Sample Literary Analysis:

Indecision and Lack of Identity in Chopin’s The Awakening and Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.


Often, in literature, we find characters who, for whatever reason, find themselves riddled with indecision. After all, who can forget Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a character who, rather than acting on his feelings, spends much of the play continuously contemplating his own indecision. While characters such as this are familiar to us all, we may often find ourselves wondering why authors decide to construct characters in such a manner. One possible answer to such a question is that authors often choose to construct characters in this way in order to reveal certain flaws within that particular character. And tendencies similar to these can been seen in The Awakening and Huckleberry Finn, two novels in which the authors, Twain and Chopin, both use indecision and aimlessness in order to illustrate Edna Pontellier and Huckleberry Finn’s lack of identity.

In The 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 life which
questions” (18). Of course, when we see Edna begin to experience what Chopin terms “an awakening,” we are tempted to assume that Edna is somehow on her way to understanding the world around her; however, as we explore further we soon find that this is simply not the case.
Despite the beliefs of some critics, Chopin does not intend the reader to view Edna’s sudden realization as the rope which will pull Edna from the deepening quicksand of confusion and indecision, but rather Chopin uses “the awakening,” as well as its negative effects upon Edna, in order to illustrate Edna’s indecision, thus revealing her lack of identity. While Chopin does suggest that Edna, through her awakening, is beginning to “realize her position in the universe as a human being,” she places little emphasis upon the benefit of such an experience. Instead, throughout the novel Chopin stresses the extreme confusion, or indecision, which can result from such a complex transformation, noting that “the beginning of things, of a world especially, is necessarily vague, tangled chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing,” describing Edna’s awakening as a “light which showing the way, forbids it” and as a force which “served but to bewilder her” (17).

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).

Instead 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).
George Arms asserts that as [Edna] reveals herself, her aimlessness impresses us more than her sense of conflict . . . Thus Edna appears not so much as a woman who is aware of the opposition of two ideals but rather as one who drifts. And Arms is correct is his assertion. Chopin focus our attention upon Edna’s aimlessness and indecision, not only to give emphasis to Edna’s conflict, but, more specifically, in order to illustrate Edna’s lack of identity. In fact, at times Chopin blatantly states Edna’s confusion with her own identity, noting that Edna occasionally finds herself confused, often realizing that “herself—her present self—[is] in some way different from the other self” (53). Moreover, Edna even realizes this herself when she states: “one of these days I’m going to pull myself together for a while and think— try to determine what character of woman I am” (109). And while ideas such as these continually surface in The Awakening, it is important to note that similar notions also arise in other notable works of American literature, more specifically, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

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.

Jim said it made him all over trembly and feverish to be so close to freedom. Well, I can tell you it made me all over trembly and feverish, too, to hear him because I begun to get it through my head that he was most free— and who was to blame for it? Why, me. I couldn’t get that out of my conscience, no how nor no way. It got to troubling me so I couldn’t rest; I couldn’t stay still in one place. It hadn’t ever come home to me before, what this thing was that I was doing. But now it did; and it staid with me, and scorched me more and more. I tried to make out to myself that I warn’t to blame, . . . but it warn’t no use, conscience up and say every time, “But you knowed he was running for his freedom, and you could a paddled ashore and told somebody.” That was so—I couldn’t get around that, noway. That was where it pinched . . . I got to feeling so mean and so miserable I most wished I was dead. I fidgeted up and down the raft, abusing myself to myself (101-02).

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.

“I didn’t answer up prompt . I tried to, but the words wouldn’t come. I tried for a second or two, to brace up and out with it, but I warn’t man enough—hadn’t the spunk of a rabbit. I see I was weakening; so I just give up trying, and up and says “He’s white.” . . . They went off , and I got aboard the raft, feeling bad and low, because I knowed very well I had done wrong, and I see it warn’t no use for me to try to learn to do right . . . Then I thought a minute, and says to myself, hold on—spose you’d a done right and give Jim up; would you felt better than what you do now? No, says I, I’d feel bad—I’d feel just the same way I do now. Well, then, says I, what’s the use you learning to do right, when it’s troublesome to do right and ain’t no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same? I was struck. I couldn’t answer that. So I reckon I wouldn’t bother no more about it, but after this always do whichever come handiest at the time (103-04).

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.

But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest,
because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me,
and I can’t stand it. I been there before (265).

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.”

She did not look back now, but went on and on, thinking of the
blue-grass meadow that she had traversed when a little
child, believing that it had no beginning and no end. . . .
Perhaps Doctor Mandelet would have understood if she had
seen him— but it was too late; the shore was far behind her,
and her strength was gone. She looked into the distance, and
the old terror flamed up for an instant , then sank again
(152-53).

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.