An objective third person narrates the story of Edna Pontellier and her search for self in The Awakening. The narrator does not criticize or applaud characters for their traits or their actions. Most important, the narrator withholds judgment of Edna and the choices she makes.
The basic premise of The Awakening is conflict. Edna Pontellier discovers that she cannot be the person society expects her to be and seeks to resolve the problem by changing her life. Even as she recognizes the conflict within herself and begins to deal with it, the people with whom she associates present her with new challenges. Edna believes that she can be an artist and a lover and still be independent. Alcee and Robert prove her wrong. They reimpose the original conflict by proving to Edna that they can see her in only one way. While each has his separate view, both men reflect society’s beliefs that women have certain functions in life. Edna is right back where she started.
Imagery used in the story emphasizes the conflict with which Edna struggles. Edna realizes that she cannot tolerate being confined to marriage and motherhood, but nor is she free to love and create. Society sees the two choices as complete opposites. Other opposing images emphasize the contradiction. New Orleans city life, with its stiff social rules, contrasts with the openness and ease of life on the Grand Isle. Birds fly freely on the Grand Isle, while they live in cages in the city. Edna’s friends, Adele and Mlle. Reisz, are complete opposites as well. Adele exemplifies the traditional Southern woman while Mlle. Reisz represents the typical societal outcast. The final, and most significant, image is the seductive acceptance of the sea. It mirrors both birth and death.
Foil is used to emphasize the primary conflict by exaggerating the distinct differences among Edna, Adele, and Mlle. Reisz. Edna knows that she does not want to be, and will not be, like Adele. Adele lives only for her husband and her children. While she loves her family and they love her, she has given up her own will and bows to the whims of those around her. Unlike Adele, Mlle. Reisz has forsaken love and relationships for her music. Her lonely life revolves around playing for audiences who do not appreciate her talent. Edna does not want to be like either woman. She would like to combine the best of both of them. Edna wants to be needed and loved, like Adele, but would also like to pursue her own interests, like Mlle. Reisz. The idea of having to remain in her marriage, with all its responsibilities and restrictions, smothers her. On the other hand, if loneliness is the price she has to pay for freedom, Edna does not want that either. The constant interplay among the three characters keeps the conflict alive.
All of the images found in The Awakening gain more symbolic meaning as the story progresses, but the sea is the primary symbol. The sea represents the differences between choice and blind obedience, self-determination and predestination, and ultimately, between life and death. It is while at the seaside resort that Edna first realizes that she can still feel love and that she can change her life. She learns to swim at this time, too, and experiences the power of the connection between mind and body. Both of these experiences contribute to Edna’s determination to find herself. To Edna, the sea represents acceptance, comfort, and self-renewal. Later, a disillusioned Edna returns to the sea to try to renew the feeling of freedom that she experienced on learning to swim and on changing her life. The sea again beckons her, and Edna willingly releases to it the conflict within her.
The author honestly portrays Edna’s conflicts. Edna faces her first dilemma when she is attracted to Robert Lebrun. She is sexually aroused and wants to consummate the relationship with Robert. She then ponders her role in life, does not like what she sees, and makes changes to redefine it for herself. Chopin puts Edna in real-life situations and gives her real-life emotions. At the time the novel was written, such candor was unheard of. Now, critics recognize that Chopin was ahead of her time in her frank exploration of the relationship between self and society.
Critics condemned The Awakening when it was first published in 1899. They criticized Chopin’s direct treatment of such moral issues as extramarital affairs and female sexuality. At the end of the 19th century, good literature simply did not discuss women’s emotions. It ignored the fact that women have the same impulses as men. For Edna to admit, even to herself, that she was sexually aroused, was shocking. For her to actually engage in an affair was scandalous.
Critics also denounced Chopin’s seeming acceptance of Edna’s search for personal freedom. They were appalled at the choices Edna made to acquire her freedom. Women were expected to accept their station in life and to repress any feelings they might have that could be considered nonconformist. Edna not only disliked her role in life, she also blatantly refused to continue it. Readers naturally sided with Leonce when Edna refused to have sex with him. When Edna moved out of the house, readers criticized her for abandoning her children. Critics felt Chopin was overstepping her rights to discuss Edna’s thoughts and improprieties so objectively. They felt that Chopin should have punished Edna in some way. The public, too, took offense at Edna’s passion and adultery and virtually cheered her ultimate suicide. Women who wanted to keep their social standing lived within the rules of society. While men could have affairs and still be respected, society despised women who did. Edna could have had her thoughts if she had kept them to herself. For Edna to openly air them and to act upon them was a moral outrage. The public disapproved not only of the character, but of the author who could write so dispassionately about such improper behavior. As a result, Chopin’s hometown library removed the book from its shelves, and the local Fine Arts Club banned Chopin from its membership.
The Awakening remained unnoticed for several years after the commotion it initially caused. In the 1930s, however, the book came back into the limelight when a new generation of literary critics reexamined it. A close scrutiny of the work revealed its positive elements. The researcher who first studied it appreciated Chopin’s attention to literary form-particularly her mastery of form and theme. Chopin’s composition has a poetic unity to it that comes from her application of symbolic imagery to plot. An example of this is Chopin’s use of the sea-as a symbol of life and death as well as the site for the main action in the plot.
Since that initial reexamination of the work, other critics have applauded Chopin’s use of psychological realism, symbolic imagery, and sensual themes. For example, Per Seyersted stated that Chopin was the first female to write about sex in an intelligent, realistic and nonjudgmental way. Other critics agree that Chopin used sex in The Awakening not to moralize, but to reveal certain psychological characteristics of her characters. Characters become real people with real emotions as a result of the way Chopin dealt with their sexuality. This attribute raised the book above the “sex fiction” that one critic accused Chopin of writing, according to Margo Culley who edited the second edition of The Awakening. The book’s form, style, characterization, and symbolism contribute to both its early opposition as well as to its acclaimed acceptance today.