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Themes in The Awakening

Themes Examples in The Awakening:

Chapter III

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"She liked money as well as most women, and accepted it with no little satisfaction...."   (Chapter III)

Notice that Mr. and Mrs. Pontellier are not partners in their relationship. Edna is at the mercy of her husband monetarily and has no real money of her own. Notice also that the consequences of this lack of financial independence is lost on Mr. Pontellier: he sees Edna’s excitement over the money as the common reaction of a simpleton rather than as a consequence of her lack of freedom.

"An indescribable oppression, which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar part of her consciousness, filled her whole being with a vague anguish. It was like a shadow, like a mist passing across her soul's summer day..."   (Chapter III)

Even though this exchange with her husband is common to her life, Edna has a strong reaction to the authoritarian nature of her husband’s conduct. This “unfamiliar shadow” could be interpreted as a feeling of injustice that Edna has not heretofore acknowledged. This moment marks the beginning of Edna’s awakening.

"She did not remonstrate, except again to repulse him quietly but firmly. He offered no apology...."   (Chapter V)

Robert’s new romantic gestures indicate that he wants to turn his friendship with Edna into something more. However, Edna resists his praise and physical advances, illustrating that she is taking charge of their relationship and demanding respect from men.

"Mrs. Pontellier was glad he had not assumed a similar rôle toward herself...."   (Chapter V)

Robert’s behavior towards women before Edna was more flirtatious and conventionally romantic. He would use flattery and praise in attempt to win their affections. However, Robert treats Edna very differently than the other women, with genuine interest and respect. This illustrates further that the relationship between Edna and Robert is that of equals.

"intimacy and camaraderie...."   (Chapter V)

Edna cannot find interest in sewing clothes for children; she would much rather draw or speak with Robert. Consider that Victorian society viewed femininity and motherhood as synonymous. Women were expected to naturally want to have children and to cater to their children’s needs entirely above their own. Edna’s desire for self-expression and her search for her own identity becomes a theme throughout the novel. Society disapproves of such pursuits for women, and Edna’s disinterest in this “motherly” pastime indicates her deviation from the perceived “norm.”

"This may seem like a ponderous weight of wisdom to descend upon the soul of a young woman of twenty-eight—perhaps more wisdom than the Holy Ghost is usually pleased to vouchsafe to any woman...."   (Chapter VI)

Here, the narrator assumes that the audience views Edna’s awakening from the standpoint of her patriarchal society: individuality and humanity is a “ponderous weight” for a mere woman. However, the careful reader will notice that Chopin uses this unreliable narrator to point out the ridiculousness of this point of view. The narrator’s comments are ironic and function to prompt the reader to read past what is being said to see the reality of Edna’s situation.

"In short, Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her. ..."   (Chapter VI)

At the time of publication, women were still considered property in Louisiana. Edna’s developing understanding of herself as a human being is groundbreaking because she is considered and treated like an object. This awakening of her individuality was extremely controversial because at the time of this novel’s publication, women’s rights were just beginning to creep into greater awareness. This makes Edna’s burgeoning consciousness all the more contentious.

"At a very early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life—that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions...."   (Chapter VII)

Here, the narrator tells us about Edna's childhood and how, even from "a very early period," she has understood the differences between an inner and an outer life. As Edna grew up, she learned to conform to the expectations of those around her. However, the narrator also makes it clear that Edna has remained observant and thoughtful, which has led to her questioning her conformist actions, behaviors, and desires. As much as Edna has tried to suppress this questioning, it is clear that she is very divided on how she feels about herself and her role as wife and mother.

"Edna was what she herself called very fond of music...."   (Chapter IX)

The narrator undercuts Edna’s love of music with passive voice and weak adjectives. Rather than calling Edna a music lover or even directly stating that she's very fond of music, the narrator claims that she “calls herself” fond of music. “Fond” is a weak adjective; it does not fully communicate an emotional connection. In making the connection between Edna and her love for music weak, we learn of a social understanding about women’s pleasure: first, she cannot feel deep passion, imitating or imagining herself as passionate; second, her own self-perception is questionable.

