What is Edna Pontellier “awakening” to?
Edna Pontellier, the main character of Kate Chopin’s novella, The Awakening is a wakening. The age old question readers, scholars, and students must ask is “to what?” Throughout the novella Edna’s actions show how she awakens to herself until the end when she realizes that her desires are unattainable, her sensuality unadvisable, and herself unacceptable. Arguably, Mrs. Pontellier is awakening to each of these: her sensuality, her desires, and herself.
Early in the novel when the character of Robert Lebrun is introduced, Edna responds to him modestly. As the novel progresses, Edna slowly “awakens” to his improper advances. She begins to consider Robert and inevitably becomes infatuated with him. Her love is strictly lustful and selfish as she desires him for her own needs. This becomes clearer later in the novel when Robert visits her and she hassles him for not writing or coming sooner. Robert speaks his mind in chapter twenty-four (XXVI) “I… think you cruel, as I said the other day. Maybe not intentionally… but you seem to be forcing me into disclosures which can result in nothing; as if you would have me bare a wound for the pleasure of looking at it, without the intention or power of healing it,” (617 Chopin). Later in the novel Arobin is introduced. Arguably, Edna allows the affair just for the experience or “possessing her body” or being able to freely “give it” to whomever she pleases. She allows the affair just to awaken fully to the desires and sensuality sleeping just beneath the surface.
Edna’s awakening however is not purely sensual; she is also awakening to her own desires. Edna explores her desires through art and music. Later in the novella, Edna takes up painting and though it is not serious, makes fleeting plans to study abroad. She also seeks out music in the form of Mademoiselle Reisz’s skill. Edna often cries when she listens to the moving melodies pouring from Reisz’s piano and often broods over the compositions of her own hand with canvas and brush.
Each of these mini-awakenings led Edna to the discovery that she was not just Mr. Pontellier wife or the children’s mother. She was a free spirit who loved art and music, who desired to give herself, body and soul to the man of her choice, or the institution or group of her choice. In the end, Edna’s awakening brought her to the reality that the self she desired to be was incompatible to the male dominated world she lived in. Edna’s final awakening paradoxically occurred when she gave herself to the sea to preserve the self she had awakened to. Edna knew that her husband, like Robert, would strive to keep her in the box they’d formed for her, and she could not allow that. Overall, Edna’s awakening to her sensuality and her desires led her to an awakening of self that brought her to the sea.