Is Edna selfish in The Awakening?

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In The Awakening, Edna does act selfishly. However, this selfishness can be viewed within the context of a society that expects women to be overly selfless and self-sacrificing.

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It can be easy to see Edna in The Awakening as a negatively selfish and self-centered character. As she comes alive to her sensuality and emotions, she seems to care only for herself: "She began to do as she liked and to feel as she liked."

Edna is driven by...

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self-centered needs, but context is everything, and her selfishness can better be seen as a healthy self-assertion against the backdrop of a society that expects women to be too selfless and self-sacrificing. What makes her interesting and compelling is that she is such a complex character, a rounded mixture of more and less admirable traits, a woman who is struggling at the age of twenty-eight to find herself. She makes the mistakes people can make when they are groping toward new growth and new understanding of who they are and their place in the world. In some ways, she is experiencing a belated adolescent growth into self, only with a husband and children.

On the negative side, Edna's quest for self-actualization can seem self-centered and petty: she is a privileged woman in a fine house supported by a high-earning husband, with servants to do most of the work of running the household. She is not bonded to her two young children and not particularly cut out for motherhood, but the nurse can do much of the childcare. Her rebellion seems often to revolve around doing what she wants when she wants, rather than having any concern for creating a better society: she doesn't, for instance, seem to have the least concern for whether her servants have a chance to do what they want.

On the other hand, Edna's fumbling toward a new way of understanding herself can be seen against a backdrop in which she has always been expected to subordinate herself to the needs of other people at her own expense. Sadly, too, much of Edna's selfishness seems to be a by-product of depression: she often can't get beyond such thoughts as finding a better man as the route to freedom, not quite realizing that shedding that dependency might be a key to her liberation.

In the last chapter, her struggles crystallize as she recognizes she has obligations to her two sons. She thinks,

"It doesn’t matter about Léonce Pontellier—but Raoul and Etienne!" She understood now clearly what she had meant long ago when she said to Adèle Ratignolle that she would give up the unessential, but she would never sacrifice herself for her children.

At the same time, the nobler sentiments above conflict with her other, more desperate thoughts:

The children appeared before her like antagonists who had overcome her; who had overpowered and sought to drag her into the soul’s slavery for the rest of her days.

As she sinks into "despondency," she

thought of Léonce and the children. They were a part of her life. But they need not have thought that they could possess her, body and soul.

At the end of novel, Edna swims into the sea, committing suicide. The novel leaves open to the reader how to interpret this event: Is it an act of selfishness and cowardice, or the act of a courageous and self-actualized woman refusing to accept her society's oppression? Probably a little of both.

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