"She was a disagreeable little woman, no longer young, who had quarreled with almost every one, owing to a temper which was self-assertive and a disposition to trample upon the rights of others...."   (Chapter IX)

The syntax of this sentence suggests that the woman’s disagreeable nature comes from the fact that she is “no longer young.” Mademoiselle Reisz is “disagreeable” not only because she is old but also because she is self-assertive and argumentative. In this way, Mademoiselle Reisz is a character that underscores Edna’s own awakening: she is a fully realized individual who does not conform to social expectations of how a woman should act.

"to feel again the realities pressing into her soul...."   (Chapter XI)

Edna’s transformation continues here. We see that she is starting to “awaken” from the dream that was her life as a wife and mother in a marriage formed on practicality and convention. Notice that the inner world of thought and imagination is more “real” than the world of outward appearances. Edna’s inward life is more authentic than the socially acceptable life others perceive from the outside.

" You must come in the house instantly..."   (Chapter XI)

Mr. Pontellier has become angry and indignant because his wife will not obey his wishes or entertain his pleas. Consider that during this time men viewed their wives as property, and women were expected to happily obey their husbands. Edna’s refusal to submit to her husband’s commands is a quiet resistance to this sexist domestic expectation.

"daily treadmill of the life..."   (Chapter XI)

These lines emphasize how unjust, sexist conventions were enforced and perpetuated in everyday Victorian life. The expectation for women to be submissive and obedient in the home was so strictly enforced by both the legal and social spheres that it became commonplace. It became so habitual to simply submit to their husband’s wishes that women often unthinkingly did as they were told. This is the “treadmill of the life” that Edna describes. The norm seems so unquestionable that to resist it is often not even considered.

"“So was I,” he blurted. “Perhaps that's the—” ..."   (Chapter XV)

Robert is constrained by social customs. He cannot tell Edna that he is leaving so that they do not have an affair, and he cannot tell her that he loves her because she is married and it would be impolite. While breaking with these social customs allows Edna to be with Robert, they also drive Robert away.

"Robert's going had some way taken the brightness, the color, the meaning out of everything...."   (Chapter XVI)

Considering how Edna’s awakening has led her away from her dependency on her husband, her feeling that losing Robert makes her life meaningless does not match the “new” Edna we’ve seen. It appears as if she’s shifted from dependency of one kind to another, “contradicting the feminist theme of women’s rights and individuality in the novel". A possible explanation could be that since Edna’s awakening and her budding romance with Robert both take place simultaneously, she has conflated the two in her mind, making them dependent on one another.

"Edna vaguely wondered what she meant by “life's delirium.” It had crossed her thought like some unsought, extraneous impression...."   (Chapter XVIII)

Edna’s awakening is a vague, intangible change. She cannot concretely say what has been awakened, what she cannot let go of, or what it feels like. This suggests that the true nature of Edna’s awakening is in its vagueness: unlike her life, it is unstructured and unregulated.

"He could see plainly that she was not herself. That is, he could not see that she was becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world..."   (Chapter XIX)

My. Pontellier’s conclusion that his wife is “not herself” further reveals how little he understands Edna. The narrator clarifies this lack of understanding by sharing how Edna is “becoming herself” by removing the “fictitious self” that she has worn for so many years. This turns the phrase “not herself” on its head and allows the narrator to make an important point: it’s not just Edna; we all wear a "fictitious self" when we go out into the world. However, Edna’s situation is unique in that she is actively disregarding this self when many others wear it unconsciously.

"There were days when she was very happy without knowing why...."   (Chapter XIX)

Edna’s awakening has begun to free her from the restraints of marriage and motherhood, but her emotional state is in turmoil. Her despair comes from a perceived lack of purpose, wondering if her life has any meaning. Before her awakening she could identify as a wife and mother, but now that her identity is more fluid and she’s discovering who she really is, she is experiencing anxiety and emptiness.

"To be an artist includes much; one must possess many gifts—absolute gifts—which have not been acquired by one's own effort. And, moreover, to succeed, the artist must possess the courageous soul..."   (Chapter XXI)

Mademoiselle Reisz seems to be suggesting that artists must break with social expectations in order to create true art. This offers an explanation as to why this great pianist flouts gender norms. It also may explain why Mademoiselle Reisz tells Edna about the letter from Robert: their relationship openly defies the expectations of a married woman.

