Selfishness is the opposite of altruism, meaning being concerned excessively or exclusively, for oneself or one’s own advantage, pleasure, or welfare, regardless of others (from Wikipedia). In Kate Chopin’s book “The Awakening”, she tells the story of Edna Pontellier, a young, married lady with two children, who’s life views change completely throughout the summer vacation. The book shows the process character development, spicing it with the obstacles that Edna has to get windward of, arguing the position of women in the society, criticizing established norms towards women and questioning love, and the institute of marriage as a whole. However, to answer the question “is Edna Pontellier selfish?”, we have to look closer, from different angles and perspectives.
My observation starts right on the first pages of the book, where Edna Pontellier is introduced as a happy, married woman. She is at her cottage, talking to a young man called Robert Lebrun, after bathing. The picture of an ideal life where nothing happens is drawn. Yet, one thing in this almost utopian chapter gives away the alarming set of actions that await for the reader:
“You are burnt beyond recognition,” he added, looking at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage.
(Chapter I, pg. 2)
This unhidden message left by the author sets the first concerning thought about the plot. Kate Chopin describes the way Edna’s husband looks at her as if Edna was nothing more than a valuable object, property of Mr. Pontellier, however, Edna does not show any reaction to that. She continues to laugh and enjoy her chat with Robert. Edna is happy and joyful, at least so it seems, despite the way her husband treats her.
However, this illusion is harshly and quickly broken, when Mr. Pontellier repeats this type of behavior straight after, at the start of Chapter 2:
He reproached his wife with her inattention, her habitual neglect of the children. If it was not a mother’s place to look after children, whose on earth was it?… [Mr. Pontellier falls asleep]… She began to cry a little, and wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her peignoir… She could not have told why she was crying. Such experiences as the foregoing were not uncommon in her married life… An indescribable oppression, which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar part of her consciousness, filled her whole being with a vague anguish…
(Chapter III, pg. 6-7)
In this part, Kate Chopin shows what is “behind the scenes” of what at first sight looks like a happy life. Edna is unhappy, even though her husband cares her with kindness and money, he also depresses her with allegations about her suggested carelessness towards children and housekeeping to the point where she cries. Here, there are two ways of looking at the situation. One might say that Edna is being oppressed by her husband, that she does not deserve this kind of treatment and she must stand up for herself, making her the victim. However, someone might also settle with Mr. Pontellier’s position, claiming that while he brings all the money home and pays for all expenses, Edna is weak and irresponsible in the ways of housekeeping, making her the cause of the problem. In my opinion, both sides of the argument are right but need to be combined to achieve the answer. While Edna is affected by the way her husband treats her, she did accept him and marry him, therefore as a responsible human being, should have forethought. However, Edna Pontellier is not responsible at all:
Her marriage to Leonce Pontellier was purely an accident… He fell in love, as men are in the habit of doing, and pressed his suit with an earnestness and an ardor which left nothing to be desired. He pleased her; his absolute devotion flattered her.
(Chapter VII, pg. 21)
As with the children, Robert and all changes she makes, Edna does not think things through, her thoughts are full of emotions, much like a teenager who is trying to sort out their life not knowing what knob and where to tweak. So when Robert shows up, Edna gets a grasp of intoxicating freedom which throws her mind around in her own head. Therefore Edna is the one responsible for the consequences of her actions.
As the story progresses, Edna Pontellier starts building and developing her character, partially thanks to Madame Ratignolle who is portraying a person opposite to Edna and helping her out with life advice and emotional guidance, and Robert Lebrun, who shows her that what Leonce Pontellier has to offer is not everything and she does not have to be a housewife. He caresses her with sweet words and respect, and in the end, she does give up to it. Edna opens up and starts to realize that she is not satisfied with her life, that she is not her husband’s dog to control, and starts making changes. She picks up painting, confronts her husband, and makes some changes around the house. These changes seem to be for the better, she looks to be happier than before:
“How handsome Mrs. Pontellier looked!” said Madame Lebrun to her son.
“Ravishing!” he admitted. “The city atmosphere has improved her. Some way she doesn’t seem like the same woman.”
(Chapter XX, pg. 72)
However, while she is doing so, she forgets about everything else. She moves into a different house, she gives away the children to their grandmother and hosts a big evening for her friends, while her husband pays the bills. So again Edna is in a difficult position in the question of selfishness. She tries to improve her life, but that comes at the expense of her family and relatives. Previously I made a point that Edna is selfish because she acts irresponsibly while being responsible for the consequences of her actions. That point can be applied here as well. Whatever Edna is doing, for the sake of her own happiness or not, her past actions have resulted in a family, children, relationships, and she should forethink what her actions will cost her, as any of them will have an effect on others (including her children), and for any of them, she may be held responsible. However, in the end, she cheats – by killing herself. This is a very sensitive subject that involves more questions that are subjective to each person, such as what is the value of human life? My view on it is that Edna, high on the intoxicating freedom of choice and feelings forgets about all other lives she affects, such as her own children (in the book Edna does admit she would not sacrifice herself for her children though) and makes critical actions.
At this point, some might expect me to conclude calling Edna selfish. Howbeit, I have to acknowledge that Edna’s character is fictional, it has been created and developed by the author to prove a point, which is not to show that Edna is selfish. So the answer to the question really depends on the prism through which we shed the light of this story. If we inspect Edna’s character, her inability to evaluate her own past and forethink her own actions does mean she is selfish. However, if we are ready to let this skip for the sake of authors point, then no, Edna is not selfish.