Was Edna wrong to choose her natural inclinations over social convention in The Awakening by Kate Chopin?

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Chapter XIX of Kate Chopin's novelThe Awakeningillustrates quite cleverly your question. This is because, it is in this chapter, when Mr. Pontellier starts to notice the changes taking place in Edna.

Moreover, he also wonders how could it be possible that "a woman", "a wife", and "a mother" (notice the emphasis on these social roles and the expectations of each) rejects what is dutifully and dully imposed upon her by nature, itself, and by a society that expects her to succeed at each of those roles!

It sometimes entered Mr. Pontellier's mind to wonder if his wife were not growing a little unbalanced mentally. He could see plainly that she was not herself.

This is significant because it clearly brings out Kate Chopin's perspective. It cannot be wrong to follow natural instinct when everything that you have done prior to that is to follow rules made by men, namely, quite chauvinistic and dominant men. In this chapter, Chopin explains in very simple terms what is really going on with Edna.

That is, he could not see that she was becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world.

Therefore, Edna's choosing of her natural inclination is actually part of her rebirth as a person, and as a woman. Sure, it was inconvenient and morally (socially, in this case) wrong to forfeit the tasks that are expected of a wife and mother, but we know through the novel that Edna is not just "any woman". Her talents, wants, and needs are quite unique to someone with a different view of her world, as she discovers it.

Some way I don't feel moved to speak of things that trouble me. Don't think I am ungrateful or that I don't appreciate your sympathy. There are periods of despondency and suffering which take possession of me. But I don't want anything but my own way. That is wanting a good deal, of course, when you have to trample upon the lives, the hearts, the prejudices of others—but no matter-still, I shouldn't want to trample upon the little lives. Oh! I don't know what I'm saying

In fact, in portraying Edna, Chopin is not applying Edna's flaws to every woman, either. She is specifically honoring those women who do get caught in the social nests of expectations and false pretenses, and then have to come back to the surface to find themselves. This is what Edna does, albeit, at the wrong time. As a result, the new person that she becomes, the free and simple Edna, gives herself up back to nature again in a suicide which is both sublime but quite symbolic. Edna submits herself to the same ocean that once limited her, and scared her.

How strange and awful it seemed to stand naked under the sky! how delicious! She felt like some new-born creature, opening its eyes in a familiar world that it had never known.