Kate Chopin's The Awakening &
Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn


On the surface, The Awakening and Huckleberry Finn are not very similar; though both are set around the latter part of the nineteenth century, they concern very different social levels. However, the main characters in each novel do have some things in common…both are outsiders to the society they live in

The protagonist in The Awakening is Edna Pontellier, a 28-year-old Anglo-Saxon female from Kentucky who marries into a Creole family, and becomes immersed in her roles as mother and wife. However, she begins to feel gradually more dissatisfied with her life, becoming more self aware, and this is symbolised by her growing ability to swim. The sea is an important symbol throughout the novel.

In line with the rejection of her life, Edna begins to create a career for herself as an artist. We are told early on as she paints a picture of her friend Edith Ratignolle, that although the painting is quite pleasing aesthetically, it does not resemble the subject. However, towards the end of the novel, as Edna becomes more aware of herself, she even begins to sell some of her work, as it improves. A local musician, Mademoiselle Reisz becomes a character of interest to Edna. Mlle. Reisz is a talented pianist, and Edna strives to be an artist, but we are told that, while Edna loves the water since she learned to swim, the local community put Mlle. Reisz’s reluctance to swim down to ‘the natural aversion for water sometimes believed to accompany the artistic temperament.’1 Later on, as Edna reveals her will to be a painter, Mlle Reisz tells her, that above all, that ‘to succeed, the artist must possess the courageous soul.’2 That is, the ability to completely devote oneself to one’s goal.

Love also features strongly. Edna realises that although she loves her children, and is fond of her husband, they do not fulfil her. She falls for Robert, a young gentleman, and is distraught when he leaves for Mexico. She takes Alcee Arobin as a lover on a purely sexual basis. However, as pointed out by Susan K. Harris, ‘(Edna) in part confuses her search for selfhood with her late burgeoning sexuality.’3 Later Robert will return to her, and embrace her love for him, and his for her, but not completely. Robert cannot accept the fact she is another man’s wife, and ‘property’. When Edna realises this, she is more upset by the fact the man she loves is of the traditional viewpoint where a woman’s place should be, and that she belongs to her husband, than the fact he has left her life. The sea, as a recurring theme is evident here. Edna is drawn to the ocean, it is a symbolic of the goal she wishes to achieve; even down to the fact the story is set on an island, surrounded by the sea, no escape from the sea. In chapter six, Edna tells us ‘The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamouring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation.’4 This passage is redolent of Edna’s self-discovery throughout the novel, and the following passage is the essence of the denouement. ‘The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.’5 As Edna becomes a stronger swimmer, the more she begins to assert herself as a person. The sea becomes symbolic of self-awareness, the swimming, the symbol of achieving this goal

At the climax, Edna cannot see herself in the society she has lived in. She can either end up like Mlle. Reisz, or her friend Edith, who has just given birth again. The thought of a passion-less marriage with her husband, having baby after baby, does not appeal to her. But neither does the life of Mlle. Reisz. She discovers that she cannot be with Robert, as he would nullify her awakening with his homely expectations, and she gives herself unto the sea, reminiscent to her of childhood, ‘of a summer day in Kentucky, of a meadow that seemed as big as the ocean to the very little girl walking through the grass, which was higher than her waist. She threw out her arms as one strikes out in the water.’6

Huckleberry Finn revolves around Huck’s rejection of the society he is placed in, and the communities of the Mississippi river. Unlike The Awakening, Huck’s disillusion with his lot is prevalent from the beginning. He despairs of his foster parent Aunt Sally’s attempts to ‘sivilise’ him, yet living with his abusive father is no attractive option for him either. He decides to fake his own death, essentially removing himself from society in the first third of the novel, and escape becomes a recurring theme throughout. His friendship with Jim, the runaway Negro, who Huck is helping to flee to the south, is also a major theme. Huck considers himself a product of his upbringing, and therefore, finds no qualms about treating his travelling companion like a lesser being. Having said this, throughout the novel, Huck develops a grudging respect for the dignified and loyal way Jim conducts himself. This is evident in chapter thirty-one, when Huck decides that the situation he and Jim are in can be resolved by his writing a letter to Aunt Sally, telling her where Jim is. But as he holds the letter, all the selfless deeds Jim has carried out for Huck on the long voyage come to mind, and he decides that the right thing to do is help Jim, even if it means going to hell.

Jim and Huck’s relationship becomes doubly important, as like The Awakening, the water (this time the Mississippi) carries them towards the conclusion. Frank Baldaza notes in his book Mark Twain, An Introduction and Interpretation, that

We can easily understand why Huck hates civilisation. His trip down the river has shown him filth, brutality, hatred and hypocrisy…he saw tarring and feathering, lynch mobs, the cold-blooded murder of Boggs, and the wholesale slaughter of the Grangerford-Shepherdson feud. All this was pervaded by the chicanery of the King and the Duke. The critic Philip King has counted thirteen corpses in the book.7

 On the other hand, Huck has bonded with Jim, the lowest rung of society. With his enduring loyalty, trust, and love for his deaf daughter, ‘Huck has learned that Jim loves his “people” as much as white folks do theirs. Jim reveals with passionate self-reproach that he too belongs to the “damned human race”’. By the end of the novel, Huck has more respect for Jim than any of the civilised white people he has encountered on his trip down the river. But Huck has been raised to think of black people as inferior, despite the fact Huck ‘knowed (Jim) was white inside’8. If Huck’s best friend is a ‘nigger’, he feels he cannot live in society.

At the start of the novel, Huck is faced with two options. He can continue his life with Aunt Sally, washing and praying, and learning his letters, or he can follow in the footsteps of his selfish, petty criminal father. From the beginning, when he tries to give his six thousand dollars away, he shows he is above the greed possesses by his father, and his casual racism. He also displays kindness, ethics and loyalty, but because of the way his father and Aunt Sally have raised him, he thinks he is doing wrong, a recurring theme in the novel. At the climax of the tale, Huck is left with the choice of whose path to take, Aunt Sally’s, or his father’s. Morally, neither appeals to him; civilisation sickens him, and despite the fact he is similar to his father, he is not the same. He strikes out instead west, heading for the frontier. As Philip Young notes,

Completely dissatisfied with his pious foster mother and the effeminate respectability which surrounded her, he had already run away from St. Petersburg. Now, off on his own, and exposed to the violence and evil of society as a whole, he renounces it. He goes on now outside its ways. If it is good, he is wicked. And if it aims for heaven, he will go elsewhere.9

The Awakening and Huckleberry Finn are quite similar. Both feature water heavily, and both protagonists undergo an epiphany. The Awakening’s themes of self-exploration and radical female self-assertion lead to Edna Pontellier realising she cannot go on living in her world. Similarly, Huckleberry Finn’s themes of right and wrong, escape and social comment, lead Huck Finn to remove himself from his world, but search for another.


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