A Simple Sacrifice
Written by Kate Chopin, a woman who dealt with society's shortcomings herself, The Awakening is a story which reminds the reader of how far society has come in its views of women. The main character, Edna Pontellier lived a privileged life, but in that life, she was trapped by expectations and generalizations, mostly to do with her sex. A first, Edna was a typical submissive woman who valued "proper behavior" and public opinion. However, she discovered something about herself and society. She did not feel alive until she had abandoned the societal constraints attached to women, but she still could not free herself from them completely.
At the beginning of the novel, Edna was reserved, almost estranged from her own emotions (Chopin, 643). She did her best to try to repress any feeling of animosity towards her husband (Chopin 637). She was also rather indifferent to her children (Chopin 638). The ideal women, or "mother-women" were those "who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals" (Chopin, 638). Edna was not one of these women, but her friend, Madame Ratignolle was, and Edna felt inferior in that respect (Chopin 638). She considered her friend "a faultless Madonna" (Chopin 640). This was the standard to which women were compared and expected to strive toward.
When Edna spent time with Robert, she was treated as though she was important, and not as a piece of property as her husband saw her (Chopin 634). He did not seem to expect her to be a "mother-woman," and perhaps that is why she felt able to open up to him as she did. Although Robert played such an important role in Edna's personal transformation, it was music that truly started it. She was so moved by Mademoiselle Reisz's piano playing that "the very passions themselves were aroused within her soul," and it left such an impression that she was able to face her fear of drowning and learn to swim (Chopin 653). It was almost like a chain reaction, as if when she realized that she could swim in the water, she could swim on her own in life. However, she had been afraid when she swam too far out, but she seemed to ignore this observation when applying the rest to life.
Her transformation started small; she resisted her husband's simple command to come inside, and she realized she was in love with Robert (Chopin, 658). She may have changed more quickly had Robert not gone to Mexico, but as it was, she tackled the dangerous area of social standards on her own when she and her husband returned home. She stopped receiving visitors when she was socially required to do so and began to follow her own passions, particularly that of painting (Chopin 672 & 677). From there, she bravely cast off all of her other concerns about society. She no longer cared how it viewed her. She moved to a smaller house because she did not like taking care of the large one, which she felt was not hers anyway (Chopin 695). She did not like feeling as if she owed her husband for being hospitable enough to provide her a home.
Even before her move, Edna was allowing herself to experience life in a way she never had before. "At a very early period, she had apprehended instinctively the dual life – that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questioned" (Chopin 643). Her life had changed so much because she had abandoned the outward conformity. She allowed herself to have whatever emotion her body gave her. She appreciated everything more – even her children – because she had forgiven herself for her own shortcomings. "She felt as if a mist had been lifted from her eyes, enabling her to look upon and comprehend the significance of life, that monster made up of beauty and brutality" (Chopin 698). After the move, Edna considered herself free. She belonged to no one.
Unfortunately for Edna, she was still in love with Robert. She waited for him to return from Mexico, and she was sorely disappointed when he finally did. In love with her, Robert tried to avoid Edna because of societal constraints and ideals. He had dreamed of her becoming his wife (Chopin 717). He left "for her sake" while she was away because of the problems their affair would cause. The few earnest moments Edna had with Robert made her feel complete, and losing him again hurt probably worse than before. To make matters worse, Madame Ratignolle had reminded Edna of what that affair could do to the children. At that time, the status of family members or past acts of family members affected the status of the rest of the family.
Edna realized that she could never really escape the chains of society. She had once told Madame Ratignolle, "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" (Chopin 669-670). When she took her own life at the end of the novel, she had this in mind. She had tasted life, freedom, her own integrity. She could not return to her former state of constraint. So, she did the only thing she felt capable of to help her children with their own futures. She had swum too far out again – so far that she could not and would not go back – but she wasn't afraid. She finally freed herself.