Myths and Fairy Tales: Context of The Awakening

There are no direct mentions of myths and fairy tales in The Awakening except for the Gulf spirit, but there are many subtle allusions to a body of mythological or folkloric tales. Listed below are the stories referenced in these allusions, understanding them will provide extra richness when reading the novel.

Classical Myths

Aphrodite (Greek) or Venus (Latin):

Aphrodite was the goddess of love and beauty. She was known to laugh at those who fell under her spell. She was one of the three women competing for Paris' golden apple (which started the Trojan War). Aphrodite was the daughter of Zeus and Dione in the Iliad, but is also said to have been born of water. It is believed that she sprang from a sea-birth near the island of Cytherea. Zeus married her to Hephaistos, god of fire, to keep the other gods from fighting over her, but soon she had an affair with Ares, the god of war. Hephaistos caught them and Aphrodite returned to the sea to renew her virginity. Thus, the two components of Aphrodite, passion and water, were combined. 

Artemis (Greek) or Diana (Latin):

Artemis was Apollo's twin sister and the daughter of Zeus and Leto. She was the goddess of the woods, wild things, and was huntsman-in-chief to the gods. One of her traits was the protection of the young and she was also a fertility goddess. Associated with the defense of women - when a woman died a quick and painless death it was said that one of Artemis' silver arrows had killed her - she is also the goddess that demanded a maiden sacrifice before allowing the Greek fleet to sail to Troy. In later mythology she was transformed into a sun goddess and identified with Selene. She was also identified with Hecate, goddess of the underworld and the dark of the moon. She became a tripartite figure: Artemis on the land, Selene in the sky, and Hecate in the underworld and in the black of a moonless night. 

Echo and Narcissus (Greek and Latin):

Echo was a beautiful nymph who was overly fond of talking. She lived in the hills and was a favorite of Artemis and helped her with the hunt. One day she kept Hera (Zeus' wife) talking while the other nymphs who were sleeping with Zeus fled. Enraged at losing her prey, Hera cursed Echo with these words: "You shall forfeit the use of that tongue with which you have cheated me, except for the one purpose you are so fond of - reply. You shall still have the last word, but no power to speak first" (Bulfinch, 88).

One day, after the curse had taken effect, Echo saw and fell in love with the beautiful young man named Narcissus. She followed him through the hills hoping he would speak to her. One day he became lost and called out "Who's here" Echo replied "Here." Narcissus called out and Echo answered the same, until he finally said "Let us join one another" Echo raced toward him only to have him fling her off saying, "hands off! I would rather die than you should have me." Echo ran into the hills and cried. From that day on she lived among the rocks, slowly fading away, until her body became one with the hills and all that was left was her voice, forever answering in reply.

Narcissus continued with his life, never realizing what harm he had caused. One day, tired and thirsty, he came upon a glorious fountain, looking down he saw his own image in the water and thought it a beautiful water-spirit living in the fountain. He became enraptured by the sight and reached out for it, as he did, it disappeared. He called out to summon the spirit and spoke lovingly of a life together. When there was no reply he cried, his tears disturbing the image, he called out "stay, I entreat you! Let me at least gaze upon you, if I may not touch you." He sat by the fountain, gazing upon the reflection, and wasted away. Upon his death, while crossing the Stygian river, he leaned over the boat to see himself again. The nymphs looked for his body to bury, but all they found was a flower, purple and white, which now bears his name. 

Gulf Spirit:

There are other spirits in folklore who come out of the sea, appear at special times, looking for a soul mate or wife. Celtic mythology is full of such creatures. Silkies, mythical seals, transform themselves into men and come ashore to look for a wife. Waterhorses are white horses who tempt humans to ride them, and once on, carry them into the water to be a bride or groom. 

Icarus (Greek and Latin):

Icarus was the son of Deadalus, the builder of King Minos' labyrinth. Deadalus had fallen into disfavor with the King and had been imprisoned with his son inside the labyrinth. To escape, he fashioned wings of feathers and wax for himself and his son. He cautioned Icarus not to fly too low (the damp of the sea would rot the feathers) or too high (the heat of the sun would melt the wax), but to keep to a middle course. All was well until Icarus, overcome by delight and defiance, flew high toward the sun. His wings melted and he fell into the sea and drowned. 

Orpheus and Eurydice (Greek and Latin):

Orpheus was the son of Apollo and the Muse, Calliope. He played the lyre so well that none could withstand its charm. He married Eurydice, a beautiful maiden, in a grand ceremony. Soon after their wedding, while picking flowers in a meadow, she was accosted by the shepherd Aristaeus. Fleeing from him, she tread on a snake in the grass, was bitten and died.

Orpheus entered the Underworld and played his lyre for Hades and Persephone, the King and Queen of the Underworld, singing a song about his wife. Moved by his music, they allowed Orpheus to return to the world of the living with Eurydice as long as he did not look upon her before they left. When they had almost surfaced, Orpheus turned to make sure Eurydice was still with him. In a flash she was swept back into the Underworld, sighing "Farewell, a last farewell" (Bulfinch, 152). Orpheus was grief stricken and withheld himself from all women. The Thracian maidens, angered at his disinterest, killed him, tearing his body from limb to limb. His lyre was placed in the stars by Zeus and the nightingale sings over his grave. He joined Eurydice in the Underworld, reunited and happy at last. 

Psyche (Greek and Latin):

Psyche was the youngest of three princesses. Her beauty outshone even that of Aphrodite. Men forgot to pay homage to her, and turned their attentions to Psyche. Aphrodite became angry and asked her son Eros (god of love), to make Psyche fall in love with the vilest creature on earth. Eros fell under her spell instead. Time passed and no one married Psyche. Men looked at her, marveled at her beauty, and then went on to marry someone else. Both of her sisters, far less beautiful, married well. In dispair her father asked Phoebus (god of light and truth), what had happened to his daughter. Eros had told Phoebus the whole story and begged for his help. Phoebus told her father to dress her in mourning and take her to a high hill where a fearsome winged serpent would come and claim her as his wife.

