What are the roles of women and men in society as seen in The Awakening?  Furthermore, How does society influence behavior? How does society influence the behavior of Leonce and Edna in their respective roles?

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The novella opens with a parrot in a cage, which symbolizes Edna, who, the wife of a wealthy man vacationing on this wealthy resort island, is in a cage of privilege, but a cage never the less.  Until she experiences her “awakening,” which is sexual in her affair with Robert but also symbolized by swimming, she, like the parrot, repeats what others say as well as a language of her own:  “He could speak a little Spanish, and also a language which nobody understood.” This "other" language is art, a gift she learns to develop when she befriends the artist Mademoiselle Reisz.  By the end of the story, Edna finds she has three choices of womanhood, but wants none:  she can be a good mother and wife like her friend Madame Ratignolle, be promiscuous and break rules as she did in her affair with Robert, or be a complete outsider living the life of an artist as does Reisz.  Realizing she will never be a great artist and cannot break social rules of love and sexual behavior but also refusing to return to her original life in the cage of her marriage, she chooses to swim to freedom.  Critics disagree as to whether this final act of swimming, representing freedom throughout the story, signifies a negation of life (because it is a suicide) or an affirmation of life (because she is, finally, free).

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The novel tackles the inferior social status of women, especially in the South. Wealthy women were seen as "trophy wives" of their husbands, just as Edna is for Leonce. Women were expected to marry, have children, and take care of the house, with no thought of their own needs. Edna wants more, searching for identity, creativity, and independence. Her challenge to her husband's authority is also a challenge to the values of the society in which she lived, for society dictates both a husband's and a wife's behavior.

Leonce, Edna's husband, is very traditional in his beliefs and values. He expects his wife to be devoted to him, their children, and their social obligations. He's a respected and wealthy businessman who can't understand why Edna isn't happy. After all, he's given her everything a woman could want. He even goes to his doctor so he can be reassured that this is Edna's fault.

Edna becomes more assertive when she starts to open up to others. After her vacation, she takes charge of her life, wanting to feel love and appreciated. She finds freedom is hard to achieve, not only from her husband, but in society also. She realizes at the end that although she can't live her life for other people, she can't live without others either. Society will never let her attain her dreams and self-identity, and this is why she kills herself. She can't go back to what she was, and society won't accept her as she is.

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