In The Awakening, the heroine Edna Pontellier tries to wake from the accustomed domesticity of a housewife to become an actual being in the late 19th century American society. For her realizations have led her to various pioneering decisions as a wife and as a mother, it seems in reality the “awakening” does not need to an actual liberation of her life. Afterall, is the “awakening” a tragedy or comedy for her? The spark of Edna’s awakening starts in the summer in Grand Isle. It comes gradually with the starting dissatisfaction in a submissive family life.
In the very beginning of the book, when Leonce returns from Klein’s hotel “in high spirits”, Edna was asleep after taking care of her children. When her response does not satisfy his expectation, he vents his anger to critize Edna’s “habitual neglect of the children” while in fact the children are perfectly fine. The tears are “not uncommon in her married life”, as the courtesies of Leonce is depended on “a certain tacit submisssiveness” in his wife, that this “submissiveness” has driven Edna to do things she does not like at all.
In fact as we are told, Edna is not “a mother-woman”. She does not enjoy domesticity as her acquaintance Madame Ratignolle does. Her love for her children is also “ in an uneven, impulsive way”, that they are an adorable burden for her which are always in need of her care. This constant dissatisfaction in her family life has striked her to think about how she is unsuitable for the traditional gender role of a mother. The growing habit to Robert Lebrun’s presence also reminds Edna’s insticts about love.
From her talk with Madame Ratigonelle, it is known that Edna’s marriage with Leonce is “purely an acciedent”, which is only romantic in Edna’s perspective with her father’s objection to the marriage. Leonce has been a very courteous and loving husband, fulfilling his duties as a husband. However, it is Robert who really got her love, when love is actually cannot be forced upon even with the boundary of marriage. Edna’s “one of the two contradictory impulses which impelled her” to go to the beach with Robert just sufficiently illustrates how Edna starts acting according to her natural wills, such as going out with the person she loves.
Even the two have been acting properly all the time in Grand Isle, their dependence on each other is evident. When Robert annoucnes that he is going to Mexico, the frustration of Edna about Robert not mentioning anything about it has reflected his importance in Edna’s heart. When Edna says “Why, I was planning to be together, thinking of how pleasant it would be to see you in the city next winter”, it shows how Edna hopes their relationship can continue, even if Edna has not realize that it may be a potential affair scandal.
In the later part of the story, Edna’s love for Robert becomes more apparent in the way how she misses him, when “Robert’s going had some way taken the brightness, the color, the meaning out of everything”. Robert is a siginificant figure that reminds Edna of her natural instinct for love, that love is about her own will and choice to choose the person she wants to stay with, and not purely a fanciful courtship that flatters her. The significant turning point for Edna process of realization comes when Edna tries to swim out from the shore.
Her natural ability to learn swimming on her own enlightens her that she can achieve a skill on her own without anyone telling her what to do and how to do. The suden realization excites her and encourages her to go further, to swim to “where no woman had had swum before. ” It is a moment that Edna gains her power over her own body. It also reveals the dangers of going beyond the norms when “a quick vision of death smote her soul”.
When the previous revelations only remind her of her own emotions and feelings, how she perceive things passively, this revelation through swimming reminds her of her active ability to accomplish without any form of aid from anyone. It enables her to swim far out beyond the safe zone on land that women normally sunbath on, at the same time enables her to actively think about what and how to achieve the dreams of her own. The continuing realization of her own strengths and needs, however, does not match with the reality in the 19th century American society.
Edna’s identity as a married woman has already limited her possibilities since many responsibilities have already been established through the marriage, and are unable to reverse. The seemingly avaiable options for her cannot bring her anywhere in the end. Changes are siginificant after that summer in Grand Isle. Edna’s realizations has actually driven her to deviate from her usual submissive housewife life. She first started with giving up her Tuesday “reception day” without any “suitable excuse”.
It is apparent that this “reception day” is made for her husband – that it is to maintain acquaintance relationships with Leonce’s business partners. Moreover, Leonce’s complaint reveals that Edna has not been looking after what is going on in the domestic household and let the dinner turns bad. She thrashes her wedding ring and tries to destroy it has symbolically reflected her desire to break the chains that constrained her in the unhappy marriage life. Marriage, in her perspective, has now become “one of the most lamentable spectacles on earth” which she even refuses to go to her sister’s wedding.
Edna changes towards the fanciness and realities of marriage are so evident that even upset Leonce and her father. Edna further thinks about “freedom and independence”, about “becoming an artist”. She starts thinking about picking up painting again with Laidpore, probably a drawing teacher. With Madame Ratignolle’s encouragement and learning from Laidpore, she starts selling sketches. Her plans for “independence” include also living on her own, in a “pigeon-house” which is small and cozy house that needs less to be taken care of.
The “instincts” for this freedom have “prompted her to put away her husband’s bounty in castng off her allegiance”, without thinking much about the consequences. Nevertheless, these actions are only symbolically significant to reflect Edna’s yearn to deviate from Leonce’s control. With deep considerations we can see how these actions could not last: how about when Leonce comes back to reassert his control? How about when she has spent all her money and her sketches are not yet good enough to earn a living for herself?
