takes place. Yet the main character of the novel, Edna Pontellier, regularly forms relationships with male characters who could potentially compromise her social status and even her prominent marriage. The married mother Edna forms a close bond with Robert Lebrun, a younger bachelor.
Edna does not limit herself to a relationship with Robert. When he leaves for Mexico, she takes up with Alcee Arobin, a known womanizer and life-long bachelor. Despite many warnings from high society friends, Edna persists in this relationship, regularly crossing the line in her relationship with Arobin.While these relationships may simply seem like a way for Chopin to spice up her novel, they are actually quite ironic. Because of Edna’s social status as wife of a prominent businessman, readers expect her to adhere to social conventions. Yet when she does not, the book’s readers get to see this character at her truest: a woman making her own choices and no apologies.
Love as the Great Destroyer
Love is grand, right? Not according to Kate Chopin. Throughout the novel, the author uses irony to demonstrate that despite what readers may believe about the redeeming qualities of love, it is actually destructive. Chopin uses the contrast between the young lovers and the woman in black to make this point. The reader sees a pair of young lovers enjoying stolen moments of flirtation and intimacy or walking hand in hand down the beach at Grand Isle. The author regularly presents an older woman in black following behind or sitting near these idyllic young lovers. This ironic contrast points towards a more sinister view of love. Young love cannot last and will not lead to long-term bliss.
The more likely result is sadness and loneliness.
Living the Perfect Life
Edna believes being true to who she is will lead to her freedom. Throughout the novel, she pushes away all of the social expectations that she sees as untrue to the woman she is. Edna has the ideal life for a woman living in America at the turn of the 19th century. She is married to a successful businessman and has two adoring children.
Her husband dotes on her, regularly sending her sweets accompanied by notes of adoration when he is away. She has a vacation cottage on the exclusive Grand Isle and a well situated home in New Orleans. Yet, Edna does not feel connected to this perfect life.
She believes her husband sees her as his property. While she loves her children, she does not feel that sacrificing herself as an individual, like the other women in her social class, is the path to a happy life. The idyllic vision of marriage and motherhood is simply not true for Edna.
Living the Bohemian Life
In an ironic twist, Edna pursues a life separate from social conventions.
She spends an increasing amount of time away from her children, leaving them with the nurse most of the family’s vacation. Edna joyfully sends them away when her husband is in New York for business. She also rejects the expectation that she will regularly hold a reception day for the other elite of New Orleans to call on her in her lavish home. She repeatedly spends time outside the house on her scheduled Tuesday visitation day. Most unexpectedly, though, Edna makes a decision to not live on her husband’s money any longer, even though this choice means she will need to live in a much more modest home.
She uses a small inheritance from her family to rent what she affectionately calls ‘the pigeon house’ due to its incredibly tight quarters. In this new living space, Edna experiences incredible freedom and peace. She increasingly spends time with people whose company she enjoys and becomes engrossed in painting.
The Greatest Irony of All
The most ironic aspect of Edna’s shift from society woman to humble artist is that as soon as she acquires her newfound freedom, she literally gives up her new life. The novel ends with Edna committing suicide by swimming out in the ocean until she becomes too fatigued to continue. The author shows the reader that in the end, a person’s greatest dream may also be their undoing.
Irony is a powerful literary device that allows an author to turn the reader’s expectation of what should and will happen on its head, offering instead an opposite reality. Kate Chopin uses situational irony in The Awakening to create a multi-layered view of the book’s main characters and to show that social status and the conventions necessary to maintain it are not as positive as they may seem.