In one part of the novel The Awakening, Chopin writes down the classic line—“the bird that would soar about the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings.” Like the bird, the protagonist in the novel Edna Pontellier holds “an ideal view of the world”; and like the bird, the character aspires to soar above the social constraints of womanhood and domesticity. While slowly awakening to such a world view grants her freedom, Edna’s looming idealism also has severe consequences. To Edna Pontellier, to see the world differently, in the lens of feminism, and to defy traditional world views directly translate into solitude; even worse, it means desperation and death, although such endings might hold different meanings to Edna herself. Overall, Edna’s belief in individualism and freedom make an important theme of the book—something Kate Chopin seeks to explore through Edna’s stream of consciousness.
Titled The Awakening, the book focuses on the intellectual journey of Edna, whose world views grow increasingly idealistic, and such an emotional experience awakens Edna to the ideals of independence, freedom, and self-empowerment as a Creole woman. On the bright side, the awakening of the character allows Edna, a wife and mother, to free herself from domestic constraints, both visible and invisible ones. As she learns from Mademoiselle about the merit of being a female artist and the corresponding sacrifices, Edna reconnects with her talents and passion as a painter—something that is otherwise impossible for a married woman in the late 19th century New Orleans. At the same time, Edna’s awakening directly encourages her to stand up and speak up against oppressive norms, securing her individuality as she comes to the resolution to “never again belong to anyone else.” At one point of the novel, she passionately claims that she would “give up her money” and the “unessential” but that she would never “give up herself.” It is with such revelations that Edna no longer submits to the drunk Mr. Pontellier unconditionally; with a new perspective and new senses, Edna evolves into an intellectual character who refuses to fall into the pitfall of the cult of domesticity.
Unfortunately, the freedom that Edna gains comes with a huge price, leading to an arguably inevitable tragedy as the book comes to an end. Again describing the bird, a symbol and underlying metaphor of Edna, Chopin writes that “it is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth.” Again mirrored by the imagery of the wounded bird, Edna suffered from painful experiences, going through the awakening process in solitude, without being understood and accepted—even not by Robert Lebrun—a man who claims to love her. Besides Rober, Leonce Pontellier represents the larger social norms that constructed a clear idea of womanhood—something that Edna’s idealism challenged but failed to completely break through. Constantly marginalizing Edna and rendering her behavior bizarre and pathological, Leonce, like the husband from The Yellow Wallpaper, maintains the dominant and even sadistic stature, even when Edna finds peace and freedom. Likewise, Edna’s futile idealism contrasts with Ratignolle’s loyalty to her domestic obligations, which potentially contributes to Edna’s suicide; repeating the phrase “think about the children” on the death bed, Ratignolle’s ability to sacrifice her Self for others stun and pain Edna, who realizes her own idealism’s flaws and weakness. The four words cast a spell in Edna’s head, who struggles and understands the “banality” of her own views. As “the voice of the sea speaks to the soul,” Edna chooses to turn to the sea—to leave the world where she could only “wander in the abysses of solitude.”
Throughout the novel, the positive and negative consequences of Edna’s “queer” idealism invite the readers to rethink what freedom meant and means to women; the contrast between Edna’s “ideal view of the world” with the dominant norms not only defines the course of the novel but also sheds light on the thematic significance of such idealism—a complex view that entails hope, freedom, independence, while inevitably encompassing a sense of inevitable solitude, helplessness, and desperation—characteristics of the common struggle of women and minority groups against the preexisting and more mainstream ideals.