Edna’s process of self-discovery in The Awakening by Kate Chopin takes place in a series of three significant stages that eventually lead to the death of Edna at the conclusion. Before Edna begins to discover herself, she is caught between her desires to explore herself and her desires more fully and the realities of Victorian womanhood and life. It is not until the first major event in her awakening; the combination of music and a baptismal swim in the ocean that she finally awakens to a much deeper form of self-awareness.
At this point in the plot after this magical night she is reborn and begins to shed her identity as a typical “mother-woman" and begins to develop her interests and desires more fully. She rashly gives up her home and husband and in a second major contribution to her awakening, moves into a home of her own and engages in an affair through which she can explore herself sexually as well as creatively. Her awakening occurs rapidly and she falls so deeply into the process that her third and final awakening—the realization that she cannot completely attain her desires without taking responsibilities and the demands of society into account—is too much for her to handle. She reenters the sea, the original place of her baptism into self-understanding in an attempt to cleanse herself of her frustrated desires. In many ways, Edna’s awakening is not a gradual or even natural process since it takes place so quickly. Like a child, Edna gives into her desires to live according to the new thoughts spurred by her awakening but is too hasty in her decisions. At the end of The Awakening Edna is left with the feeling that she could never attain what she has imagined herself to be and thus the sad and frustrating conclusion ensues.
Even before the process of her awakening, Edna was not like the other women to be found at Grand Isle. She possessed a deep inner life, one that was not necessarily wrapped up in the usual domestic concerns that so engrossed Adele. At the beginning of the novel there is considerable attention given to the concept of “mother-women" and how Edna is already significantly different from these types. According to the narrator in one of the important quotes from “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin, “They were women who idolized their children, worshipped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels" (638). For Edna, this is not a fulfilling role and although she does seem to love her children, she finds peace outside of the home and within her own thoughts. It is also worth noting that before her awakening she is beginning to notice her husband’s treatment of her.
After her husband returns from a trip while she has spent the day testing out the feelings of freedom she experiences with Robert, she remarks on the “indescribable oppression, which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar part of her consciousness, [and] filled her whole being with a vague anguish" (637). The reader cannot help but feel that this oppressive feeling is related to her husband and the dull life she feels is before her. For her husband, Edna is a possession, something that belongs to him and something that should fulfill the narrow but confining roles it has been assigned. He scorns her lack of attention to the children and scolds her for her “habitual neglect" (637) of the children. Furthermore, at the beginning of the story, even before the reader has truly met Edna, he sees that she has grown sunburned and “looked at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property that has suffered some damage" (635). When she goes out on the porch and feels the oppression and the vague sense of despair, it can be reasonably assumed that it is these pressures which are pushing her over the edge.
Combined with the new freedom being with Robert offers and her growing sense of self-awareness, these problems with her life become more glaring to her. Before she enters the ocean and hears Mademoiselle Reisz play her magical music, the narrator alludes to a growing awakening by stating, “A certain light was beginning to dawn dimly within her—the light which, showing the way, forbids it" (642). This light is that of truth and the promise of self-discovery, or as the narrator continues, “In short, Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human beings, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and around her" (642). The early chapters detail her life within Victorian society’s birdcage (for women at least) and how she begins to see that there is a way for her to spread her wings and fly.
On one night of her stay at Grande Isle, her first major awakening occurs as a result of two events. First, when she hears the music of Mademoiselle Reisz, her imagination runs away from her and a series of images of freedom comes to her mind.
She imagines a naked man being left by a wandering bird; a strikingly raw image for a Victorian woman to have and one symbolic of the kind of beauty and freedom she wishes to attain. For Edna, “The very first chords which Mademoiselle Reisz struck at the piano sent a keen tremor down [her] spinal column…. Perhaps it was the first time she was ready, perhaps the first time her being was tempered to take an impress of the abiding truth" (653). The narrator of “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin is alluding to the idea that her thoughts up until this moment of music have all been leading to a realization of her own freedom and where her happiness lies. This musical experience then emboldens her to finally swim for the first time, the second event that contributes to her powerful first awakening. The reader gets the distinct impression that her first swim is the “baptism" for her awakening as she is literally born again. The narrator of “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin describes her not as a strong and thinking woman but as a “tottering, stumbling, clutching child, who of a sudden realizes its powers, and walks for the first time alone, boldly and with over-confidence" (654). Like when she hears the music on the piano, her mind becomes free of its usual patterns and she is allowed to use her brain to maximum capacity and revel in her newfound sense of freedom.
