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In Kate Chopin’s novel, The Awakening, Edna, the protagonist faces a dilemma of solitude and confusion in which no one can seem to grasp and understand, not even her. Taking place during the 1800’s, in a time filled with strict societal laws, women juxtapose to men were expected to take care of homely matters and focus on their households, limiting the opportunity for individual expression. However, Edna as a static character works to break away from this ideal and seek her own outward presence in the world. The people she meets on Grand Isle awaken desires and urges Edna would have never thought of before for sexual attraction, art, music and most importantly individual freedom. Like a child, Edna begins to view the world in a new light where as a result causes her to neglect her identity as both a mother and women to seek individual satisfaction. Where the events leading up to this awakening allow Edna to learn three new “languages”. These languages then in relation to the plotline is consequential to her overall character development as she faces a decision to either seek her own desires in life or conform to the outward projections of society like she always has. Aside from being a mother of two young boys, Edna Pontellier is an everchanging character who aspires to seek things through her own intentions.
For instance, Chopin writes about the uncaring personality of Edna, “It would have been a difficult matter for Mr. Pontellier to define to his own satisfaction or any one else’s wherein his wife failed in her duty toward their children. If one of the little Pontellier boys took a tumble whilst at play, he was not apt to rush crying to his mother’s arms for comfort; he wone else’s wherein his wife failed in her duty toward their children. If one of the little Pontellier boys took a tumble whilst at play, he was not apt to rush crying to his mother’s arms for comfort; he would more likely pick himself up,….and go on playing (4.10). Edna’s failure as a mother as defined by Mr. Pontellier, her husband, is a matter in which he cannot quite voice himself. He instead fully understands and observes his children’s actions expressive of this idea as it is written, “If one of the little Pontellier boys took a tumble whilst at play, he was not apt to rush crying to his mother’s arms for comfort;” (4.10) revealing how little relevance Edna plays in the lives of her children. Even after meeting Madame Ratignolle on Grand Isle, Edna can only admire Madame Ratignolle as woman who so perfectly embodies all the virtues of a family woman, who unlike Edna, can attest to loving her husband and children more than anything. Where because of Madame Ratignolle, the first language Edna discovers as a part of her gradual awakening is tenderness and affection. The language apart of a bigger picture express the struggles Edna faces as a woman in a conforming society. Where in neglecting her children, she finds herself better suited to other tasks such as painting and finding independence. Furthermore, inwardly Edna seeks to search a voice of freedom amidst what society believes, while in an unwavering battle outwardly struggles to go against them where they are tying her to things she feels no emotional attachment to, in this case, her children.
Considering Edna’s careless nature up until now, the struggle she feels against a conforming society begins to confuse her both physically and psychologically, being expressive of her sexual frustrations. To highlight this, Chopin writes to describe the experimental relations Edna explores: “Why?” asked her companion. “Why do you love him when you ought not to?”… “Why? Because his hair is brown and grows away from his temples; because he opens and shuts his eyes, and his nose is a little out of drawing; because he has two lips and a square chin, and a little finger which he can’t straighten from having played baseball too energetically in his youth. Because–” (26.110). Because Edna is finally realizing the few opportunities she has in such a limiting world, along with her neglection of her children, she also begins to pursue true love as a result of her gradual awakening. Although Edna is married to her husband Leonce, she is obviously unhappy with their marriage as she holds no sentimental value to the wedding ring which binds them together. Chopin writing, “Why do you love him when you ought not to?” is symbolic of Edna’s infatuation with men other than her husband, especially Robert, a man she met on Grand Isle. Even though she fully understands the consequences of her actions, she relies on her herself to dictate her own actions and punishments as she blames everything she does in the name of her awakening after being suppressed for so many years. In comparison, to her husband Leonce who embodies the values of hard work and persistence, Edna instead values her own satisfaction above all else, which conveys the second language she discovers, the language of intimacy and sexuality. Having never been at all in love with Leonce, caused Edna to “experiment” with different men in her life. The language of intimacy is one she learns quickly and truly values instead of tenderness through Madame Ratignolle. The language of love, however, is hard for Edna to pursue because even though she may be completely oblivious to the consequences, Robert, the figure of her infatuation completely understands it otherwise and separates himself from her, causing her to begin feeling emotions of solitude and hurt. Moreover, though Edna is able to break away from her family and win the battle against herself, she soon begins to observe a new struggle, a struggle of loneliness and solitude as she learns about the unwillingness of others in contrast to her’s when going against society.
Though Edna is now able to comfortability allow for her awakening to shape her life and dictate over her actions, she begins to abandon it reminding us of her role as a woman in a limiting society. To emphasize this idea Chopin writes of Edna’s remedy to her struggles coupled with her tragic ending, “But when she was there beside the sea, absolutely alone, she cast the unpleasant, pricking garments from her, and for the first time in her life she stood naked in the open air, at the mercy of the sun, the breeze that beat upon her, and the waves that invited her. How strange and awful it seemed to stand naked under the sky! How delicious! She felt like some new-born creature, opening its eyes in a familiar world that it had never known (39.156). Having been left to herself with the independence she had always sought, Edna realizes what a terrible idea this had been from the very beginning. After leaving her family to pursue her own desires, she is sadly left questioning the extent of other’s willingness to prevail against society, especially her lover Robert. Because of her infatuation with the notion of personal freedom despite being in an idealistic society, she became oblivious to the things around her, causing her to forget the things which mattered the most to her: her family, her children, and most her old life.
Thus, because Edna found it too late to possibly fix anything in her life now, the remedy to her incessant struggle between her inner and outward self was an ambitious act of swimming out to sea as far as she could. Chopin in describing Edna to be “strange” and “awful” hint to us there was more to Edna aside from just being stark naked on the beach. By swimming out to sea, “Her arms and legs were growing tired… It was too late; the shore was far behind her, and her strength was gone” (39.156-157) suggesting Edna dies out at sea in her courageous gesture. Ultimately, Edna’s fate as a result of her gradual awakening causes her to experiment with her own freedom, where as she came to a realization of its consequences in the end, it was too late for her to turn back on her actions. In closing, the three “languages” Edna learned as a part of her awakening reflect how much Edna personally struggles with solitude and independence in her life in which they were pretty much inseparable. As much as she wanted to seek individual freedom in a suppressive Victorian society, Edna serves as a perfect example to what denying society does to you in regards to seeking individual freedom. Because Edna was a woman, it also showed the upsides men had juxtapose to women back then in a society filled with many limiting laws pertaining to gender roles.
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