The Necessity of Freedom: Exploration of Female Liberation in
Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening”
One of the themes in “The Awakening” is the main character’s struggle with becoming liberated from the restrictive nature of her husband, her marriage, and society in general. Edna Pontellier is internally forced to choose between ” . . . the two contradictory impulses that impelled her”(5). These impulses are her social responsibilities versus her newly found desires. As the plot moves along, Edna becomes more and more depressed because she can not do what she wants and is left unfulfilled. “The Awakening” is about a woman who wants to be free from her family obligations, and her husband but finds liberation only in her death.
Edna has the perfect life and the perfect husband, yet Edna is unhappy and wants to be free from her wifely duties. While Chopin does not directly describe Edna’s wifely duties she does create and develop the character of Adele. Adele is a mirror for Edna. Their roles in the world, as well as their duties as a wife, are the same. Therefore, everything that is said about Adele is true of Edna. She has no interests outside of her family. Adele has no urge to seek out new opportunities or find herself. Adele is the perfect 19th century woman with “every womanly grace and charm”. Adele is described as living and breathing for her husband and family. The only difference between the two women is that Adele seems to be happy with her life, while Edna struggles to find freedom. Edna reflects “I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself”. Edna knows she will never be free from her children. If Edna chooses to live her life like Adele, Edna will be an empty, and unfulfilled.
Edna’s is not content with her husband. She is unhappy and does not know why. Edna loves her husband, yet her life with him is unfulfilled. Chopin asserts ” . . . all declared that Mr. Pontellier was the best husband in the world. Mrs. Pontellier was forced to admit that she knew of none better.” Though Edna can not find fault with her husband, she knows she is frustrated. She wants to be free from her husband and experience new things. She makes the decision that she will find another man to be with romantically. She hopes that this freedom and her new man will bring her happiness. Edna directs her attentions other men. She is first intrigued with Robert Lebrun. Robert seems only to be interested in married women and is only interested in having a good time. At first, Edna just enjoys his company and has fun with him. However, soon she falls in love with Robert. As her relationship with Robert progresses, her awakening continues. She states ” . . . to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her.” She loses Robert and realizes that all men will try to control her. Edna has physically become liberated by her relationship with Robert by fulfilling her sexual needs. However, She is still emotionally imprisoned.
Edna struggles to become liberated from her emotions, especially her depression.
“The Awakening” ends tragically with Edna making the only choice she could to be free — suicide. Her motivation is often debated. Edna could have chosen suicide because she was unloved and sad. Edna looks at her options and decides she does not like what the world has to offer. She will never be free and decides to die. Edna knows she could never be free. As she swims she reflects on what she is leaving behind. “She thought of Leonce and the children. They were a part of her life. But they need not have thought they could possess her, body and soul.” Exhaustion washes over her body and her strength is gone. “Good-by-because, I love-you.” Edna’s last thoughts are of her childhood which was happy and free. Edna wishes she could have those things in her adult life. Mrs. Pontellier could not find liberation from her family or her husband. She could not find happiness in her life because she was unable to fulfill her needs. In death she finds her only hope for liberation. In the sea she is finally free.
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. The Awakening and Selected Stories. Urbana: University of Illinois, 1981. 171-351.