Edna Pontellier’s “awakening” is a complex physical and psychological phenomenon with many different causes and many different results. Chopin describes this awakening by remaining steadfastly in Edna’s point of view throughout the novel, so that the reader sees people and things from the perspective of a woman whose eyes have been opened for the first time in her life to the cold, hard truths about human existence.
The author also uses symbolism as a traditional poetic means of suggesting what is going on inside the heroine. As a result of her awakening, Edna becomes more susceptible to the beauty around her—the sea, the sky, the flowers, and the romantic music of the late nineteenth century.
The author does not attempt to interpret any of the other characters’ thoughts and motivations but freely enters into Edna’s mind to describe it in detail. Edna is unable to find anyone in her environment who truly understands her, and so she is extremely limited in her ability to discuss her thoughts and feelings through dialogue. The characters indulge in considerable conversation but seldom express their true thoughts or feelings—either because they do not understand themselves or because they are unwilling, in this repressive society, to say what they really think. Edna is the only major character in the novel who is truly awakened to what she describes as “life’s delirium”; the others appear to be content to remain in a dream world.
Edna’s awakening is an ongoing process which does not really end until she dies. It actually begins before she falls in love with Robert Lebrun. Its cause is somewhat ambiguous and has been debated by numerous critics. She is twenty-eight years old and becoming psychologically mature. The hot, humid weather on Grand Isle has a stimulating effect on her sexuality. She has learned to swim for the first time in her life and is sexually aroused by swimming in the warm Caribbean. Her husband is away most of the time, either in the city on business or fraternizing with his male cronies; this gives her more freedom than she has enjoyed since her wedding. Edna feels like an outsider in his exotic Creole society. The attentions of Robert Lebrun arouse exciting new thoughts and feelings; they also make her husband seem more alien and unattractive. She is beginning to realize that she married an older man for money, social position, and security and not for love.
Furthermore, Edna has an exceptionally bold and inquiring mind. She never attends church or discusses religious matters. She has unconsciously adopted the existentialist position that there is no afterlife in which people are rewarded or punished for good or bad behavior; whatever they experience in the way of self-actualization, love, or happiness must be achieved in their one brief lifetime.
Edna’s awakening also has complex outcomes. She is awakened to her own strong sexuality; to the repressed condition of women; to the degradation of being used as a sexual object; to the mystery of life; to the beauty of nature; to the hypocrisy of her society; to the insincerity, timidity, and selfishness of many males; to the fact that marriage and motherhood are an insufficient career for some women; to her own talents as an artist; and to her ability to become self-supporting rather than a glorified house servant. Sexually, she awakens to the fact of her existence as a unique human being who has an innate right to develop to her fullest potential.
Kate Chopin’s favorite author was Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893), and she published many translations of his short stories. The story that made the deepest impression on her was “Solitude” (1893), in which the melancholy French genius wrote: “Whatever we may do or attempt, despite the embrace and transports of love, the hunger of the lips, we are always alone.” The realization of the essential isolation of every human being is the final stage of Edna’s awakening. It is this realization that drives her to suicide.