In short, Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother-woman. The mother-women seemed to prevail that summer at Grand Isle. It was easy to know them, fluttering about with extended, protecting wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened their precious brood. They were women who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels.
In Chapter IV, the reader learns about Edna, particularly about the deficits in her mothering of her two boys. A mother-woman puts her children and family before all other concerns, negating herself if necessary. Unlike the other wives, Edna is not a mother-woman. This comparison indicates both that something is amiss with Edna and that if she pursues her different path, she will face difficulties.
Edna had had an occasional girl friend, but whether accidentally or not, they seemed to have been all of one type—the self-contained. She never realized that the reserve of her own character had much, perhaps everything, to do with this.
In Chapter VII, Chopin describes Edna as a perennially isolated person, but this solitude is self-imposed. Edna lacks the awareness to understand the cause of her isolation. She feels uncomfortable reaching out to others and likely makes them uncomfortable reaching out to her. Edna only is able to form friendships at Grand Isle, as with Adèle, because Creole women are open and welcoming.
Another time she would have gone in at his request. She would, through habit, have yielded to his desire; not with any sense of submission or obedience to his compelling wishes, but unthinkingly, as we walk, move, sit, stand, go through the daily treadmill of the life which has been portioned out to us.
In Chapter XI, Edna refuses to go inside when her husband bids her to do so, which is a new, daring experience for her. Society has taught Edna not only that she must follow a man’s orders but that she must not ask questions. Her refusal to obey Léonce even in such a small matter signifies her growing awareness that she is entitled to have differing opinions and desires from her husband.
“I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children, but I wouldn’t give myself. I can’t make it more clear; it’s only something which I am beginning to comprehend, which is revealing itself to me.”
In Chapter XVI, Edna and Adèle argue about what a mother owes her children, but the two women can never come to agreement because they lack a common language. When Edna says she won’t give up the “essential,” she means she must always ensure having her own identity apart from being a mother. In Edna’s time, however, motherhood fashions a woman’s identity, so Edna’s words represent rebellious behavior.
She was moved by a kind of commiseration for Madame Ratignolle,—a pity for that colorless existence which had never uplifted its possessor beyond the region of blind contentment, in which no moment of anguish ever visited her soul, in which she would never have the taste of life’s delirium.
Edna has spent the evening with Adèle and her husband but instead of being envious of their close relationship, she looks down upon them. Although Adèle is the perfect wife and mother, this role is not appealing to Edna: Adèle has no identity other than in relation to others, be it her husband, children, or friends. Edna, by contrast, wants to have an identity in her own right, based on her own character.
She began to do as she liked and to feel as she liked. She completely abandoned her Tuesdays at home, and did not return the visits of those who called upon her. She made no ineffectual efforts to conduct her household en bonne menagerie, going and coming as it suited her fancy, and, so far as she was able, lending herself to any passing caprice.
This paragraph, which comes at the beginning of Chapter XIX, marks the beginning of Edna’s journey toward independence. She drops her housewife duties and instead follows her own whims. This course of action involves rebelling against societal conventions and expectations—certain to cause talk in New Orleans—and instead, engaging in whatever she finds interesting and fulfilling. Edna’s behavior is selfish but at the same time self-realizing.
It sometimes entered Mr. Pontellier’s mind to wonder if his wife were not growing a little unbalanced mentally. He could see plainly that she was not herself. That is, he could not see that she was becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world.
Léonce grows increasingly alarmed by Edna’s actions and her refusal to stay within her prescribed roles. Lacking imagination, Léonce can’t conceive of a world in which his wife would be displeased with the life he has provided. As she strays further from her normal behavior, Léonce presumes she is mentally unwell.
He observed his hostess attentively from under shaggy brows, and noted a subtle change which had transformed her from the listless woman he had known into a being who, for the moment, seemed palpitant with the forces of life. Her speech was warm and energetic. There was no repression in her glance or gesture. She reminded him of some beautiful, sleek animal waking up in the sun.
Doctor Mandelet, to whom Léonce has expressed concern over Edna’s health, clearly sees the changes she is undergoing, switching from depressed and detached to vivacious and engaged. He compares her to a beautiful animal coming awake, which highlights that Edna is undergoing a natural, positive transformation. Like a hibernating animal, Edna is waking up to a new world.
“I am no longer one of Mr. Pontellier’s possessions to dispose of or not. I give myself where I choose.”
Edna tells Robert that she is fully in charge of her own actions and behaviors, in short, that she owns herself. This powerful declaration of identity goes against all societal norms, shocking even Robert. Unfortunately for Edna, she will soon discover that no one—save perhaps Mademoiselle Reisz— supports her transformation.
The children appeared before her like little antagonists who had overcome her; who had overpowered and sought to drag her into soul’s slavery for the rest of her days. But she knew a way to elude them.
Edna recognizes the impact her choices have on her sons, but also knows that if she does what is best for them, she will be sacrificing herself. She wants to maintain her own identity and do what she needs to make herself whole. Because she does not want to give up her own “essential” part, she must find another way. Her society provides no healthy option for remaining both a mother and her true self, however, and she chooses suicide.