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...
(The entire section is 2,119 words.)