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The Awakening | Themes

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Women in Society

In New Orleans society in the late 1800s, women had limited opportunities to become anything other than wives and mothers. The social structure was largely built on men and women performing well-defined duties. The upper class in particular had myriad strict conventions. Men were to go out and achieve success and provide for their families. Women were to have the children, run the household, and be devoted wives and mothers.

InThe Awakening Edna Pontellier is caught between two extremes of womanhood, represented by Madame Ratignolle and Mademoiselle Reisz. Madame Ratignolle is the ideal wife and mother, doing everything expected of her and finding great contentment in it. Mademoiselle Reisz is the opposite. She is not a wife or a mother but an artist. She is respected as a talented musician, but she pays a price for rejecting society's norms. Society largely rejects her, and she lives in isolation.

What if someone falls in the middle of the womanhood spectrum—partway between Madame Ratignolle and Mademoiselle Reisz? This is what the novel asks. Edna is a wife and mother, but she finds little fulfillment in these roles and relationships. She wants to grow as an artist, but she does not want to give up on romance. She wants the independence to make her own decisions, but she also wants to be with Robert. Ultimately she finds society has no place for a woman like her.

Awakening

The Awakening is structured around a series of "awakenings," as Edna Pontellier slowly discovers her true feelings and desires. As a character Edna doesn't change inwardly; instead she gradually aligns her outer self with her inner self. For example, she doesn't become dissatisfied with her marriage and motherhood; she awakens—bit by bit—to the realization she is already dissatisfied. As she strips away the social conventions that do not serve her true self, she is increasingly emboldened to act on her own wishes.

Edna's sexual awakening is an important part of her self-discovery. She has the stirrings of physical attraction to Robert before he leaves for Mexico. When she meets Alcée Arobin, she can experience sexual passion in ways she has not experienced in her marriage. This awakening leads her to initiate a more physical relationship with Robert, though he is ultimately unwilling.

Individuality

Edna Pontellier is on a journey toward establishing her own identity. Although she shares some qualities with Madame Ratignolle, such as affection for her children, Edna is not a "mother-woman" who devotes herself fully to marriage and family. Edna also shares some characteristics with Mademoiselle Reisz, such as the desire to become better at her art and a willingness to be alone much of the time, but she is unwilling to give up on the possibility of true love. She shares a sexual attraction with Alcée Arobin, but she doesn't want to be just another in his string of conquests. She is in love with Robert, and he with her, but she wants to move the relationship into the realm of the physical and he does not. In each case Edna's interactions highlight her uniqueness. The tragedy is she can never fully express her developing individuality because of the social conventions that bind both her and Robert. Being true to herself results in a solitude she cannot live with.

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