The main conflict in Chopin’s The Awakening is a woman’s needs to have the right to express herself and live freely versus the expectations of Victorian society and it’s narrow definitions for what a woman should and should not do. This conflict is developed throughout the book as the narrator tells the tale of Edna’s “awakening" or Edna’s process of awakening or realization that she does not fit into (nor wants) part of the Victorian expectations placed upon her. This happens in a series of stages during which Edna moves increasingly farther away from societal norms of the Victorian era.
One of the first ways the conflict is developed after Edna has realized that she is unhappy and wants to be free is her action of spending time with her friend, Robert, whom she falls in love with. Even though he leaves, she has made her decision to live a more free life and she moves into her own apartment away from her husband and children and takes a lover. There are serious conflicts at this point between Victorian society and she is judged harshly and condemned by almost everyone. This conflict leads her to eventually grow depressed and aware that she will never be completely able to escape the expectations laid upon her. She is constantly wavering between her concerns for her own self-development and realization and the more petty concerns of what others around her think and how she is perceived. This conflict is never fully resolved. The way the main character chooses to resolve it is by wading into the ocean to commit suicide but in many ways, this is more like her giving up battling this conflict rather than working to resolve it. Still, the only reasonable way to state there is a resolution is by saying that story is resolved when she decides that she cannot make the crucial balance between her own ideals and the conventions of society.
In Kate Chopin’s novel, The Awakening, the main character, Edna, has three distinct personality traits that define her throughout the book. One of her most noticeable traits is her irresponsibility, especially in regards to how she treats her children and husband. Related to this trait is her capacity to be childish, particularly in terms of how she allows her emotions to sweep her away as well as her inability to think about the potential consequences of her actions. Her third and most prominent personality trait—the one that forms the backbone of the story’s conflict, is Edna’s willingness to defy social conventions, particularlyin terms of gender roles, and norms. All three of these traits are consistent throughout the novel and while the character does change by the end, these aspects never disappear.
Most of the novel is focused on Edna’s growing realization that she feels separated from the ideals of the Victorian era and how she manages to escape them by striking out on her own to live as an artist. Although this is an admirable action, she is completely irresponsible in how she goes about it. Even though she has a husband and children, she leaves them as soon as she discovers her passion and does not give any real thought to them after that point in the novel. Even from the beginning of the text though, it is clear that she is not always the most responsible mother. She lets her children wander off with the nanny and does not always heed the signs when they are ill. As the narrator states in one of the important quotes from “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin,“She was fond of her children in an uneven, impulsive way. She would sometimes gather them passionately to her heart and sometimes forget them" (24). She treats her husband in the same way since as soon as she realizes her dream to live independently, she leaves him without much of a thought. What makes Edna’s character trait of irresponsibility only that (as opposed to purposeful neglect or crassness) is that she sees her quest to discover herself as something of the highest importance. She still wishes to maintain a good relationship, especially with her children, but her trait of irresponsibility does not permit this.
In addition to being irresponsible, Edna is also very childish. These two are different traits because whereas the irresponsibility has to do with her not following through on her obligations to her family, her childishness is more related to her emotional immaturity. She has the habit of letting her emotions get the best of her and they often cloud reality and make her prone to irresponsible behavior. The narrator frequently alludes to Edna’s childishness and in one particular instance, when she was overwhelmed with emotions as Edna begins the process of awakening, when entering the water says she was a, “tottering, stumbling, clutching child, who of a sudden realizes its powers, and walks for the first time alone, boldly and with over-confidence" (32). Her childishness, especially in terms of her emotions, is also manifested when she experiences things that evoke great sensory responses in her, such her friend’s piano playing. When she is exposed to something she finds beautiful or illuminating, she lets it take control of her senses and emotions without regard to any consequences. This character trait is thus related to her irresponsibility since oftentimes it is her childish response that prompts her to irrational or irresponsible actions. Like a child, she blindly follows her desires without thinking about what might come next.
Edna’s most admirable (although most trouble-causing) personality trait is her willingness to go against powerful social conventions. As a Victorian woman there are many expectations on Edna, especially in terms of how she should treat her husband, children, and other community members. She is brave in the face of these traditional roles, especially after she realizes that she is unhappy with her life. As a result she commits acts that would be unthinkable for most women of the day including taking a place of her own, leaving her children and husband, and keeping a lover. It is difficult sometimes to reconcile Edna’s irresponsibility and childishness with her admirable trait of unconventionality but it is clear that this is what makes her such an exciting character. Out of all the other female characters in the book, she is the one who is making the greatest statement against the prudishness of Victorian society and at times this makes her less commendable traits acceptable.
All three of the Edna’s character’s traits remained present throughout the book and none of them changed significantly. In fact, the ending is tragic partly because she was not able to learn to balance her responsibilities, capacity to act childishly, and her desire for freedom. In the end, she walks into the ocean, committing suicide because she realizes that she cannot make compromises in her personality. Her most important trait of living outside of normal society is the one that leads her to her final decision. What makes this ending so surprising is that generally at the end of a novel, the main character has learned something or had an epiphany and sacrifices a negative personality trait as a result. In The Awakening, however, this does not occur as it is character traits that define the course of what happens.