Are the characters fully developed, realistic, and complex, or do they seem to represent concepts? If they are realistic, complex characters, what are their traits? What are their motivations and goals? What, if anything, is contradictory or difficult to understand about the characters? Do they fully understand themselves? What problems confront them? Why are they successful or unsuccessful in solving them? If they seem to represent concepts, what concepts do they represent? What functions do they serve in the narrative?

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Edna is the most complex character in The Awakening, which is fitting since she is the protagonist. However, most of the other characters seem to represent concepts and are static characters. Let's start with those who do not change.

Mademoiselle Reisz and Madame Ratignolle stand for the two possibilities available to upper-class women in late-nineteenth century America. Reisz is an accomplished pianist who has devoted her life to her art. She is not married nor does she have children; she is basically depicted as asexual and is given no romantic interest or storyline. Adele Ratignolle, on the other hand, is described as the ideal "mother-woman": she devotes her life and her energy to husband and children. When we first meet her in the summer in Grand Isle, she is knitting winter clothes for her children. She practices music, but only insofar as she can use it to entertain her family or guests.

In terms of self-awareness, Reisz seems fairly sophisticated in the way she views society and its expectations. She understands that to choose a life of an artist is to necessarily close the door on other lifestyles, namely the traditional domestic life of women. Adele is perhaps less self-aware, unquestioningly following the norms of her world.

While these two female characters function as sketches of possible outcomes for her, Edna Pontellier does not fit either mold completely, but sort of fits both, or at least aspires to. She knows she is not naturally maternal, and she has help taking care of her children, but she does love and indulge them. She is married because that is expected, but despite Leonce being seen as a relatively good husband by his milieu, Edna gradually feels that marriage as an institution is stifling. Edna begins to have aspirations to paint, to express her newfound and complex emotions artistically. However, Leonce views her pursuits as selfish, telling her to pursue arts only to the extent her friend Adele does. The question of Edna's level of self-awareness is central to the text. As she "awakens," she becomes more aware of her place in society and what she does not like about it; however, throughout her awakening, her feelings are also described as vague and coming over her without her own consent or control. In some ways, she is ushered along this path to enlightenment against her will, or at least without having to do anything to assert her own will. By the end of the novel, she knows what she can live with and what she cannot, which is why she decides to end her life.

The text as a whole presents these female characters as a comment on the limited options for women in late-nineteenth century America. Even a woman who comes to realize what she wants in her life also feels she cannot have it, and so the novella ends in tragedy.

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