The Awakening: Coming to Terms with Your Own Identity
Edna Pontellier, twenty-eight years old, the wife of Leonce Pontellier and mother of Etienne and Raoul Pontellier, the main protagonist, was a respectable woman during the late 1890’s who goes through an awakening regarding her identity by going through multiple realizations throughout the novel, The Awakening. As depicted in the novel, Edna has yellowish brown eyes and hair with slightly darker, straighter eyebrows, making her look more masculine than feminine. She is also described as, “ … not a woman given to confidences, a characteristic hitherto contrary to her nature. Even as a child she had lived her own small life all within herself. At a very early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life— that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions” (Chopin 26). In the novel, Edna shows her rebellious, determined, and selfish characteristics through her continuous defiance towards her husband, motherly responsibilities, and societal norms. As a result of her bravado, Edna finds herself realizing the contingency of her marriage and the desires that she has been repressing all her life.
Once Edna realizes this fortuity and neglect, she disregards her husband’s wants and put herself before anyone, including her kids. In doing so, she realizes her love towards another man, the young Robert Lebrun, while also going through a sexual awakening with the help of the infamous Alcee Arobin. She then recedes further away from her responsibilities as she leaves her children with her mother-in-law and gets her own place to live, instead of staying at the house her husband acquired for them, discovering a newfound independence for herself.
Throughout the novel, she recognizes and continuously compares herself to another mother and a friend, Adele Ratignolle, making herself aware of the fact that she does not have the same connection and devotion to her children and husband as other women do. Withal, Edna’s traits and actions all contribute to the complexity and development of herself, making her a round and dynamic character. Her endeavors to break social norms to be with another man makes her to be an unbelievable character, as in contrast women during the time were not as independent nor able to abandon a marriage as easily as Edna was. However, her internal struggle of not having a connection to her family as Adele, makes her a more believable character that some women could have relate to back then. During the novel, Adele was a perfect example of who Edna was expected to be by society and her husband; women during the time were to be completely devoted and dependent on their family. Edna’s struggles are believable as she loves her children, but does not share the same relationship with them as Adele does, relinquishing the idea that not all women can be molded to be the same perfect woman and mother because all women are different. Her internal conflicts towards her children and her feelings towards her identity can be best expressed through her own words: “I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself. I can’t make it more clear; it’s only something which I am beginning to comprehend, which is revealing itself to me.”
In her conversation which Adele, Edna confesses how she would give her children her life, the “unessential”, however not herself, her newfound identity she has become aware of in her awakening. This heavily displays the impact of how much Edna’s identity, her soul, means to her and now that she’s finding it after being confused by it throughout the years, she is not willing to sacrifice it for children. Her unwillingness shows her determination to stay true to herself, but on the contrary show her selfishness to not put her children before herself. This would stay true till Edna’s last breath as she chose to commit suicide in the idea that it would protect her children from the social defamation of her actions with Robert; giving up the unessential, her body and life, in order to preserve herself, her soul from the public slander.
Robert Lebrun, twenty six years old, the young man whose flirtation leads to an infatuation between himself and the main protagonist, Edna Pontellier. A clean shaven face who resemble Edna, was described to be charismatic and loved to court a lady each summer at Grand Isle. As described in the novel, “He had lived in her shadow during the past month. No one thought anything of it. Many had predicted that Robert would devote himself to Mrs. Pontellier when he arrived. Since the age of fifteen, which was eleven years before, Robert each summer at Grand Isle had constituted himself the devoted attendant of some fair dame or damsel. Sometimes it was a young girl, again a widow; but as often as not it was some interesting married woman” (Chopin 20). As first introduced, Robert is depicted as a confident, charismatic womanizer, who many do not take seriously due to his amorous banter towards all women. However unlike “all women”, Edna is different, she is not Creole, she is not used to intimately talking to other people as freely as Creoles do. In this way, Robert’s devotion is taken more seriously than those before. Once he realized that he and Edna’s relationship is getting more profound, Robert decides to leave to Mexico to stop further temptations and Edna returns home to New Orleans. In The Awakening, Robert, represses his infatuations by staying loyal to societal norms, abandoning a future with Edna. Once Robert returns back to Louisiana however, he does not present himself as charismatic as he once was towards Edna, keeping a distance between the two. His display restraint towards Edna makes him the somewhat main antagonist in the novel, while also staying static and flat in doing so. In the novel, when both himself and Edna confess their feelings to each other, Robert is seen to have changed as he is willing to be Edna. However, his decision to leave and say goodbye to a possible future with Edna through a note relays back to his personality of being loyal to societal norms. However, his personality is best shown through his own words to Edna as he answers why he could not pursue her exhibits his true feelings towards Edna:
“Why? Because you were not free; you were Leonce Pontellier’s wife. I couldn’t help loving you if you were ten times his wife, but so long as I went away from you and kept away I could help telling you so… There in Mexico I was thinking of you all the time, and longing for you … Something put into my head that you cared for me, and I lost my senses. I forgot everything but a wild dream of some way becoming my wife”.
Robert’s true feelings through his confession does show his idea of perhaps breaking societal norms to be Edna, however his later actions prove him to be scared of rebellion, repressing his desires towards Edna. His decision to follow what is accepted makes him Edna’s antagonist as he is representing her opposition of obeying society. This further makes Robert a believable character as he chooses to be restricted by social normalities and its restraints.
