Edna Pontellier is a respectable woman of the late 1800s who not only acknowledges her sexual desires, but also has the strength and courage to act on them. Breaking through the role appointed to her by society, she discovers her own identity independent of her husband and children. Many of Kate Chopin’s other stories feature passionate, unconventional female protagonists, but none presents a heroine as openly rebellious as Edna. The details and specifics of Edna’s character are key to understanding the novel and its impact on generations of readers.
At the beginning of the novel, Edna exists in a sort of semi-conscious state. She is comfortable in her marriage to Léonce and unaware of her own feelings and ambitions. Edna has always been a romantic, enamored with a cavalry officer at a very young age, in love with a man visiting a neighboring plantation in her teens, and infatuated with a tragedian as a young woman. But she saw her marriage to Léonce as the end to her life of passion and the beginning of a life of responsibility. Although she expected her dreams of romance to disappear along with her youth, her fantasies and yearnings only remain latent, re-emerging on Grand Isle in the form of her passion for Robert Lebrun.
The people Edna meets and the experiences she has on Grand Isle awaken desires and urges for music, sexual satisfaction, art, and freedom that she can no longer bear to keep hidden. Like a child, Edna begins to see the world around her with a fresh perspective, forgetting the behavior expected of her and ignoring the effects of her unconventional actions. Yet Edna is often childish as well as childlike: she harbors unrealistic dreams about the possibilities of a wild adulterous romance without consequences, and she fails to consider the needs and desires of anyone but herself. Her flagrant disregard of reality is revealed when she mocks Robert’s apprehensions about adultery, and when she leaves her children in the care of their grandmother without a second thought. Edna’s independence frequently amounts to selfishness.
Yet although the text never presents Edna’s escape from tradition as heroic, it also never declares her actions shameful. The narrative may sometimes portray Edna as selfish in the ways she acts out her defiance of convention, but it never portrays Edna’s defiance itself as intrinsically wrong. Perhaps, even, the novel portrays Edna’s rebellion as intrinsically right. Given the book’s ambiguity, Edna’s decision to commit suicide at the end of the novel can be read either as an act of cowardice—of submission to thoughts of her sons’ reputations and to a sense that life has become too difficult—or as an act of final rebellion—of refusal to sacrifice her integrity by putting her life in the hands of controlling powers.
Mademoiselle Reisz is an unconventional and unpopular older woman who serves as an inspiration to Edna throughout her gradual awakening. A small, homely woman, Mademoiselle is distant and reserved in her interaction with the other guests on Grand Isle. Although she is often called upon to entertain people at gatherings with her expert piano playing, she realizes that Edna is the only one of the guests who is truly touched and moved by the music. Mademoiselle Reisz seeks out Edna shortly after Robert’s departure to Mexico, and her exchange with Edna by the shore fosters a relationship that continues upon their return home to New Orleans. Edna is inexplicably drawn to the older woman, whose lifestyle she envies, despite finding her disagreeable and difficult. In fact, neither Edna nor Mademoiselle Reisz can claim to be particularly fond of the other, but Mademoiselle Reisz understands Edna’s passions and enjoys the company and the opportunity to share her thoughts on art and love.
Through her relationship with the pianist, Edna increases her awareness of herself as a woman capable of passionate art and passionate love. While the two capacities are interconnected, Mademoiselle Reisz serves to further each specifically. Not only is the pianist in touch with her own artistic emotions, she is, on a more pragmatic level, in touch with the traveling Robert and is the only one to whom he speaks of his love for Edna.
Mademoiselle Reisz is the woman that Edna could have become, had she lived into her old age and remained independent of her husband and children. Mademoiselle functions as a sort of muse for her young companion, acting as a living example of an entirely self-sufficient woman, who is ruled by her art and her passions, rather than by the expectations of society. Mademoiselle Reisz acts as a foil for Adèle Ratignolle, who lives the socially accepted lifestyle that Mademoiselle Reisz rejected for solitude and freedom.
A foil for Mademoiselle Reisz, Adèle is a devoted wife and mother, the epitome of nineteenth-century womanhood. Adèle spends her days caring for her children, performing her domestic duties, and ensuring the happiness of her husband. Ironically, while Adèle is comfortable and happy with her simple, conformist existence, she unintentionally catalyzes Edna’s movement away from such a lifestyle with her manner of speech: because she and her fellow Creole women are so clearly chaste and irreproachably moral, society allows them to speak openly on such matters as pregnancy, undergarments, and romantic gossip. Adèle’s conversation reminds Edna of the romantic dreams and fantasies of her youth, and Edna gradually begins to uncover the desires that had been suppressed for so many years. Although Adèle’s behavior represents that which is expected of Edna, the effect of her words proves more powerful than her example.
Adèle is a static character—she shows no change or growth from the beginning of the novel to its end. She is also somewhat simple: when Edna reveals to Adèle that she would give up her money and her life for her children but not herself, Adèle cannot understand what more one could give than one’s own life. Edna’s understanding of an inner, autonomous spirit defies the belief of the time that women were simply the property of their husbands, who served a specific role as wives and mothers and devoted themselves solely to those around them at their own expense. Later in the novel, it is apparent that Adèle still views a woman’s life in terms of the service she performs for her family and society. When she suspects Edna of having an affair with Alcée Arobin she reminds Edna of her duty to her children. Having just given birth to another child, Adèle still represents the ideal Victorian woman, whereas Edna ignores her responsibilities to husband and children, seeking freedom up until, or perhaps even through, her death.
Although he remains away in Mexico for much of Edna’s awakening, Robert Lebrun plays an invaluable role in its beginning and end. His flirtations, along with Adèle’s freedom of expression, inspire Edna to forget her reserve and to begin revealing herself to others. For several summers, Robert has devoted himself to women at Grand Isle, showering them with affections rooted in admiration but lacking serious intent. Although notoriously ruled by his passions and impulses, he nevertheless cannot forget the societal conventions that both allow and limit his actions. Unlike the Creole women who play along with his flirtations, enjoying the company and attention, Edna is swept away by Robert’s devotion. She sees in him a promise of the love and excitement that have been missing from her life since she married Léonce. Although he never consummates their relationship physically, Robert’s tender treatment of Edna proves that his love for her extends beyond the superficial adoration he is used to showing his female companions. When Robert recognizes the intensity of his feelings for Edna, he decides to go to Mexico because he cannot bear to be near Edna and know that he may never act on his love.
Robert’s courtship of Edna on Grand Isle perches precariously on the boundary between innocence and misconduct, suggesting that defiance and daring may lie beneath his reputation as a harmless flirt. Robert’s sudden return from Mexico and his unrealistic plan to request that Léonce set Edna free so that Robert may make her his wife manifest a bolder side to Robert’s nature. However, Robert pragmatically recognizes the difference between daydream and reality. When he returns to New Orleans, he accepts the impossibility of his intentions, and he ignores Edna’s claims of independence and self-ownership. Despite his sincere love and urgent lust, Robert cannot, as Edna has, escape from or ignore the rules of society. The note he leaves when he flees her house sums up for Edna the unjust, unchangeable state of the world around her. Robert’s ultimate fidelity to convention and society solidifies her disappointment with life and with the role she is expected to play. While Edna despairs over Robert’s rejection of her, her suicide is not a response to her disappointment but rather to the final awakening that it affords her. When even Robert, whose love matches the sincerity and desperation of her own, will not trespass the boundaries of societal convention, Edna acknowledges the profundity of her solitude.