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“‘Why?’ asked her companion. ‘Why do you love him when you ought not to?’ (109)” In the novel The Awakening by Kate Chopin, the main character Edna Pontellier must deal with the ultimate internal struggle- the never ending conflict between passion and responsibility. She must choose between her duties and responsibility towards her husband- a man she has never loved-and two young children, and her passionate and consuming love for Robert Lebrun. Although this conflict provides a great deal of turmoil for Edna and those around her, it also helps Edna to discover herself in ways she never before thought possible
At the beginning of the novel, it seems that Edna is content with her life as a wife and mother. Although the narrator explains that Mrs. Pontellier has never been the ideal mother or wife, she loves her children and her marriage to her husband Leonce, though passionless, is one marked by respect and admiration. Her family is spending the summer at the Grand Isle, where she starts a playful friendship with one of the caretakers, Robert Lebrun. It is with Robert’s help the Edna begins her “awakening” and her realization that the life she has established for herself is no longer bearable. Once Robert leaves for Mexico Edna is able to fully understand her love for him and, even more importantly, her desire to be loved by him, that the conflict between passion and responsibility swings into full gear.
During the eighteenth century, when this novel takes place, and especially within the Creole culture, fidelity was highly valued and extramarital affairs were almost unheard of. By embracing the love she has for Robert, Edna is neglecting her basic wifely duties. The passion she feels for Robert creates another, even stronger passion- the need to escape from her life of societal and familial duties. Edna longs for the independence she never had. Once the summer is over and she must return to the city without Robert, it’s almost as if Edna gives up any pretense of being a devoted wife, mother, or member of society.
She abandons her Tuesday afternoons at home, neglects her husband, and sends her to children away to their grandmother without a second. She channels all of her pent up feelings into her paintings. The new awakening Edna experienced over the summer, the rediscovery of those certain needs that she has long neglected, has reshaped her entire being. Edna realizes that she can no longer function as the women she did before and the responsibilities she has to her family no longer mean anything to her. Edna knows that this transformation cannot come without consequences, but she simply doesn’t care.
The intense passion that Edna feels for Robert seems to be part of her nature. From a very early age Edna has had the habit of falling deeply in love with men that she could not possibly ever be with- an engaged young gentleman when she was in her teens, and later, a famous tragedian. Although she was never in love with Leonce Pontellier, she felt that with her marriage to him, she “would take her place with a certain dignity in the world of reality, closing the portals forever behind her upon the realm of romance and dreams. (24)” By marrying Leonce, Edna believed that she could abandon the passion of her earlier life and start anew in a more stable, socially acceptable lifestyle. Of course, no one can escape his or her true nature. As much as Edna tries to be the wife and mother that society and the culture of the time expect of her, her feelings for Robert are her breaking point.
The height of her deviation occurs when Edna moves out of the family home into a small apartment against her husband’s wishes. She dismisses her servants and focus on her artwork. It is at this point in the novel that Edna shifts her focus from what she should do to what she must do. This transformation enlivens her, but at the same time it creates an internal turmoil. Edna feels stuck- as much as she enjoys the feelings of passion and freedom she gets with Robert and Alcee Arobin, it would be too much of a sacrifice to abandon her domestic responsibilities to be with either of them, especially without any real reason to leave behind Leonce and her children to be with either of the other men. The never-ending nature of her conflict is what eventually leads to Edna’s suicide.
Even when Robert leaves Edna for the second time- because he loves her (151)- she still cannot fathom the idea of returning to her husband and her old responsibilities. Ultimately, it is the though of her children that motivates Edna’s suicidal actions. As she once told Madame Ratignolle, “I would give up the unessential, I would give my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself. (63)” She knew that she could not sacrifice herself and defy her entire being by returning to her family. Her responsibilities to her children are the only chains that keep her tethered to this world, to the life she can no longer live with. As she swims from the shore in the final paragraph of the novel, she at last she can break away from both the duties and passions that have always consumed her entire self. In the end, Edna chooses death rather than caving in to the pressures of either.
“Nobody, but he who felt it, can conceive what a plaguing thing it is to have a man’s mind torn asunder by two projects of equal strength, both obstinately pulling in contradictory directions at the same time.” This quote from British novelist Laurence Sterne perfectly demonstrates the tremendous pull Edna Pontellier felt between the duty to be a good mother and wife and her nature- the awakening passion she experiences during the summer. Ultimately she is not strong enough to fully commit to either, and this leads to her eventual death. This conflict is meaningful to the book because in a way everyone feels this basic struggle between our hearts and minds. Although Edna was not able to overcome it, her story gives readers hope that maybe they will be.