Who is the antagonist in "The Awakening"?
Kate Chopin's characterization of the potential male antagonists -- Leonce Pontellier and Robert Lebrun -- seems to indicate that the antagonist is not a person but is, instead, the larger society in which Edna lives, its expectations, and its norms. Chopin seems to critique not individuals but institutions like marriage that limit women's freedom. If there is one individual that we might say could serve as an antagonist, the closest would likely be Edna herself, as much of what is dramatized in the novella is Edna's internal conflict.
While Edna does have verbal altercations and what we would term "conflicts" with both her husband, Leonce, and her potential lover, Robert, Chopin makes it clear that neither Leonce nor Robert is a villain, but both are merely products of their time and place. They are both upper class Southern gentlemen. They expect their wives to behave in particular ways. They perform what society has deemed as their duties toward their families. Leonce is considered a model husband by the other women in the Pontellier's social circle; however, we see very little interaction between Leonce and Edna. Early in the novel, when the family is vacationing on Grand Isle, Leonce goes to the club for dinner only to return much later to chastize Edna for not attending to one of their "sick" children. He has not spend the evening with the family and accepts no responsibility for the children's care. He wakes Edna to scold her and to insist that she do something. This could be considered antagonistic behavior, but Edna herself thinks that it is unusual for her to cry or have any emotional reaction at all, as scenes such as these "were not uncommon in her married life." She recognizes that "They seemed never before to have weighed much against the abundance of her husband's kindness and a uniform devotion which had come to be tacit and self-understood." While over the course of the novel, Edna and Leonce do argue as Leonce attempts to tighten his hold over his wife, who begins to act out and behave erratically (such as when she leaves the house in New Orleans when she is supposed to be waiting on callers), it is clear that Chopin does not want to paint Leonce as a particularly villainous individual or even as a bad husband; he's simply the typical husband of the time. The problem is with the institution of marriage and the social mores that govern women's behavior, not with this one...
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