“You are burnt beyond recognition,” he added, looking at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of property which has suffered damage.
In the book’s opening chapter, Léonce Pontellier’s words serve to introduce his wife Edna by what he considers to be her essential identity, one of his pristine possessions. In keeping with the typical values of his society, he does not see Edna as her own person but only as a reflection on him. His description of her as “burnt beyond recognition” demonstrates that her value derives from her appearance. His critique also heightens the importance of the change that Edna is on the cusp of undergoing, as she moves from being a possession of her husband to taking an independent identity.
But that night she was like the little tottering, stumbling, clutching child, who of a sudden realizes its powers, and walks for the first time alone, boldly and without over-confidence.
In Chapter X, the narrator recounts that after numerous efforts, Edna finally learns to swim. Her success is compared to that of a young child learning to walk, highlighting that Edna is not a static character. Rather, Edna is at the beginning of an entirely new developmental stage. Just as learning to walk opens the entire world to a child, Edna’s new ability to control her own body empowers her, giving her the confidence to move more independently in her world. She demonstrates this strength immediately, swimming dangerously far from the beach but regaining land under her own power.
That she was seeing with different eyes and making the acquaintance of new conditions in herself that colored and changed her environment, she did not yet suspect.
During her time at Grand Isle, Edna begins to look at the world and her own place within it differently. The narrator explains that at this moment in Edna’s awakening, she does not yet realize that the change comes from within herself, but she still accepts she exists in a new reality. Unlike other people around her, beholden to customs and societal norms, Edna has the courage to try to recreate the world around her in a way more pleasing to her sensibilities. In acknowledging and even pursuing a new standard, Edna shows her capability to transform her identity.
“I suppose this is what you would call unwomanly; but I have got into a habit of expressing myself. It doesn’t matter to me, and you may think me unwomanly if you like.”
Upon her reunion with Robert, Edna makes him uncomfortable when she asks why he ignored her, but she feels no misgivings about speaking so plainly. In her awakened state, she has not just shed her identity as wife but also rejected societal norms dictating appropriate behavior and speech for women. She will do as she pleases without regard to what others might think. In making this choice, Edna has transcended being a wife—thus an extension of her husband—to becoming a wholly realized person who acts upon her own needs, wants, and inclinations.
"To-day it is Arobin; to-morow it will be some one else. It makes no difference to me, it doesn’t matter about Léonce Pontellier—but Raoul and Etienne!”
At the end of the book, Edna reflects on her future actions and how they will impact her children. She decides that occupying the role of mother and wife is unacceptable, but she also understands that her behavior has consequences. While she doesn’t care about the damage to her own status should she take a lover, or for Léonce’s reputation as a deceived husband, she knows that her children will suffer by their connection to her. Thus, Edna heeds Adèle’s plea to “remember the children” and sacrifices her life but not her essential self. She dies in possession of her own body and soul.