The Awakening tells the story of Edna Pontellier and the changes that occur in her thinking and lifestyle as the result of a summer romance. At the start of the story, Edna is a young mother of two and the wife of a successful New Orleans businessman. While the family is vacationing at a seaside resort, Edna becomes acquainted with Robert Lebrun, a younger man who pays special attention to her. Moonlit walks and intimate conversations with Robert spark feelings that Edna has forgotten. When she returns to the city, Edna throws off the trappings of her old life-devotion to family, attention to societal expectations, and adherence to tradition-to explore independence in love, life, and sexual fulfillment.
Edna’s rediscovery of feelings that she has long repressed underlie her search for freedom, self-expression, and love. Her relationship with Robert Lebrun awakens forgotten physical needs and prompts Edna to think about her life. For the first time, she begins to open up to others. She shares confidences with Robert Lebrun and Adele Ratignolle and allows herself to be stirred by Mlle. Reisz’s music. She learns to swim, further experiencing the power of the connection between mind and body. She finally acknowledges her feelings toward Robert and realizes that she can take action to control her own life. The new Edna results from a marriage of flesh and spirit.
The awakening that Edna experiences at the Grand Isle is the beginning of her quest for personal freedom. She realizes that she wants to live her life beyond the definitions of wife and mother. When she returns to New Orleans, she refuses to sleep with her husband and gradually withdraws from meeting social obligations with people who are important only to her husband and his social status. She ultimately moves out of the house and rents a place of her own. No longer limited to doing what society expects of her, Edna earns her own income through her painting and socializes with whom she chooses. She enjoys the freedom of venturing out on her own-discovering parts of the city she never knew existed and noticing people she previously would have ignored. For Edna, choice defines freedom.
In acknowledging her personal desires and dreams, Edna realizes that double standards exist for men and women. While no one thinks anything of Robert’s attention to Edna, people would be appalled at knowing how Edna feels about him. Adele, for example, is shocked and tries to warn Edna to be careful of her reputation. It was unthinkable that a woman should have her own desires or want to do anything but supervise her household and participate in social functions. Men, on the other hand, engaged in extramarital affairs, pursued business and personal interests, and virtually had the freedom to do as they pleased. To illustrate, Leonce shows no concern over Robert’s relationship with his wife, yet is so perturbed by Edna’s actions that he believes she is having a nervous breakdown and consults the family doctor. The roles that Edna, Robert, and Leonce play in the story point out the unfairness of sexism and the repression of individual freedom that it causes.
Edna’s spiritual and physical awakenings herald her search for self. While Leonce can see her actions only as some sort of temporary insanity, Edna knows that she is discovering the person within who wants to be free of society’s boundaries. In attempting to determine that person, she first tries out her assertive self by refusing to have sexual relations with her husband. She next taps her creative self by reviving her interest in painting. She tries to define her relative self by considering her feelings about motherhood and her relationships with people. Finally, she experiences her sensual self by allowing herself to feel and act upon her own desires. Edna succeeds in determining who she is but discovers that the price for having her own identity is more than she can afford.
From the time that she first meets Robert, Edna realizes that all choices have their consequences. Her choice to remain in a relationship with Leonce would result in her continuing dissatisfaction with life. Yet she really does not understand, initially, that she can make choices that will result in different consequences. When she does see that she can make changes, she experiences a freedom that she has never before felt. This exhilaration, however, is short-lived. Edna finds that free will carries with it responsibilities that are almost as confining as her marriage was. Her loveless affair with Alcee, and Robert’s inability to reciprocate her love, lead Edna to see the final, dismal consequence of her life. No matter what choices she makes, Edna can never be totally free within the confines of the society in which she lives.
The choices Edna makes in her life result, largely, from her rediscovery of sexual pleasure. Robert’s attention prompts Edna to ponder her life. As an initial result, Edna withholds sex from her husband. Then, her unfulfilled love for Robert and her loveless affair with Alcee demonstrate to her that love and sex are entirely separate entities. Edna discovers that while sex draws men and women together and can be physically satisfying, it does not necessarily meet one’s emotional needs. Free sex has its price, and ultimately, Edna is not willing to pay it. Although people surround Edna on the Grand Isle, she feels separated by her thoughts. She believes that if she makes changes in her life to reflect her true self, she will be able to do what she chooses and associate with people who think like she does. Unfortunately, while her new companions do live their lives in their own ways, they also live isolated by society’s rules. Mlle. Reisz is a prime example. She is a talented musician who has chosen the unconventional road. Because Mlle. Reisz is unmarried and living alone, people think she is odd. Few people appreciate her music, and fewer still associate with her. Mlle. Reisz finds comfort and passion only in her music. Edna eventually feels the same kind of loneliness. Tantalized by what could be, she refuses to give up her dream of freedom and to sacrifice her newfound individuality. As a result, she alienates herself from all of society in her choice to create her own destiny.
Edna recognizes that she is unhappy with the life she is leading and all that it represents. She must answer to a husband who wants her to be nothing more than a household manager and nursemaid. She must perform the social duties expected from the devoted wife of a highly respected man. She must appear to be the loving mother of children who demand her full and constant attention. To maintain this public image, Edna must deny herself the intimate pleasures of mutual love, the liberating acts of self-expression and creativity, and the joy of having friends with whom she can share her most private thoughts.
Edna finally tires of the masquerade. She realizes that she can no longer ignore her own desires, thoughts, and aspirations. She knows that her new attitude will be difficult to reconcile with a public life, but she pursues it with determination. No longer stifled by public expectations, Edna acts on her thoughts.
Unfortunately, her liberation does not last. She finds that there can be no true union of her public and private selves. The world in which she lives is bound too much by social convention to accept long-term nonconformity. The public is not ready to embrace the private Edna, and Edna is unwilling to yield to public sentiment.