At a Glance

The Awakening key themes:

  • In The Awakening, Edna realizes repressed needs through her relationship with Robert Lebrun.

  • Her desire for freedom leads her to reject social conventions and family obligations.

  • Because she is a woman, Edna’s reputation is marred by her affair with Robert. He suffers no consequences for entering into an extra-marital affair, however.

  • By deciding to follow their own paths rather than abiding by social conventions, Edna and Mlle. Reisz become alienated from their society.

  • Edna feels torn between her private desires and the limitations imposed by her social duties.


(Novels for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 1177 words.)