Edna Pontellier, through her complex and layered portrayal in Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening, is one of the earliest female characters to be displayed in a sophisticated, nuanced light. Her continual struggle to overcome the often stifling pressures of motherhood and family, while still feeling associated with them, make up a significant portion of this novel. In this essay, the role that feminism and marriage plays in Edna’s journey throughout the novel will be explored. Edna’s search for independence, while admirable and brave considering the restrictions placed on her by 19th century society, is ultimately predicated on male dependence, leading to her own suicide after rejection by a man. In this way, her independence from men was really just independence from motherhood.
Edna, like most women at the time of the late 1800s, was in a very precarious position. The expectations of women in that period were to be demure, vulnerable, and to refrain from expressing themselves or being independent. This meant surrendering oneself to the fealty of a man, and being the one to raise the children in the family, often by herself. As the man’s responsibility was to work, the woman was meant to be the homemaker – this left little time or room to pursue what they really wanted. What’s more, the expectations of society were to be supplemental in the family structure, not having any real say in what was to be done even within those confines. Women at the time were often glorified babysitters and cooks, in lieu of being an equitable part of the family. These were the kinds of pressures women like Edna faced in the 19th century.
At the beginning of the novel, Edna is perfectly obedient, spending most of her time not caring for the family with her friend Adele Ratignolle. Adele serves as the primary reminder of her responsibility to her family; at Grand Isle, she strikes up a friendship with Edna, and acts as the cheery but dedicated mother, unfailingly embracing all that Edna seeks to rebel against. She is the symbol for the happiness that can sometimes arrive to women who are married and have children, and her happy existence as part of a marriage presents Edna with the primary reason to want to stay in her own.
Edna’s awakening occurs when she decides to question the ideals set forth upon women by society, particularly when she feels the pull of independence and her lust for Robert Lebrun at Grand Isle - “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, 2005, Chapter 6). She no longer wanted to be part of the marriage that she was in. In a way, she did want to be independent, but the motivation behind this change being Robert Lebrun throws this into question. Does Edna really want to be an individual, or just a part of a different marriage – one to Robert?
Edna’s awakening is unique among women of the time; many of them simply follow the roles they are given, without much thought and rebellion. This is what makes Edna special, unique: she actually goes through with her own awakening, unlike so many women who merely accept their fate and buckle down to become a wife and mother, regardless of their own desires. “How few of us ever emerge from such beginning! How many souls perish in its tumult!” (Chopin, 2005, Chapter 6). Of course, the implication of perishing in the tumult of awakening foreshadows Edna’s death, implying that the cost for such a bold reorganization of one’s priorities is high – perhaps too high.
Edna’s awakening leads her to start rebelling against her husband. The first, most important step is after the first swim she takes with Robert, where she feels most liberated; returning home, her husband entreats her to go 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, 2005, Chapter 9). She is fighting her habitual behaviors, like constantly doing as her husband says. This small form of rebellion allows her to take baby steps toward what she wishes to be her ultimate liberation.
Edna’s attraction to Robert and her awakening leads her to wish that the world was just the two of them, without all the pressures and obligations foisted upon them by their families and polite society. She envisions them on an island, leaving the world behind, not having to care about what others think of their love. “The whole island seems changed. A new race of beings must have sprung up, leaving only you and me as past relics. How many ages ago did Madame Antoine and Tonie die? And when did our people from Grand Isle disappear from the earth?” (Chopin, 2005, Chapter 13). However, this daydream is further evidence of her separation of self from the reality around her; by selfishly wanting these things, she ignores the implications that it would have on her family or everyone else. The social traditions and mores that are in place at the time prevent them from truly acknowledging their feelings for one another.
Once Edna fully separates herself from her marriage and society, she sets up her own modest house, in order to reappropriate her life and live it the way she wants to. This, of course, cost her all of her previous friends and family, and her status was diminished. “There was with her a feeling of having descended in the social scale, with a corresponding sense of having risen in the spiritual. Every step which she took toward relieving herself from obligations added to her strength and expansion as an individual” (Chopin, 2005, Chapter 32). She did not mind this change in priorities to herself, as she was able to focus on what she wanted, making herself stronger for the challenges of an independent life as a woman.
Edna equated this change in perspective to the titular ‘awakening,’ possessing a greater understanding of herself and life in general. She separated herself from the pervading wisdom of the time, and opted to do what she could to look inward for inspiration. “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, 2005, Chapter 32). This was her own way of finding strength as a woman; rejecting society as a whole gave her the freedom to decide what she wanted for herself, what her soul wanted.
At the same time, there is a tragic flaw in Edna’s decision to cut herself off from society – she erroneously believes that there is a mutual exclusivity between what is truly in her heart and what society can offer her. In order to find what she wants, she thinks she has to completely cut herself off from anyone else. This is potentially a mistake, as it can remove her from even those aspects of society that she does like and want. However, given the society at the time, which practically saw women as status symbols and subservient to their husbands, it was nearly impossible for a woman to assert herself while still remaining in the confines of this structure.
Edna encounters a great number of trials and tribulations as a result of the year she spends as a completely independent woman. She suffers and encounters great hardship, but she finds that it is well worth it for the chance to live truly as she wishes. “The years that are gone seem like dreams—if one might go on sleeping and dreaming—but to wake up and find—oh! well! 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, 2005, Chapter 38). In her mind, living outside the expectations of society and men, even if it is cruel, offers her freedom that grants her ultimate happiness and peace.
Edna, feeling stifled by the pressures of motherhood and the sacrifice of her own desires that it represented, decided to eschew this part of her life in favor of independence. At the same time, despite all of her talk of independence and freedom, she still places her sense of self on a relationship with a man – this man just happens to be different from her husband, and does not carry the burden of children. In the end, when she discovers that Robert will not be with her, she opts to kill herself. This presents a fatal flaw in Edna’s motivations for becoming independent; ostensibly, she wished to live without illusion and the need to answer to another. However, the impetus for this awakening, and implicitly the entire reason for it, was to be with Robert. There were other affairs along the way, but all throughout she carries feelings for Robert. Her short affair with Alcee Arobin after moving out of her home is strange and uncomfortable for her. Since she is now an independent woman, she should feel free to express herself sexually, but she cannot fully commit herself to it – this could be due to her lingering feelings for Robert, who is the only male figure in the book that she possesses intense, genuine romantic affection for.
Edna Pontellier moves through The Awakening as a conflicted, vulnerable, fascinating human figure, one of the more intriguing in Western literature. Her constant struggle to determine what she wants for her life – the dishonest lust for her suitors or the stifling burden of marriage – leaves her floundering at times. Despite her steadfast dedication to getting away from the shackles of society, her true feelings seem to always turn back toward Robert; he is the impetus for the change in loyalty to her husband and children, and his return to confess his love for her brings her immense happiness. However, once he leaves for Mexico, never to return, her devastation leads her to throw herself into the Gulf of Mexico. In spite of her insistence that she is an independent woman, this rash and dramatic action is evidence of her sense of self-worth and identity being dependent on the love of a man.
Chopin, K. (2005). The awakening [VitalSource digital version]. Raleigh, NC: Hayes