"“She's got some sort of notion in her head concerning the eternal rights of women; and you understand—we meet in the morning at the breakfast table.”..."   (Chapter XXII)

While readers will have picked up on the feminist themes running throughout this novel, this is the first time that women’s rights are explicitly mentioned. Edna’s frustrations have been linked to her status as wife and mother, but now we see them linked to her position as a woman in the late-19th century.

"The atmosphere of the stables and the breath of the blue grass paddock revived in her memory and lingered in her nostrils...."   (Chapter XXV)

The horses at the track carry an important metaphorical meaning. Since classical antiquity, horses have symbolized the more animalistic aspects of human nature. The Greek centaur, for example—half-human, half-horse—represents the power of the unconscious with its animal and sexual drives. The sight of the horses stir these drives within Edna. Edna’s growing awareness of her sexual nature is, after all, one of the novel’s primary themes.

"It was not despair; but it seemed to her as if life were passing by, leaving its promise broken and unfulfilled. Yet there were other days when she listened, was led on and deceived by fresh promises which her youth held out to her...."   (Chapter XXV)

Edna finds herself in a gray area between despair and promise. She is old enough to have lived through some of life’s disappointments—an unsatisfying marriage, the drudgery of motherhood—but at 28 is young enough to hope that life has more to offer her. Edna’s desire for a more vivid life than the one presented to her by society is one of the book’s main themes.

"“Do? Nothing, except feel glad and happy to be alive.” ..."   (Chapter XXVI)

We’ve said earlier that Edna’s feelings for Robert contradict the feminist themes running through the story. In this dialogue, Edna reveals to be infatuated with Robert instead of in love with him. Since an infatuation is an extravagantly foolish or unreasoning passion, we can see more clearly the incongruity between her professed desire to be independent and her dependency on Robert.

"But some way I can't convince myself that I am. I must think about it.”..."   (Chapter XXVII)

Edna has come to the realization that she does not wish to be a mother and a wife, and this realization leads her to question whether she is a good person or not. Since society did not give women many options for living an acceptably “good” life other than a life-long marriage and children, Edna’s question makes sense for the time. We know as readers that her decisions have not been made out of ill will or malice, but her question here leads us to wonder whether her actions should deem her “wicked” or not.

"But she laughed and looked at him with eyes that at once gave him courage to wait and made it torture to wait...."   (Chapter XXIX)

As Edna develops more fully into a state of independence, she finds herself less beholden to the needs and desires of men. Through her move into the “pigeon house,” Edna steps away from Mr. Pontellier’s constraints. In this moment, in which she fends off Alcée’s urgent advances, she is similarly standing her own ground.

"There was with her a feeling of having descended in the social scale, with a corresponding sense of having risen in the spiritual...."   (Chapter XXXII)

Edna’s feelings about the end of her marriage sharply contrast Mr. Pontellier’s perceptions. Mr. Pontellier is doing everything he can to save face in society while Edna is letting go of her social status in order to gain internal contentment. Edna recognizes that she must sacrifice social responsibility in order to grow spiritually.

"There was with her a feeling of having descended in the social scale, with a corresponding sense of having risen in the spiritual. Every step which she took toward relieving herself from obligations added to her strength and expansion as an individual. She began to look with her own eyes; to see and to apprehend the deeper undercurrents of life. ..."   (Chapter XXXII)

Edna’s feelings about the end of her marriage sharply contrast Mr. Pontellier’s perceptions. Mr. Pontellier is doing everything he can to save face in society while Edna is letting go of her social status in order to gain internal contentment. Edna recognizes that she must sacrifice social responsibility in order to grow spiritually.

"He hoped she had not acted upon her rash impulse; and he begged her to consider first, foremost, and above all else, what people would say. ..."   (Chapter XXXII)

Notice that Mr. Pontellier’s priorities are other people’s opinions of him and his financial stability. He does not seem concerned with the end of his marriage or his wife’s mental state. This reveals the transactional nature of their marriage and Mr. Pontellier’s feelings for Edna: their union is more of a business arrangement and she is more of an object.