Psyche sat on the hill crying in fear, when a soft breeze came and lifted her away. She was carried to a meadow with a winding stream where she slept. When she awoke there was a place before her and voices urged her inside. She was told by these faceless voices that this was her new home and they were her servants. That night her husband came to her in the dark. She could not see him, but his presence caused no fear. Time passed and she was happy with her unseen husband who visited her each night. He told her she must never look upon his face. Her sisters, mad with envy, urged her to discover his identity. One night, overcome with curiosity, Psyche took an oil lamp and looked at her husband. It was Eros and she was struck by his beauty. She began to tremble and some of the oil in her lamp spilled on him. He awoke, saw that she had betrayed him, and flew off telling her that love cannot exist without trust. Psyche was bereft; she began searching the world for him.

Eros, badly wounded from the oil, flew back to his mother and told her his tale. Aphrodite was angry with her son and even more enraged with Psyche. She locked her son in his chamber and resolved to punish the beautiful woman. Psyche, who had no luck searching the world, decided to beg Aphrodite for help and became her servant. Aphrodite teased and taunted her and gathered up a great mass of tiny seeds and mixed them together. She told Psyche she must sort them by nightfall or she would be punished severely It was an impossible job, but ants came to her aid and sorted the pile. Aphrodite was very angry that Psyche had completed the task and told her to go down to the river where there were fierce and dangerous golden-fleeced sheep. Psyche's task was to gather their wool. She stood on the river bank and thought of throwing herself into the river. A tiny voice cried out to stop. It was a reed, who told her to wait until nightfall when the sheep came to drink from the river. Then she could gather wool from the thicket without trouble. When Psyche took the wool to Aphrodite, the goddess was irate. She sent Psyche to the river Styx to fill a flask with its black water. This time an eagle came to her aid. Absolutely enraged, Aphrodite sent her into Hades to get a box of beauty from Persephone, Queen of the Under World. Psyche managed that task on her own, but overcome with the need to be beautiful for Eros and her own curiosity, she opened the box and fell under a sleeping spell.

Eros, by this time recovered from his wound and longing for his wife, went in search of Psyche. He found her asleep and healed her. He then took her to the palace of the gods, where she ate ambrosia and became immortal. They had a child - Joy.

The recorder of this myth ends his tale with these words, "So all came to a most happy end. Love and the Soul (for that is what Psyche means) had sought and, after sore trials, found each other; and that union could never be broken" (Hamilton, 100). 

Selene (Greek) or Luna ( Latin):

Selene was a Titan, a moon-goddess, and the sister of Helios (the god of the sun). She is involved in the story of Endymion who was a shepherd of untold beauty. One day Selene saw him and fell in love. She came down from the heavens, kissed him, and he was cast into an endless sleep, immortal, but forever slumbering. Night after night, Selene visited him and covered him in kisses. The myth holds that she lulled him into sleep so that she could always find him to kiss him at will. It also holds that her passion only brings her sighs of pain. 

Fairy Tales:

Because most readers are familiar with most of the plot lines of classic fairy tales, I am not going to summarize them here. What I want you to focus on is their overall pattern and structure. Fairy tales that have women as their central characters are usually structured in this manner: a quick summary of their childhood where the reader learns that they are beautiful, good, and protected from the outside world (Cinderella and Snow White are in exile; Sleeping Beauty is in a loving home). In their adolescence a spell is either cast upon them or an old spell takes effect. In most cases the spell leads to sleep, but it may lead to isolation (Cinderella in a kitchen, Rapunzel in a tower, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White are cast asleep). The effect of this sleep/isolation is that the woman is kept innocent, so that when the hero arrives and breaks the spell or finds the woman, she is pure (because she is inexperienced) and worthy of love and happiness. Think about what this means for Edna. She is not inexperienced when Robert re-finds her.

When men are the heroes of fairy tales the pattern is very different. They are constructed more in keeping with stories of quest. The character faces a series of challenges or tests, completes them, and takes his place in the world. Spells are usually problems to overcome (being turned into a frog or climbing a wall of thorns). Transforming spells separate male centered fairy tales even more from their female counterparts. When a man is changed in appearance, he can no longer rely on his looks, but must succeed through his actions (Rosowski). Edna has a spell to overcome, her own unawakened self, and she forges her own faltering identity without the help of a man. In fact, Edna combines both male and female fairy tale aspects in her life. Try to trace some of them to see what Chopin was doing: in a society divided by sex and structured by rules, Edna's life serves as an example of what works and what does not, in the same way fairy tales instruct. To help you out, remember her childhood in Kentucky, the functions of men in her life, the repetitive scenes of sleep, her pigeon house, and her final meeting with Robert.

In contrast to traditional fairy tales, keep in mind this explanation of novels of female awakening: they tend to have protagonists who grow significantly "only after fulfilling the fairy-tale expectation that they will marry and live "happily ever after," they frequently portray a break from marital, rather than parental, authority and thus are often novels of adultery. The development of the story is usually "compressed into brief emphatic moments. Since the significant changes are internal, flashes of recognition often replace the continuous unfolding of actions" (Abel, 12)

Two final specific fairy tales are Goldilocks and Snow White. Remember that Goldilocks wandered into the bears home, ate their food, sat in their chairs, and fell asleep in their beds. It is the story of a very active and aggressive little girl, one not afraid of her own desires. In Snow White, the Queen looks in the mirror to see the most fair, and sees a reflection that is not her own.

Neal Wyatt (1995)  [contact at]
Kate Chopin Study Text