The Awakening Themes
The main themes in The Awakening are freedom, social expectations, and desire.
- Freedom: Edna experiences a sense of freedom while on Grand Isle, brought on by both her affair with Robert and her temporary reprieve from the duties of being a homemaker. Her former life is rendered unbearable by this taste of freedom.
- Social expectations: Edna's society expects women to devote themselves entirely to their families. Women who reject these expectations, like Edna and Mademoiselle Reisz, face alienation.
Desire: Edna's decision to embraces her sexuality and artistic ambitions gives her a sense of freedom and independence that is otherwise denied to women.
Gender Roles and Women’s Rights
The Awakening deals with concepts related to feminism and women’s rights. Throughout the novel, Edna Pontellier becomes increasingly aware of her role in society and how she is treated as a woman. In realizing this, Edna begins to fight against societal norms, such as women being restricted to the domestic sphere as devoted mothers and wives. Edna first breaks from these traditional gender roles after her “awakening” on Grand Isle. During her stay there, she sees herself as a woman with a place in the universe and comes to view her husband and children as constraints upon her freedom. Upon returning with her family to New Orleans, she challenges societal norms by refusing to limit herself to the private sphere as she once did. Instead she goes out when she wishes, paints more often, and explores her newfound individuality and freedom.
She separates herself from the private sphere even further when she sells her paintings. By engaging in business as an artist, Edna places herself in the public sphere and actively works to make money for herself. In the Gilded Age, women were expected to be purely devoted to their husbands and children. However, Edna does not want to give herself completely to her family, unlike her close friend Adèle.
In terms of sexuality, Edna rejects the pure idealization of Gilded Age women and explores her own sexual desires with Robert Lebrun and Alcée Arobin. Edna’s affair with Alcée helps her understand and explore sexual desire that is devoid of love. Even though she does not feel anything for Alcée, her relationship with him helps her understand her physical needs and impulses. Overall, Edna’s efforts to gain autonomy, respect, and understanding reflect the need for increased women’s rights and the desire for independence.
Individuality Versus Convention
Southern society at the turn of the 20th century adhered to strict gender norms, but the theme of individuality woven throughout The Awakening places itself in direct contrast to these conventions. For example, the individualistic Edna is different from other characters like Léonce and Adèle in that her awakening prompts her to become autonomous and independent. In contrast to Edna, who wishes for genuine love, Léonce views his marriage to Edna as a business transaction. To fulfill societal expectations, Léonce expects his wife to act in specific ways in order to uphold his social standing. When Edna becomes independent and buys her own home, Léonce only worries about how it will affect his reputation. Similarly, when Edna refuses to stay at home and entertain visitors, Léonce worries about how this will offend the guests. Lastly, Léonce expects Edna to be the kind of woman who gives herself fully to her children and to him—but Edna is unable to do so.
- Adèle is another character who adheres to convention instead of individuality. When Edna tells the truth about how she feels about Léonce and her children, Adèle warns Robert to stay away from Edna. After Edna buys her own home, Adèle expresses disapproval and is unable to understand why Edna would want to live independently. Adèle embodies the ideal Gilded Age mother and wife, encouraging Edna to conform to the social norms that her awakening has led her to despise.
Edna is mostly alone in her outlook on womanhood, save for her friend Mademoiselle Reisz. Mademoiselle Reisz is an independent woman and musician, who many dislike because of her supposedly disagreeable nature. Yet it is more likely that others ostracize her because of her penchant for individuality. In breaking convention, Reisz and Edna face prejudice, disapproval, and ostracization. Despite all...
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this, Edna and Reisz form a strong friendship with one another and find liberation in their individuality. It is only when Edna realizes that societal convention will always prevent her from being her own person that she decides to take her own life rather than conform.
Action Versus Reflection
Edna Pontellier shifts from an introspective and reserved woman to one who acts for herself. Self-reflection as a theme in The Awakening points to the role of the Gilded Age woman as reserved and conformist. Reflection becomes a point of rebellion for Edna as it helps her understand her place in the world and the constraints upon her. She is able to think private, independent thoughts, eventually leading her to become a woman of action. Midway through the novel, Edna begins to act on her needs and desires instead of simply reflecting upon them.
- For example, Edna exhibits action by changing her routine at home; she stops waiting at home to entertain visitors and goes out whenever she wishes instead. She also seeks out Mademoiselle Reisz, begins painting, and has an affair with Alcée Arobin.
Edna’s most important action, however, is buying her own home. She creates independence for herself by owning her own space. Edna’s final action is to return to Grand Isle, where she takes her own life. Many of the actions that Edna takes in the novel are efforts to control her life circumstances. However, even though Edna becomes an active woman who takes control of her life, there are still many factors that are beyond her control like her marriage, her children, and Robert Lebrun.
Though Edna’s apparent suicide at the end of the novel is a source of contention, it can be read as Edna’s final commitment to living an active, autonomous life rather than returning to her stifled, introspective, pre-awakening existence.
