Kate Chopin’s late 19th-century novel The Awakening, and its protagonist Edna Pontellier, demonstrates a protagonist with a complex and layered inner life, pioneering the extent to which female lead characters in American fiction could be displayed. Throughout the novel, her sense of self as it is positioned within the societal expectations of wifehood and motherhood in the late 1800s is continually challenged, as she must weigh the pressures placed on her by her husband and community against her own individual wants and needs. In this respect, feminism and marriage play a significant role in Edna’s growth and evolution as a character. Edna, as a character, is a fluid individual constantly searching for her sense of self, which is an extremely admirable and courageous considering the ways in which 19th century society restricted her behavior. In the end, however, she succumbs to this acculturated sense of male dependence, which leads her to commit suicide after being rejected by a man. In charting the trajectory of Edna’s character throughout The Awakening, her self-identification as a wife and mother undergoes tremendous investigation, Chopin highlighting the social inequalities women faced at the time and the devastating consequences it could have for them.
Edna, at the start of the book, is a quintessential example of the way women were expected to act in the 1800s. She is obedient and polite, with most of her time spent either caring for her children and husband or spending time with her friend Adele Ratignolle. As a character, Adele becomes a stark reminder of how much Edna’s own identity revolves around her family – she and Edna become friends at Grand Isle, Adele demonstrating a gleeful energy and enthusiasm about caring for her children. This is contrasted, of course, with Edna’s ambivalence and anxiety about her role as mother and caretaker, embracing everything that Edna would hope to rebel against. To that end, Adele serves as an important character to highlight the ability to be perfectly happy taking care of children, which is something that Edna can in no way identify with. Seeing Adele so happy is one large reason why Edna considers staying in her own family.
Despite Adele’s example as the perfect wife and mother, Edna undergoes her titular ‘awakening’ when she starts to question the values that women are expected to have by society. When she begins feeling sexual attraction towards Robert Lebrun at Grand Isle, she feels a certain pull towards independence: “In short, Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her” (Chopin 17). The use of Lebrun as the primary motivator behind Edna’s self-discovery and rebellion throws many things into question, including her own desires: the question remains as to whether or not she truly wants to be an independent woman, or simply in a different marriage with Robert.
In many ways, Edna’s navigation and questioning of the Self is unique among women of that time, who are encouraged to unquestioningly accept the roles they have been given. However, Chopin uses Edna to explore what would happen if a woman actually followed through with her awakening, abandoning her family to seek out a life on her own. To Edna (and Chopin), a loveless life fulfilling societal norms is no life at all, and Edna’s bravery in committing to this awakening is inspiring: “How few of us ever emerge from such beginning! How many souls perish in its tumult!” (Chopin 17-18). This line, however, tragically foreshadows Edna’s death at the end, which implies that women’s reorganization of their life and self comes at a tremendous cost.
Edna’s rebellion against her husband happens piecemeal: first, she simply takes a swim with Robert, after which she feels incredibly liberated. The first stirrings of animosity toward her husband build the first time she comes home after that moment, and he attempts to take her to bed with him: “She perceived that her will had blazed up, stubborn and resistant. She could not at that moment have done other than denied and resisted she could not realize why or how she should have yielded, feeling as she then did” (Chopin 36). Rather than fulfilling her wifely duties, she takes yet another smaller step toward rebellion, allowing her to gradually work towards her own liberation. Edna’s awakening allows her to distance herself from her old ways of thinking, empowering her and giving her greater control of her life. In refusing Leonce’s wishes, Edna makes a bold step towards treating herself as an individual, and not her husband’s sexual property. In doing so, she realizes she cannot remember the reasons she actually had to do what he said in the first place. This dramatic change in her sense of self allows her to see how liberated she could be.
As part of Edna’s awakening, she begins to imagine a life with Robert, wishing away the rest of the people of the world and envisioning them on an island alone, where they could be happy (Chopin 42). Edna’s daydreaming about her potential new life, however, is also evidence of her lack of realism regarding her situation. Despite the idealistic nature of her desire to break away from her family, the practicalities of patriarchal society and familial obligation make that extremely difficult, if not impossible. While Edna manages to reinvent herself as an independent woman, it costs her a great deal. She loses all of her friends and family, as well as her clout as Leonce’s wife. She gets her own, more modest house, which matches her changing priorities from material wealth to spiritual health. Despite the ostensible difficulties inherent in her life changes, her sense of independence trumps the will of 19th-century society to tie her to a man and refuse her own wants and needs. Edna, upon establishing this new life for herself, feels extremely liberated: “She began to look with her own eyes; to see and to apprehend the deeper undercurrents of life. No longer was she content to ‘feed upon opinion’ when her own soul had invited her” (Chopin 99). By rejecting society altogether, Edna finds her own strength as a woman in a way that feeds her soul.
Despite the benefits of Edna’s awakening, her divorce from Leonce and society as a whole leads her down a tragic path. Replacing her disillusionment with society, Edna begins to believe that what she wants and what society can give her are mutually exclusive. While separating herself from everyone else gave her what she wanted in the moment, Edna finds it incredibly difficult to live with her decisions. In the end, however, she believes it is worthwhile: “Perhaps it is better to wake up after all, even to suffer, rather than to remain a dupe to illusions all one’s life” (Chopin 116). Edna’s decisions allow her to live outside of what men expect of her; while it is a cruel life, she feels immensely free and at peace with herself.
When contemplating Edna’s construction of herself as a woman, a wife and mother, it is clear that Chopin wants to showcase her as a deeply complex figure torn between societal expectations and what she really wants. Her relationship with Robert, for instance, complicates her ostensible desire for independence; rather than constructing her need to be a strong, independent woman, Edna’s primary goal is chiefly to start a new relationship with Robert and abandon her existing, loveless marriage and family life. Edna’s search for romantic love is an important part of her self-discovery, as evidenced by her brief fling with Alcee Arobin shortly after moving out of her house – her discomfort indicates a certain level of reticence to fully commit to her newfound lifestyle.
The stifling nature of motherhood and the lack of agency afforded to women in patriarchal society are key concerns in The Awakening – the tragically unsatisfying life Edna leads prior to her decision is Chopin’s way of demonstrating the awful conditions women had to experience in society at that time; rather than being able to chase her dreams, Edna had to sacrifice everything in order to make a new life with Robert. When Robert rejects her, she kills herself – while this can be construed as cowardly and tragic, in some ways it can be interpreted as liberating. After all, this choice is one of the few fully independent choices she makes in the novel, and can be interpreted as the ultimate awakening to the unending series of injustices that are experienced by women in Chopin’s eyes.
The construction of identity by Edna in The Awakening exposes society’s unfair treatment of women, saddling them with unequal responsibilities and little agency to follow their destinies in the same way men do. Edna’s transgressive actions in abandoning her family to seek out her own happiness comes across gradually, but steadily. Chopin uses her as the case study for the kind of woman who could actually make positive changes in her life by abandoning patriarchal ideals of womanhood and existing independently. Edna constantly grows, changes and evaluates herself, checking in to see whether or not the changes she makes bring her happiness, and trying a new tactic. While her last tactic leads to terrible consequences, it grants her a control over her own life that society did not provide her, making her a fascinating Chopin protagonist.
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. Raleigh, NC: Hayes Burton Press, 2005.