Adele Ratignolle, a mother of three, a pregnant wife, and a friend of Edna Pontellier, serves as Edna’s and Mademoiselle Reisz’ foil in the novel. As depicted in the novel, she was a poised mother-woman with golden, untamed hair, dark blue eyes, and red lips. Along with those features, “There are no words to describe her save the old ones that have served so often to picture the bygone heroine of romance and the fair lady of our dreams. There was nothing subtle or hidden about her charms…” (Chopin 17). Initially introduced, Adele is Edna’s friend and is symbolic of the woman Edna is expected to be, dutiful and loving towards her family. In The Awakening, Adele Ratignolle serves as a foil to Edna and is symbolized the aspect of society regarding how a mother and wife should act. Throughout the novel, Adele is an earnest woman, passionate towards her children and husband. In her friendship with Edna, Adele unknowingly, continuously reminds Edna of her responsibilities through her fulfillment of household duties. Her comfortability while speaking of more personal matters and gossip, reminds Edna of her past youth, her romantic encounters with different men. In reminding Edna of her past, Adele was the one to first trigger Edna’s awakening; playing a significant role in the awakening. She also looks to keep Edna within societal bounds when she warns Robert that he cannot flirt with Edna as openly as he did before with other women as she would take it more seriously. She continues to be wary once she suspects Edna’s infidelity and abandonment towards her family. Her caring, concerned maternal attitude can be best expressed through her confusion of Edna’s speech and her own reminder to Edna during her labor:
“I don’t know what you would call the essential, or what you mean by the unessential … but a woman who would give her life for her children could do no more than that– your Bible tells you so. I’m sure I couldn’t do more than that … Think of the children, Edna. Oh think of the children! Remember them!”
Moreover, Adele’s words to Edna symbolizes the continuous, pressing reminder that society has over Edna. This makes Edna a static and flat character, someone who does not change throughout the course of the novel and has a notable characteristic. Her notable characteristic is her motherly attribute, caring not only for her children, but for Edna to try and conform Edna to society’s restrictions.
Mademoiselle Reisz, an older woman, the person Edna Pontellier looks up to throughout her awakening. With a wrinkled face and hair pinned back with violets, Mademoiselle Reisz was particularly talented at the piano and her music brought tears to Edna. As described in the novel, “She was a disagreeable little woman, no longer young, who had quarreled with almost everyone, owing to a temper which was self-assertive and a disposition to trample upon the rights of others” (Chopin 43). Introduced later on in Edna’s awakening, Mademoiselle Reisz serves as an inspiration for Edna, while serving as a foil to Adele Ratignolle due to her unconventional style of living. After being introduced as an incredible pianist, Mademoiselle Reisz pushes Edna to pursue her love for the arts, while also instilling confidence in Edna towards her love for Robert. When Robert leaves to Mexico, he writes to Mademoiselle Reisz about his feelings towards Edna, she lets Edna reads the confidential letters and reassures her that pursuing Robert is right. Edna’s own lifestyle also begins to mirror Mademoiselle Reisz, living independent in her own house, free to do what she pleases. Her role as a foil to Adele, highlights the contrast of Edna’s expectations and aspirations, highlighting how Edna rather be free then tied down to her family. While being a minor character, Mademoiselle Reisz personality does stay the same throughout the novel, however her support towards Edna waivers at times, making her a static and round character. However, her personality is different than that of other characters as best described by herself:
“If I were young and in love with a man… it seems to me he would have to be some grand esprit; a man with lofty aims and ability to reach them; one who stood high enough to attract the notice of his fellow-men. It seems to me if I were young and in love I should never deem a man of ordinary caliber worthy of my devotion.”
Although Mademoiselle Reisz continuously reassures Edna that Robert loves her, when Mademoiselle Reisz sets herself as a young woman, she unexplicitly tells Edna she would not chase after Robert. In this way, she is a round character in how she feels towards men, supporting them, then is contrast, contradicts how she would feel in the situation. At the same time, she also vaguely shows the reason for her being single, her expectations for men being high, showing her willingness to stay to herself unless she found exactly what she was looking for. The Awakening is set in two places in Louisiana, Grand Isle and New Orleans. The novel starts off with the characters’ vacation in Grand Isle. Edna’s awakening is started in Grand Isle, in the ocean. In the water, Edna learns how to swim; learns how to start defying social norms when she comes back from the beach and stops listening to her husband.
At the end of the novel, Edna commits suicide at the same beach in Grand Isle. As a result, the ocean symbolizes the beginning and end of Edna’s awakening. Grand Isle is not only an important place because it is where Edna died, but also because it is where Edna’s infatuation with Robert began to take place. There, Robert devoted himself to Edna, winning her heart as she drifted away from her responsibilities and family, the start of realizations that she was repressing her desires. Grand Isle is seen as a break from reality that pushes Edna to realize her fantasies and dreams.
New Orleans however, is where most of Edna’s awakening takes place. In New Orleans, Edna begins to fully abandon her duties as Leonce Pontellier’s wife and mother of Etienne and Raoul. There, she is left alone as her husband goes on long business trips and her mother-in-law takes her children to stay with her instead. There, Edna also finds a newfound freedom in getting her own place in which she owns everything. In New Orleans, she begins an affair with Alcee Arobin, marking her sexual awakening. She also confesses her love to Robert and ends up heartbroken by Robert in her home. New Orleans symbolizes the complexity of Edna’s awakening and how it unfolds into her home life. Chopin creates Grand Isle to represent the beginning and end of Edna’s awakening, but paints New Orleans to be the highs and lows of the awakening where Edna’s reality clashes with her dreams.
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