“As she swam she seemed to be reaching out for the unlimited in which to lose herself" (654) the narrator states, and although this speaks volumes about the further elements of her awakening it also alludes her suicide because eventually she does :lose herself" in the unlimited. After this event, she is no longer the old Edna who is still a victim of Victorian demands, but she is renewed and reborn. As she lay on outside after the night the narrator states, “Edna began to feel like one who awakens gradually out of a dream, a delicious, grotesque, impossible dream, to feel again the realities pressing into her soul" (657). These realities are her love for Robert, her husband and children, and the numerous other demands of Victorian womanhood. Still, after this first awakening she is able to spend a glorious day away from the island with Robert and takes up painting with renewed vigor. She is literally a new woman after this experience.
When Robert leaves for Mexico, she is left alone with her new understanding of self-awareness and for some time does not seem to know what to do with it. As the narrator explained in one of the important quotes from “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin, “For the first time she recognized anew the symptoms of infatuation which she felt incipiently as a child" and without Robert, her further awakening is intensely self-involved. It is at this point, when the family returns to the city, that manifestations of her awakening at Grand Isle become apparent. Much to the dismay of her husband, she stops attending and holding perfunctory social obligations at the family home and she becomes increasingly involved with her painting. To the doctor, who comes at the behest of her husband, Edna is not suffering from an illness but appears as, in an important quote from “The Awakening” as “some beautiful, sleek animals waking up in the sun" (687). She has been transformed not only in her own eyes but those of others. This wild image of a strange beast stays with the reader, especially as there is a latent note of animal sexuality behind it that will later emerge in her affair with Alcee.
The second major part of her awakening comes with her removal to her own house and her affair with Alcee because it is the most socially observable act of her defiance and freedom. Now she is able to explore her repressed sexuality in a setting that allows her to be free and this leads to her understanding of herself as a female and sexual being. More importantly than this, however, is the house itself as a symbol of her freedom and new awakening to herself. In the pigeon-house, “there was a feeling of having descended in the social scale, with a corresponding sense of having risen in the spiritual. Every step which too toward relieving herself from obligations added to her strength and expansion as an individual" (706). Although one could easily suggest she is like the selfish child Adele tells her she is, the fact remains that moving to a space of her own completes Edna’s sense of identity. She is no longer surrounded by her husband’s possessions but by a place she has carved out for herself. In such a place she is free to explore her sexuality and creativity. In essence, it is a place where she can live out her fantasy of being an independent woman. The problem with this, however, is that she cannot ignore society completely, nor can Robert.
When Robert shows back up in her life, Edna behaves much like the mythical phoenix. She has risen to such great heights, carried on the wings of her newfound creativity and hopes that Robert will return. When it turns out, however, that he is unwilling to abandon the pressures of society, Edna is crushed—she has flown too close to the sun and is now irreversibly burnt and damaged. For the first time in the haze of her awakening she realizes that it is impossible for her to live outside of society completely, to be herself and have what she dreams of, and it is this that eventually leads her to commit suicide. Robert reminds Edna that despite how free she might feel, “you were not free; you were Leonce Pontellier’s wife" (717). This begins the cycle of thought that reminds her that no matter how much she may want to be free and live the life of her dreams, there is no escaping reality. Even when she makes her way down to the beach for the last time, she thinks of her earthly responsibilities. “The children appeared before her like antagonists who had overcome her; who had overpowered and sought to drag her soul to slavery for the rest of her days" (722). Her only way to elude them (and the countless other responsibilities of her life) was to drown herself in the ocean. In many senses, Edna’s suicide is the result of her final awakening—that she has been unable to balance a sense of self and freedom with the demands of life. Her feet, despite her best efforts, straddled two words; one of the lone artist and seeker and the other the Victorian woman enamored with society and the home. Since she could not create a balance or allow herself to live one life over the other completely, her only choice was suicide. Her awakening happened almost too quickly and her actions as a result of it were too hasty and brash. The only way to cleanse herself of both worlds was to enter the sea—the site of her baptism into awakening.
Chopin, Kate. “The Awakening.” Norton Anthology of American Literature. New York: W.W. Norton, 2003. 633-722