In short, 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. This may seem like a ponderous weight of wisdom to descend upon the soul of a young woman of twenty-eight—perhaps more wisdom than the Holy Ghost is usually pleased to vouchsafe to any woman.
But the beginning of things, of a world especially, is necessarily vague, tangled, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing. How few of us ever emerge from such beginning! How many souls perish in its tumult!
The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation.
The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.
These lines from Chapter VI describe the beginning of Edna’s process of awakening. Most of the concepts explored in the novel are mentioned in this passage: independence and solitude, self-discovery, intellectual maturation, and sexual desire and fulfillment. With the remark, “How few of us ever emerge from such beginning!” the narrator points out that Edna is unique in her willingness to embark upon her quest for autonomy, fulfillment, and self-discovery. Certainly, each new character that appears in the book only serves to highlight Edna’s uniqueness. The narrator’s subsequent remark, “How many souls perish in [the beginning’s] tumult!” foreshadows the turmoil that will result from Edna’s growing awareness. It seems to suggest that from the moment her awakening begins, Edna is marked for death. Additionally, the mention of the sea’s sensual and inviting voice presages Edna’s eventual suicide. The line that begins, “The voice of the sea . . .” is repeated almost verbatim just before Edna’s death.
She perceived that her will had blazed up, stubborn and resistant. She could not at that moment have done other than denied and resisted. She wondered if her husband had ever spoken to her like that before, and if she had submitted to his command. Of course she had; she remembered that she had. But she could not realize why or how she should have yielded, feeling as she then did.
This passage is from Chapter XI of the novel. Edna has just returned from her catalytic first swim and is lying in the porch hammock, refusing her husband’s entreaties to come inside to bed. For the first time in her life, Edna does not, out of habit, yield to Léonce’s command. Rather, she speaks against his control and does as she wishes. The narrator highlights the fact that, as Edna’s thoughts and emotions begin to change, she also becomes more self-aware and begins to analyze her former behavior. Her distance from her former self is emphasized by her inability to reconnect to her former mindset; although Edna remembers having submitted to her husband’s authority in the past, she cannot re-create the logic that would have led her to do such a thing, and her own past behavior seems alien and incomprehensible.
“How many years have I slept?” she inquired. “The whole island seems changed. A new race of beings must have sprung up, leaving only you and me as past relics. How many ages ago did Madame Antoine and Tonie die? And when did our people from Grand Isle disappear from the earth?”
These lines, which Edna speaks in Chapter XIII, reflect her desire to be isolated with Robert and, thus, free from the restrictions of the society that surrounds them. At the same time, her fantasy that she and Robert have already been left alone as “past relics” evidences the way that her new self-awareness has separated her—dangerously—from reality. Mentally, Edna is already living in her own isolated, island-like, mythical world. She has not yet fully acknowledged her feelings for Robert, nor does she understand the effect that her love for him will have on her life in the real world. Indeed, the conditions that Edna describes in this daydream are the only ones in which a relationship between Edna and Robert would be possible. As long as they live within society, their love is unable to overcome social convention and tradition.
The pigeon-house pleased her. It at once assumed the intimate character of a home, while she herself invested it with a charm which it reflected like a warm glow. There was with her a feeling of having descended in the social scale, with a corresponding sense of having risen in the spiritual. Every step which she took toward relieving herself from obligations added to her strength and expansion as an individual. She began to look with her own eyes; to see and to apprehend the deeper undercurrents of life. No longer was she content to “feed upon opinion” when her own soul had invited her.
These lines, which are found in Chapter XXXII, chart Edna’s growing independence. In part, Edna’s strength comes from her rejection of her social role. Her new house is more modest, and its small size disallows the entertaining that was such a part of her former life. Consequently, Edna believes that independence and social rank form an inverse relationship; she has “descended in the social scale,” but she has “risen in the spiritual.” Ignoring the expectations of those around allows her to act in accordance to her own impulses and opinions.
Edna’s association of strength and individual expansion with a total rupture from society seems somewhat erroneous. Ultimately, Edna defines herself according to her ability to disregard, rather than interact with, others. Her belief that independence and integration within society are diametrically opposed may underlie her tragic death at the end of the book because Edna leads herself to a profound solitude just at the moment when her sense of self is most acute. Perhaps, however, the society in which Edna lives does not allow her to integrate herself and remain independent. Because her society denies women the ability to think and act as individuals, a woman who asserts her own, differing set of hopes and dreams may end in an all-or-nothing bind.
“The years that are gone seem like dreams—if one might go on sleeping and dreaming—but to wake up and find—oh! well! Perhaps it is better to wake up after all, even to suffer, rather than to remain a dupe to illusions all one’s life.”
This quotation, drawn from a conversation Edna has with Doctor Mandelet in Chapter XXXVIII, may be considered the overarching message, or “moral,” of The Awakening. Even though Edna’s awakening leads her to suffer from the wisdom and self-awareness it affords her, the year of joy and understanding that accompanies this suffering is worth more to Edna than a lifetime of the semi-conscious submission that defined her former existence. According to Edna, to live with self-awareness, possessed and controlled only by one’s own soul, offers an existence far richer than a life lived according to the restricting “illusions” that are imposed by the expectations of others.