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In 1899, Kate Chopin’s book titled The Awakening caused controversy for its highly provocative depiction of Edna Pontellier during the turn of the new century. Chopin portrays the main character, Edna, as a woman who longs for the right to freely express herself versus conforming to the expectations of her society. Edna’s need to express her individuality is constantly a main source of tension throughout the novel. Edna Pontellier expresses her need for individuality by having affairs, moving out, and being un-maternal to her children.
In the beginning of the novel, Edna is a mother and a wife who is trying to conform to the expectations of society. Her husband Leonce, a successful businessman of forty, looks at his wife “As one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage.” She is discontent with her life; however she continues to behave in the role set by society that says the needs of a married woman’s husband and child should be her first priority. Edna’s realization of her position in society becomes clear toward the end of Chapter VI when the book states, “Mrs. Pontellier was beginning 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.” When she is mostly alone at home, she decides to spend most of her time with Mrs. Ratignolle. Her developed friendship with Mrs. Ratignolle exposes her to a great deal of freedom which soon leads her to Robert, the young 26 year old son of Mrs. Ratignolle who interreges her and maintains her interest throughout the book. At first, their relationship started of innocent with small and engaging conversation. However as time progresses, she starts to feel a new found freedom, like butterflies releasing from a cocoon into the gentle breeze of the air. The love between Edna and Robert grows strong unto the point where words are not needed to tell how they feel about each other. As soon as Robert knows he cannot control his desires, he leaves for Mexico without telling Edna. When Robert leaves, Edna suddenly becomes in-tune with her newly awakened feelings for him.
Another incident is when Edna gains the courage to leave home. Edna says, “That the house is too big, there are too many servants, and she does not want to live on her husband’s money anymore and that she wants a place that feels like her own”. In this act of defiance, she is showing her family that she is not meant to live in the Creole society. When she leaves her husband and her children, they start wondering what is wrong. Leonce actually has to lie for his wife saying that the house is being renovated to keep him good in the eyes of others, but Edna does not care. Her thoughts are geared toward leaving and being set free. She feels that in order to be free and to discover her individuality, she would have to leave the main place that is causing her grief. Living life as a mouse running around in a never ending maze of a Victorian society drove her to the edge and she jumped.
Lastly, her newfound meaning in life showed that she wanted to be alone and wanted to avoid her responsibilities, which mainly were her children. She neglects her children by having affairs and moving out. Edna says in Chapter Sixteen, “I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself. I can’t make it clearer; it’s only something which I am beginning to comprehend, which is revealing itself to me.” She never spent time with her two boys and the quadroon nurse mostly took care of them. Edna’s irresponsible behavior, particularly when she allows her emotions to sweep her away as well as her inability to think about the consequences of her actions, constantly draws her away from her children.
Edna Pontellier struggles throughout the book trying to express her individuality. This constant struggle not only affects her, but also those around her that love her such as her husband and children. Her thoughtless actions affected everyone. She allowed her emotion to take control of her life and destroy the other ones around her. Edna Pontellier is like many of us in the world today. The need to express individuality is one that everyone faces throughout his or her lifetime and everyone handles it differently. Edna chose to expresses her need for individuality by having affairs, moving out, and being un-maternal to her children. Ultimately this led to something much more tragic, the wanting to take her life to escape the pressure placed on her by society.
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