Who or what is the antagonist in The Awakening?
The true antagonist that stands in the way of Edna Pontellier's bid for independence and her quest to discover herself and fashion her own identity as she wills it to be is society and the way that it is shown to have created such a restricted and hemmed in position for women, especially women who are married, have children and are of a certain station. The whole book charts Edna's growing realisation that she is deeply unhappy with her life and that she wants more than she has been allowed to have. From when she begins to question why she obeys her husband so complicitly early on in the book she feels encouraged to imagine a different kind of life that she is able to live independently from him, from her children, and from society itself. Note how this is explored when she moves house to a residence that is much smaller:
There was with her a feeling of having descended in the social scale, with a corresponding sense of having risen in the spiritual. Every step which she took toward relieving herself from obligations added to her strength and expansion as an individual. She began to look with her own eyes; to see and to apprehend the deeper undercurrents of life. No longer was she content to “feed upon opinion” when her own soul had invited her.
Edna is therefore able to develop her own identity and sense of self through moving residence, and in particular through moving to a smaller location where she is not able to host the dinner parties and entertaining expected of a woman of her station in society. This is something Edna finds intensely liberating. However, as the novel shows, at every stage in her quest for self, Edna is opposed by various forces of society. Whether these forces are in the guise of her husband or friends or other individuals, or even Robert himself, Edna quickly realises that society has won, and that she has "swam out to far," to use the metaphor that the book itself uses to describe how she has overreached herself. Her eventual suicide is a recognition that the restricting forces of society have actually won.