Edna Pontellier

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Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 631

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Edna is the wife of Léonce Pontellier. She is twenty-eight years old and has two children, Raoul and Etienne, with Léonce. She is described as handsome, frank, engaging, and reserved. While on vacation at Grand Isle with her family, she meets Robert Lebrun and slowly begins to embrace her desire to be an independent and autonomous woman. Over time, she learns how to express herself and begins to see the hopelessness of her marriage to Léonce, whom she married when she was young. She had believed that she and Léonce were similar; however, Edna’s decision to marry him was based on little knowledge of who he was as a person. She has less affection for him than she imagined and even feels indifferent towards her children at times. Edna is an example of a woman forced into a role in a society that does not fit her well. This explains why she does not embody the “ideal” mother and wife that Léonce expects her to be. 

Edna’s “awakening” occurs early on in the novel, after her husband Léonce returns from a late night at the gentlemen’s club. He treats her as a houseworker, pays little attention to her needs, and claims that she does not care well enough for the children. After Léonce falls asleep, she goes to the porch and cries. She feels a new emotion: sadness stemming from oppression. She begins to feel trapped by her marriage and family. The other women in the story claim that Léonce is a great husband to Edna, but see themselves only as wives and mothers. Edna, on the other hand, sees herself as separate from those identities. She cannot idolize her children or worship her husband the way that other women do. 

Edna is a complex character who battles against society’s confines while processing her own evolving feelings. Her transition into freedom is slow, as she experiences many thoughts and feelings that she has never encountered before. Much of her identity shift is a result of those she meets at Grand Isle, although her awakening comes largely from within herself: 

  • First, she finds that she genuinely loves Robert Lebrun in a way that she has never loved Léonce. 
  • Second, her friend Adèle Ratignolle teaches her how to be outwardly expressive and open, despite Adèle’s disagreeing with many of Edna’s more progressive views. 
  • Last, Mademoiselle Reisz influences Edna not only through her music but also through her friendship. Edna learns from Reisz that she can lift herself above societal expectations, but that it takes extreme strength to do so. 

Although Edna pushes against the constraints of her marriage and society—going so far as to buy her own house and have an affair with Alcée—she finds that she is unable to escape these constraints without Robert. Robert does not understand Edna’s new identity and autonomy; when he leaves her, she sees that she cannot find happiness and freedom through Robert. This makes her despondent and hopeless. 

At the end of The Awakening, she returns to the ocean at Grand Isle and swims out into the water. Earlier, the ocean and her newfound ability to swim sparked a feeling of freedom and power within her. Returning to the ocean as her newly mentally freed self highlights the drastic changes she has undergone since the previous summer. Edna, however, is still trapped and seen as an object. Unable to truly escape her role as a woman, and equally as unable to allow herself to be owned by her husband or children, she lets herself drown in the ocean after becoming too exhausted to swim any longer.

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