"only the promise of excessive joy...."   (Chapter XXXV)

Seeing Robert has lightened Edna’s spirits and has allowed her to once again participate in the social world that she had left behind. His presence also inspires Edna to paint again, re-associating Robert with Edna’s self-expression and individuality.

"“I promised...."   (Chapter XXXVI)

Their intimate moment is interrupted by Edna’s social obligation to go to Madame Ratignolle when she gave birth. Even though Edna openly defies gendered customs and claims to be free and independent, she is still bound by her female obligation to her friend. Ironically, it is this obligation that prevents her from fulfilling her adulterous desire for Robert and breaking fully with her identity as Mr. Pontellier’s wife.

"It was you who awoke me last summer out of a life-long, stupid dream...."   (Chapter XXXVI)

Notice that Edna assigns her awakening to her love affair with Robert. In this conception of the relationship, her liberation is the consequence of a man rather than something that came from within her. This is ironic because Edna is trying to shed the patriarchal structure that controls her life. She still cannot see herself as independent from a man.

"“You have been a very, very foolish boy, wasting your time dreaming of impossible things when you speak of Mr. Pontellier setting me free! I am no longer one of Mr. Pontellier's possessions to dispose of or not. I give myself where I choose. If he were to say, ‘Here, Robert, take her and be happy; she is yours,’ I should laugh at you both.”..."   (Chapter XXXVI)

In calling Robert “boy,” Edna asserts her power over this situation. She is able to claim that she belongs to no man and can freely give herself to anyone she wants. This assertion defied Louisiana law, which stated that a wife was the property of her husband. Edna’s claims show that she considers herself a free woman.

"With an inward agony, with a flaming, outspoken revolt against the ways of Nature, she witnessed the scene of torture...."   (Chapter XXXVII)

Once again, the scene makes clear the gap between Edna’s individual development and the demands that capital-N “Nature” places on her, namely as a mother. Having stepped outside the bounds of society and slipped free of her roles as a wife and mother, the scene of childbirth is “torture” to Edna.

"Her own like experiences seemed far away, unreal, and only half remembered...."   (Chapter XXXVII)

This scene illustrates how the realm of motherhood lies in distinct contrast to Edna’s current state of independence. Her own memories of childbirth are recounted in dreamlike terms, underscoring the notion that her role as a mother predated her soul’s awakening. Thus her memories are “unreal.” This moment represents one manifestation of the theme of awakening.

"There was the hum of bees, and the musky odor of pinks filled the air. ..."   (Chapter XXXIX)

The novel ends with two final images that are surprisingly calm compared to the sounds that she hears. She pictures bees and smells “pinks,” a type of pink flower. These two images symbolically represent spring and rebirth and suggest that even though the heroine of this story drowns, there is hope for the future.

"There was no human being whom she wanted near her except Robert; and she even realized that the day would come when he, too, and the thought of him would melt out of her existence, leaving her alone. The children appeared before her like antagonists who had overcome her; who had overpowered and sought to drag her into the soul's slavery for the rest of her days...."   (Chapter XXXIX)

Everything that brought her joy before Robert left her —thinking about Robert, being alone, spending time with her children—now feels like a burden or a restriction. Edna’s independence has collapsed with Robert’s leaving, suggesting that she was not as independent as she thought she was.

"Beholding Mrs. Pontellier make her appearance, the girl had at once suspected a lovers' rendezvous. But Victor's astonishment was so genuine, and Mrs. Pontellier's indifference so apparent, that the disturbing notion did not lodge long in her brain. She contemplated with the greatest interest this woman who gave the most sumptuous dinners in America, and who had all the men in New Orleans at her feet. ..."   (Chapter XXXIX)

Mariequita’s perspective at the end of the novel gives the reader a strange contrast to Edna’s perception of her own situation. While Edna feels constrained by her attachments to society, Mariequita is envious of them. The attention to this character’s thoughts at the end of the book suggests that Edna is not the only woman who is unhappy with her situation and believes that a different life would offer her what she is looking for.

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