Sample Literary Analysis:
Indecision and Lack of Identity in Chopin’s The Awakening and Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Awakening, we find Edna Pontellier, a character who, from the very opening
of the novel, is portrayed as a woman devoid of an identity. Of course
the most notable example of this first surfaces with the introduction
of Mr. Pontellier, who we are told looks at Edna as “one looks
at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage”
(3); however, throughout the novel, Chopin continually develops this
idea of Edna as a character lacking all sense of identity mainly by
continuously establishing Edna as a character who is riddled with indecision,
a character who, despite her desire to understand the world around her,
continually finds herself struggling between two separate lives, hanging
in a sort of psychological limbo, hopelessly caught somewhere between
“that outward existence which conforms” and the “inward
Rather than focusing upon the positive effects of such an awakening, Chopin establishes this idea of the awakening as a tragic endeavor, making such statements as “How few of us ever emerge from such beginnings!” and “How many souls perish in its tumult!” (18). And this is important to Chopin’s purpose because by associating such an awakening with words like “perish, “chaotic,” “tumult,” and “vague,” Chopin not only gives emphasis to the confusion and indecision which Edna will endure through her awakening, but, more importantly, she alludes to Edna’s tragic fate, establishing Edna a character who, rather than benefit from such an awakening, will consequently be propelled into a world of deeper confusion and indecision because of her lack of identity.
After all, doesn’t Edna’s state of confusion and indecision only become more apparent as the novel progresses? The summer Edna spends in Grand Isle does not bring her to any sudden understanding of herself. Rather, Edna moves from one state of confusion to more deeper form of confusion, spending her summer feeling as though she were ”walking aimlessly through the green meadow again; idly, aimlessly, unthinking and unguided” (22).
Following her awakening, Edna’s sexual identity seems equally lacking as well. At times, she wishes to “try herself on Madame Ratignolle, claiming that never had that lady seemed a more tempting subject,” while at other times she seems attracted to Arobin, and at other times Robert. The epitome of Edna’s indecision is quite obviously expressed when Chopin illustrates Edna’s own indecisiveness, stating that “there was no human being 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 . . . ” (151).
of giving Edna some sense of identity, her sudden awakening seems to
only further illustrate her inability to find a relevance in the world
that surrounds her. As the light of her awakening begins to shine upon
her, the past slowly becomes “nothing to her, offer[ing] [her]
no lesson which she [is] willing to heed,” while “the future
[becomes] a mystery which she never attempt[s] to penetrate” (59).
Rather than illustrating Edna as a character capable of making her own
decisions, Chopin describes Edna as someone who “blindy followed
whatever impulse moved her, a character who at times feels as though
“she had placed herself in alien hands for direction, and freed
her soul of responsibility” (42).
Similarly, in Huckleberry Finn we find an indecisive young boy named Huck who, devoid of any true identity, constantly struggles between matters of the heart and matters of the conscience. However, Twain, like Chopin, does not always blatantly state the fact that Huck lacks an identity. Instead, he employs techniques similar to those used by Chopin, repeatedly establishing Huch as a character weighted with confusion and indecision. We see this demonstrated the moment Huck and Jim begin their journey down the river. While Huck feels that, in his heart, Jim should be free, he continually struggles with his conscience.
Leo Marx asserts that “the conflict between what people think they stand for and what social pressure forces them to do is central to Huckleberry Finn” and that such conflict “is present to the mind of Huck and, indeed, accounts for his most serious inner conflicts.” And I agree with Marx wholeheartedly. While Huck’s struggle is societal in nature, rather than Edna’s which is psychologically-based, Huck, like Edna, is hopelessly confused, so confused in fact that at times he “wishes he were dead.” When Huck’s conscience “g[e]ts to stirring [him] up hotter than ever, he decides to tell on Jim, and he does “paddle off, all in a sweat to tell on him”; but when Jim thanks Huck for giving him his freedom, Huck begins to question his decision, stating “When he says this, it seemed to kind of take the tuck all out of me. I went along slow then, and I warn’t right down certain whether I was glad I started or whether I warn’t” (102). Indeed, perhaps the most obvious illustration of Huck’s indecision surfaces in Chapter XVI when he is approached by the men on the skiff. The men ask Huck whether Jim is black or white, and it is here that we see more clearly than ever Huck’s struggle.
Huck, like Edna, finds himself in the midst of a confusing dilemma, hopelessly torn between what he wants and what society expects. And consequently, because he is so confused and indecisive, Huck simply does “whichever comes handiest at the time,” a statement reminiscent of Edna’s decision to “abandon[s] herself to Fate.” Much like Chopin, Twain is attempting to illustrate a character’s indecision, in this case Huck’s, in order to reveal his lack of identity. Leslie Fielder asserts that one of the major differences between Huckleberry Finn and Twain’s other books is a constant confusion of identities.” And Fielder is correct in her assertion. In fact, at times, Twain blatantly illustrates Huck’s own confusion concerning his identity, at one point even stating: “And when I waked up in the morning, drat it all, I had forgotten what my name was” (111). Moreover, when Huck is mistaken for Tom Sawyer, he doesn’t tell them that he is not Tom Sawyer. Instead, he goes along with it, stating: “For it was like being born again, I was so glad to find out who I was . . . Being Tom Sawyer was easy and comfortable” (210). And what about Huck’s encounter with Judith Loftus? As Myra Jehlen asserts, when Huck meets Judith Loftus, the plot does not require him to use a fake identity. Rather, Twain gives Huck a fabricated identity, not because the plot requires it, but because he is attempting to illustrate Huck’s lack of identity. After all, even when Mrs. Loftus realizes that he is a boy, Huck still assumes a fake identity, claiming that his name is George Elexander Peters. Hence, by establishing this confusion of identities, or more specifically, by illustrating Huck’s acceptance of various fabricated identities as well as his inability to remember who he is, Twain essentially illustrates Huck’s own confusion concerning his identity.
In both novels, Twain and Chopin examine the struggles of certain characters, in this case Huckleberry Finn and Edna Pontellier, continually depicting them as confused and indecisive in order to illustrate their apparent lack of identity. Of course, many critics have argued that Huck and Edna’s struggles do not bring about any substantial changes in them as characters, pointing to Huck’s last words which reveal that, through his struggle, he has remained relatively unchanged.
And, as George Arms asserts, Edna, even in death, is drifting when she again recalls having wandered on the blue-grass meadow as a little girl.”
While Huck and Edna’s
struggles are somewhat unfortunate and, certainly different in nature,
their struggles are important because, through their struggles, Twain
and Chopin not only reveal the confusion and indecision which arise
in the midst of such a struggle but, more importantly, they successfully
illustrate man’s continual inability to overcome such struggles.