Analyze Edna’s feelings about her children. How does her relationship with Raoul and Etienne illuminate larger themes in the novel?
Because she rarely thinks about the consequences her actions have on other people, Edna Pontellier resembles a child. Nothing illustrates her childishness more powerfully than the scenes with her own sons, in which she betrays her irresponsibility and self-absorption. Yet Edna is far from alone in her failure to act as a loving, attentive parent: Chopin repeatedly shows us men and women who make little effort to understand their children. By including Edna in this array of bad parents, Chopin suggests that childishness is pandemic and therefore makes it difficult for us to wholly condemn her protagonist.
Several of Chopin’s characters liken Edna’s behavior to the carelessness and unpredictability of a child. “In some way you seem to me like a child,” says Madame Ratignolle. “You seem to act without a certain amount of reflection which is necessary in this life.” The statement—which does not provoke a response from Edna—is a criticism of our protagonist’s habit of accepting late-night visits from a man who is not her husband. Later, Dr. Mandelet refers to Edna as “my dear child” and tells her that she has not awakened to the realities of adult life—particularly, the necessity of self-abnegation and concern for other people. Edna herself admits that her behavior is childish after she has paranoid, jealous feelings about the Mexican woman who made Robert a new pouch. In each case, Edna acts on her own desires without showing empathy for others, and is thus labeled a child.
The label seems most accurate whenever Edna interacts with her own children, as she never shows an interest in what they’re thinking and feeling. An early, painful passage describes Edna in the midst of telling a story; she hopes to calm down Etienne and Raoul before they go to bed. Instead, her story excites the children, makes them more talkative and awake, and they are ultimately puzzled when Edna breaks off mid-sentence, gives a halfhearted promise to finish the next day, and leaves to fret about Robert’s imminent departure for Mexico. Later, Edna betrays her childishness again when she tells Raoul and Etienne about the new apartment she has bought near the Pontellier house. Raoul and Etienne ask sensible questions about whether there will be room for the whole family in this apartment, and Edna murmurs that “the fairies” will take care of all logistical problems. Edna’s willingness to deposit her children at Léonce’s mother’s house for indeterminate stretches of time suggests that she is more concerned with her own entertainment than with her maternal responsibilities.
But in this brave and unnerving novel, Edna’s childish behavior is not unique. With the exception of the Ratignolles, Chopin’s parental characters consistently fail to show empathy toward their sons and daughters. Léonce, for example, spends most of his time conducting business far from his family and sends occasional boxes of bonbons as a reminder of his ostensible paternal love. Madame Lebrun complains about Victor’s aimlessness and bad manners when, as Chopin notes, the aging woman is at least partially to blame for having favored and spoiled Victor throughout his youth. The Colonel bickers with Edna instead of trying to elicit her reasons for skipping her sister’s wedding, then gives up and advises his son-in-law to hit and yell at Edna more frequently. Léonce’s mother ignores the obvious fault lines in the Pontellier marriage so she can have more time with her grandchildren. Throughout The Awakening, Chopin’s characters disappoint their sons and daughters.
By hinting that Edna is not alone in her childishness, Chopin shows that her unlikable protagonist is not simply a villain. The novel frequently encourages us to condemn Edna, since many of the characters comment on her self-absorption and she herself displays this egoism in her conversations with Raoul and Etienne. However, by describing a network of similarly flawed mothers and fathers, Chopin suggests that Edna’s failings are universal. Indeed, the reason the novel unsettles so many readers may be that, in Chopin’s honest portrait of Edna Pontellier, we recognize our own features.