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.