Her actions apparently give the notion of recklessness and do not possess serious considerations of the reality of the society. So if we say it is kind of impossible for Edna to live on her own, how about a remarriage with her true love Robert? Their feelings have persisted even in the time when they are apart, when Edna looks for her existence in his letters and Robert subtly mentions about Edna in his letters to Mademoiselle Reisz. After Robert returns, they even confess and affirm their love for each other.
However, Robert does not wait for Edna’s return, but only leaves a note saying “Goodby – because, I love you. ” As we can see throughout the story Robert has been a well-mannered man, trying not to step across the line of propriety. In my opinion, it is part of his love for Edna because it prevents her from any disgraces of affairs. As Robert dreams about it wildy “recalling men who had set their wives free”, it is apparent that the first condition needed is the consent of Leonce to allow a divorce.
Secondly, even if Leonce sets Edna “free” in he most “impossible” way, how will people judge her second marriage, with a man she was so close with when she is still married? Robert’s last departure from Edna implies the tragic reality that there is no future for their love in the 19th century American society, that his only hope is that his love will not bring any disgraces to the woman he loves. Edna, still in the chain of marriage, is not “free” if Leonce does not let go. Obviously, with the attempt to renovate the house in covering his problem in marriage and propose a trip with Edna, Leonce is not going to set his wife “free”.
Upon all factors, children have been a siginificant factor that has draw back Edna from realizing her full self. Even if the previous suggestions can be true, that Edna may earn a living and live on her own, or that Leonce allows the divorce and she marries her true love Robert, how about the children? As Edna starts moving into her own little home, her children are only sent temporarily to their grandparents in Iberville. Even Edna has stated: “ I would give up the unessential… but I wouldn’t give myself”, the “unessential” are still may not be enough for her children.
In fact, she has to sacrifice time and effort in taking care of the children, the born children which are result of her marriage that cannot be reversed. Madame Ratignolle’s last whispers “Think of the children, Edna” sincerely remind Edna of her established familial responsibility that she cannot escape. Under these circumstances, how would the awakened Edna, not fully capable with the need to develop, to be able to achieve her on will? The symbolic ending of Edna swimming out to the endless waters suggested the absence of possible exits for her emancipation from the boundaries of her gender roles.
Swimming has been a significant and symbolic act throughout the story as Edna’s ability to achieve with her own strengths, with the fears and dangers that she has to face in the course of achievement. Yet if swimming signifies her ability, the water of the Gulf is just like the society and the world, which she can achieve here as well as drown here. The notion of survival is apparent in swimming, when even she is able to swim does not necessarily means that she can go and return safely.
Compare with her first swim in the Gulf, Edna has gone further without looking back the distance that she has gone, just as in reality she has been acting according to her wills without much consideration that whether she can return. When “exhaustion was pressing on and overpowering her”, it reflects how she has passed the point of return to the safe shore when she can boldly stand her feet on. Although it is kind of symbolically heroic when Edna tries to swim and achieve what a woman usually cannot do in the 19th century, surival has been a problem for her.
Looking back to the story told, Edna’s awakening does not seem to bring her anywhere. It is apparent that she has a happier life when she returns to New Orleans and refusing to follow her husband’s instructions and act as she wants. Nevertheless, under different circumstances, because of her incapability, because of established responsibilities, she cannot fully escape the chain of married life. Edna is not a perfect heroine under Chopin’s description, but rather a young married woman who bears the notions of romance and recklessness.
Somehow her relationship with Robert can also be interpretted as a certain excitement beyond the norms, just as how she thinks her marriage with Leonce is romantic because of her father’s objection. She is also not a perfect artist who can earn a living on her own with her sketches, as an artist “must possess many gifts – absolute gifts – which have not been aquired by one’s own effort”. While Edna’s actions of leaving her home seem to bear the qualities of “the courageous soul” that “dares and defies”, her “gifts” seem not sufficient enough to lift her up from where she has been.
Nevertheless, all these flaws of Edna have proved how ordinary women in the 19th century cannot realize their own selves under the social boundaries as a wife and a mother. In fact, the normalness of Edna suggests that this story can happen to any woman in the setting – who may live a loving married life depending on her own submissiveness to the occassionally-courteous husband, who may meet the love of her life after getting married and have no future in the relationship, who may possess certain skills but not yet good enough to achieve as the price is so high that achievement is almost unattainable.
If Edna is a tragic heroine who has waken but not realized, then this tragedy might have repeated many times in reality. It is sad to see one who has finally know her strengths and dreams, but circumstances have disabled the possibility of realization. While we may mourn for the tragic ending of Edna’s story of awakening, we may have been glad for her that she did have enjoyed part of her life in acting according to her wills. In the end, changes cannot be brought about if they are no pioneers who dare and defy to take the very first steps to make a change.