In The Awakening, what is the theme of individuality against the community?

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In The Awakening the theme of individuality is brought up through the discoveries that Edna Pontellier encounters along the way of trying to find herself as a person and, most importantly, as a woman.

The conflict arises when this need for individuality crashes against the social parameters that define (and limit) the extent to which women are allowed to express themselves. In the late 1800s the political and social limitations  of women rendered them prone to be in the same situation that we find Edna: entirely co-dependent on their husbands, subjugated to the roles of wives and mothers, expected to like what their husbands like, and of being devoid of any want or need.

Throughout the novel, Edna demonstrates a heightened curiosity that grows stronger and stronger as she discovers her wants and needs as a woman shortly after meeting Robert.  Her desires lead her to uncover other hidden passions, such as the arts, painting, eating, drinking, and ultimately moving away from the expected patterns of typical women. She also discovers hidden personal paradigms that would have never been explored otherwise: her overall dislike for the tasks of motherhood, her want for passion, he inability to feel "at home", her loneliness, and most importantly, the fact that she is an unfulfilled seeker of a love and a passion bigger than herself...something that she will never find.

Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her.

Throughout the progress that Edna experiences finding herself, she encounters over and over that the obstacles imposed by society (the community) are far bigger than she thinks. For instance, her status as a married woman makes her decision to move away from her family home as an impropriety. Moreover, the fact that she is allowed to be seen in the company of other males, infuriates her husband not because of jealousy, but because of the potential of a bad reputation.

In all, Edna is literally trapped. Just as she finds herself she realizes that there is no niche for her in the newfound world she has met for the first time. 

The beginning of things, of a world especially, is necessarily vague, tangled, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing. How few of us ever emerge from such beginning! How many souls perish in its tumult!

Edna perishes ultimately in such tumult: her talent for painting, for instance, came late in life so she cannot entirely express her emotions through art. She cannot show her love for Robert because he shun himself from her, in aims of not leading her to destroy her life for him. She cannot give herself the freedom of becoming a complete individual because she is attached to a family and a husband. What is worse, she cannot explain her individual wants and needs because, in the end, her opinions as a woman are ultimately not important.

The world that Edna discovered within herself contrasts greatly with the world she encounters once she is aware of what she wants. This is why ultimately she chooses to leave this world. It is a world that simply does not welcome the person that she is. Yet, no matter how juxtaposed her individuality it is to the community to which she belongs,it is still a necessary discovery: Edna's character is not meant to regret her awakening

Perhaps it is better to wake up after all, even to suffer, rather than to remain a dupe to illusions all one’s life.