The Awakening follows pampered wife, Edna Pontellier as she becomes discontent with her life and begins to yearn for solitude and her own identity.
Edna Pontellier is a woman that gets all she asks from her doting husband, Leonce. Yes, Edna is pretty much upper class and spoiled. But she shouldn’t be written off as some pampered woman with insignificant problems since her search for identity is something many could relate to.
Mrs. Pontellier is a spoiled woman but this comes at a cost since she’s viewed as property. Here’s what her husband thinks when he sees his wife has a sunburn: “ ‘You are burnt beyond recognition,’ he added, looking at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage.”
However, Edna is not a wholly sympathetic character. She chooses to marry Leonce who she knew was a traditional man. And she only married him because of her childish need to rebel against her father, who disapproved of Leonce. Edna wasn’t brave enough to become her own person because she knows it comes at a cost.
What Edna is supposed to be is a wife and mother, according to society at the time. But this is not what she truly wants. She’s described as not being a so-called “mother-woman”. The text describes these women as: “They were women who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels.”
There is a character in the story that represents such a woman and her name is Adele Ratignolle. She’s described as the “embodiment of every womanly grace and charm” Despite being close friends with Adele, Edna isn’t really like her. Her friend embodies everything society and her husband wants her to be.
But Edna doesn’t want to go for the “other” option either. This “other” option is represented by the character of Mademoiselle Reisz. She certainly has her own identity as a brilliant pianist. But here is how she is described: “She was a homely woman, with a small weazened face and body and eyes that glowed. She had absolutely no taste in dress, and wore a batch of rusty black lace with a bunch of artificial violets pinned to the side of her hair”
There’s great significance as her being described as basically repulsive. Reisz is a woman that has abandoned all that society expects of her. In most cases, such women would have been viewed as terrible in some way no matter what talent they might have. And this is Edna’s other option – abandon being a wife and mother and become the hideous woman. In fact, Edna is stuck somewhere in between being Adele and being Reisz. The main problem is that there really isn’t a “middle” option for her.
Edna dabbles in art through her sketching but it never truly amounts to anything. To be a great artist she would have to risk her whole life changing and, possibly, becoming like Mademoiselle Reisz. However, Edna does not have what it takes, as Reisz says she lacks the “courageous soul” that an artist needs.
This is one way that Edna might slightly be like Adele. Adele does play piano but she’s not at all comparable to Reisz. She only plays for her family and for social events and she doesn’t have any real passion for it. This may not fully describe Edna’s interest in art but the point is she’s not serious enough.
Reisz is probably aware of the piano-playing women that fit into Adele’s category. Which is why at one point she shows disgust for the Farival twins (also piano players in the Adele camp) – “ ‘rather pleasant if it hadn’t been for the mosquitoes and Farival twins.’ ” Her disgust probably comes from the fact that girls like the twins set the standard for what a female pianist should be like. Which is someone who plays at social gatherings and for show but never advances past that. Mademoiselle Reisz completely defies this standard of the female pianist.
There is a point when Edna experiences a certain amount of freedom and this is when she swims: “A feeling of exultation overtook her, as if some power of significant import had been giver her soul. She grew daring and reckless, overestimating her strength. She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before” This is an important passage since at the end Edna dies by water.
She swims farther and farther out leading to her death. It was likely suicide too. But this passage also brings up an important flaw with Edna – she doesn’t know her limits, she “overestimates”. Her problem is she cannot plan and figure out the best solution for her life. Instead, she acts on impulse. Yes, she can learn a task like swimming but this is only a small accomplishment for her.
Another reason Edna can’t be truly independent is because she depends so much on men to fill her emotional needs. She obsesses over character, Robert Lebrun who she falls in love with. She also has an affair with a man named Alcee. She craves these men, especially Robert, because she needs them for emotional fulfillment. Because of this she can’t experience true independence.
Although they’re not major characters in the story, Edna has two sons. They also prevent her from gaining freedom. She knows this and that’s why she swims to her death at the end. Adele says to her at one point, “Think of the children” and these simple words have great effect on Edna. The children are a reminder that Edna can’t simply abandon her old life. She has to take responsibility for the choices she has already made. By the end, she shows she can’t since she just swims away.