Flesh vs. Spirit
Edna's rediscovery of feelings that she has long repressed underlie her search for freedom, self-expression, and love. Her relationship with Robert Lebrun awakens forgotten physical needs and prompts Edna to think about her life. For the first time, she begins to open up to others. She shares confidences with Robert Lebrun and Adèle Ratignolle and allows herself to be stirred by Mlle. Reisz's music. She learns to swim, further experiencing the power of the connection between mind and body. She finally acknowledges her feelings toward Robert and realizes that she can take action to control her own life. The new Edna results from a marriage of flesh and spirit.
The awakening that Edna experiences at the Grand Isle is the beginning of her quest for personal freedom. She realizes that she wants to live her life beyond the definitions of wife and mother. When she returns to New Orleans, she refuses to sleep with her husband and gradually withdraws from meeting social obligations with people who are important only to her husband and his social status. She ultimately moves out of the house and rents a place of her own. No longer limited to doing what society expects of her, Edna earns her own income through her painting and socializes with whom she chooses. She enjoys the freedom of venturing out on her own—discovering parts of the city she never knew existed and noticing people she previously would have ignored. For Edna, choice defines freedom.
In acknowledging her personal desires and dreams, Edna realizes that double standards exist for men and women. While no one thinks anything of Robert's attention to Edna, people would be appalled at knowing how Edna feels about him. Adèle, for example, is shocked and tries to warn Edna to be careful of her reputation. It was unthinkable that a woman should have her own desires or want to do anything but supervise her household and participate in social functions. Men, on the other hand, engaged in extramarital affairs, pursued business and personal interests, and virtually had the freedom to do as they pleased. To illustrate, Léonce shows no concern over Robert's relationship with his wife, yet is so perturbed by Edna's actions that he believes she is having a nervous breakdown and consults the family doctor. The roles that Edna, Robert, and Léonce play in the story point out the unfairness of sexism and the repression of individual freedom that it causes.
Search for Self
Edna's spiritual and physical awakenings herald her search for self. While Léonce can see her actions only as some sort of temporary insanity, Edna knows that she is discovering the person within who wants to be free of society's boundaries. In attempting to determine that person, she first tries out her assertive self by refusing to have sexual relations with her husband. She next taps her creative self by reviving her interest in painting. She tries to define her relative self by considering her feelings about motherhood and her relationships with people. Finally, she experiences her sensual self by allowing herself to feel and act upon her own desires. Edna succeeds in determining who she is but discovers that the price for having her own identity is more than she can afford.
Choices and Consequences: Free Will
From the time that she first meets Robert, Edna realizes that all choices have their consequences. Her choice to remain in a relationship with Léonce would result in her continuing dissatisfaction with life. Yet she really doesn't understand, initially, that she can make choices that will result in different consequences When she does see that she can make changes, she experiences a freedom that she has never before felt. This exhilaration, however, is short-lived. Edna finds that free will carries with it responsibilities that are almost as confining as her marriage was. Her loveless affair with Alcée, and Robert's inability to reciprocate her love, lead Edna to see the final, dismal consequence of her life. No matter what choices she makes, Edna can never be totally free within the confines of the society in which she lives.
The choices Edna makes in her life result, largely, from her rediscovery of sexual pleasure. Robert's attention prompts Edna to ponder her life. As an initial result, Edna withholds sex from her husband. Then, her unfulfilled love for Robert and her loveless affair with Alcée demonstrate to her that love and sex are entirely separate entities. Edna discovers that while sex draws men and women together and can be physically satisfying, it does not necessarily meet one's emotional needs. Free sex has its price, and ultimately, Edna is not willing to pay it.
Alienation and Loneliness
Although people surround Edna on the Grand Isle, she feels separated by her thoughts. She believes that if she makes changes in her life to reflect her true self, she will be able to do what she chooses and associate with people who think like she does. Unfortunately, while her new companions do live their lives in their own ways, they also live isolated by society's rules. Mlle. Reisz is a prime example. She is a talented musician who has chosen the unconventional road. Because Mlle. Reisz is unmarried and living alone, people think she is odd. Few people appreciate her music and fewer still associate with her. Mlle. Reisz finds comfort and passion only in her music. Edna eventually feels the same kind of loneliness. Tantalized by what could be, she refuses to give up her dream of freedom and to sacrifice her newfound individuality. As a result, she alienates herself from all of society in her choice to create her own destiny.
Public vs. Private Life
Edna recognizes that she is unhappy with the life she is leading and all that it represents. She must answer to a husband who wants her to be nothing more than a household manager and nursemaid. She must perform the social duties expected from the devoted wife of a highly-respected man. She must appear to be the loving mother of children who demand her full and constant attention. To maintain this public image, Edna must deny herself the intimate pleasures of mutual love, the liberating acts of self-expression and creativity, and the joy of having friends with whom she can share her most private thoughts.
Edna finally tires of the masquerade. She realizes that she can no longer ignore her own desires, thoughts, and aspirations. She knows that her new attitude will be difficult to reconcile with a public life, but she pursues it with determination. No longer stifled by public expectations, Edna acts on her thoughts.
Unfortunately, her liberation does not last. She finds that there can be no true union of her public and private selves. The world in which she lives is bound too much by social convention to accept long-term nonconformity. The public is not ready to embrace the private Edna, and Edna is unwilling to yield to public sentiment.