The Awakening is the story of Edna Pontellier’s gradual understanding of herself as an autonomous person with wants and desires, and her struggle to achieve those desires in a world where they are not valued.
First, Edna realizes that her husband sees her as a possession that he has control over, not a person. In the first few chapters, Edna notices a distinct contrast between how Léonce and Robert treat her that causes her to question her marriage. Léonce only pays attention to Edna and the children when it suits him, preferring the company of the men at his gentlemen’s club, yet expecting Edna to offer her full attention when he comes home late. Meanwhile, Robert and Edna have mutually enjoyable conversations, which offer Edna a chance to experience what it’s like for someone to listen to her. When Robert treats her as a person with autonomy, Léonce’s behavior feels all the more stifling. Edna’s newfound awareness culminates in her managing to swim for the first time, signifying her growing sense of autonomy and independence, which ties directly to how Robert has made her feel like a person. Unfortunately, Robert leaves for Mexico, forcing Edna to chase the feeling of freedom that she had when she was with him.
Although Edna has fallen in love with Robert and misses him, her initial forays into exploring her own autonomy back in New Orleans have little to do with romance. Edna begins painting again, a self-expressive act, and neglects the role of society housewife, instead socializing with pariahs like Mademoiselle Reisz and Alcée Arobin. Alcée creates a second awakening in Edna because he teaches her the difference between love and desire. When they first kiss, Edna becomes conscious of her own arousal, and yet understands that love has nothing to do with what she feels. Frustrated by Léonce’s insistence that she has an obligation to perform to social standards because he runs their household, Edna decides to move into the pigeon house, a space she can control. Unfortunately, her experimentation with freedom begins to fail here. Léonce’s letters that claim Edna has moved for a remodel effectively erase her statement of autonomy in the eyes of society. Alcée pushes Edna’s boundaries instead of leaving her when she asks. Worst of all, although Robert returns, he does not appear to believe that Edna can truly leave her husband and start a new life with him.
When Edna returns from visiting Adèle at her sick bed, she sees that Robert has left her. He believes that sparing Edna the scandal of leaving her husband for another man is an act of love. In this sense, Robert chooses what he believes is best for Edna instead of accepting her at her word. Edna’s disappointment that she cannot build the life she dreamed of with Robert compounds when she remembers Adèle’s admonishment to think of her children. Edna realizes that even if she understands her own desires, she has become trapped by her societal role. Her children tether her to this role, forcing her to care for them and to remain subservient to Léonce. The very men who awakened her passion, Robert and Alcée, attempt to make decisions for her. In this spirit, Edna returns to Grand Isle, where she first swam in the sea on her own and discovered her autonomy. The meaning of her suicide remains ambiguous, whether she drowns in defeat in the current of society or joins the freedom of the sea in a kind of ascension and triumph.