The Awakening by Kate Chopin was a ground breaking work of fiction at the time, and heroine Edna Pontellier was a controversial character. She shattered a lot of nineteenth-century gender stereotypes and standards. Her rejection of her status as a mother and wife was one of her most surprising behavior. Kate Chopin eventually reveals her rejection, but motherhood is a key theme throughout the book.
Chopin gives Edna two foils to be focused on and compared to, Adele Ratignolle and Mademoiselle Reisz. Adele Ratignolle and Mademoiselle Reisz are what the men in Edna’s life compare her to and from whom they derive their hopes for her. Edna, on the other hand, sees all role models missing and realizes that the existence of independence and autonomy she desires is incompatible with society. Rather than idenifying herself independantly, she is identified by her role as Leonce Pontellier’s wife and mother of Raoul and Etienne Pontellier which cause her to struggle against the social and natural constructs of motherhood. The inevitability of her destiny as a male-defined being drives her to desperation, and she decides to end her life the only way she knows how.
Edna’s awareness of her natural role as a mother and woman, along with the social role she is supposed to play, causes her to commit suicide. “Think of the children, Edna. Oh think of the children! Remember them” (p. 131), Adele says to Edna before leaving the Ratignolle’s the night of the birth. Edna’s conscience is invaded by Adele’s appeal, which becomes the deciding factor in her decision to leave her new life behind. The idea of sharing her body with another person, of becoming genuinely a part of something other than her individual self, is fundamentally opposed to anything Edna has been seeking. Raoul and Etienne will be a persistent presence in her life, she realizes, and her innate position as a mother keeps her from living without them. After all, a woman’s primary responsibility is to raise her children to adulthood, and they, in essence, give meaning to her life. Edna refuses to spend the rest of her life as Raoul and Etienne’s mother, as well as Leonce’s wife.
She understands that doing so would mean sacrificing herself, which she vowed she would never do. “The children appeared before her like antagonists who had overcome her; who had overpowered and sought to drag her soul’s slavery for the rest of her days” (p. 136). Edna refuses to be bound by its natural and social labels, and she commits suicide in order to save it from these constraints. Edna’s embrace of death is a regeneration in itself. Edna’s enlightening summer in Grand Isle has reached nine months, and her fetus-self is about to be delivered. “…and for the time she stood naked in the open air, at the mercy of the sun, the breeze that beat upon her, and the waves that invited her” (p. 136).
Edna accepts her rebirth as a way to relieve the burdens of adulthood. Edna pines for the innocence of children, who are blissfully unaware of the pressures of producing children and their fixed social positions. By encouraging herself to forget her life and immerse herself in death, Edna lets go of the concerns that nature and society put on a woman. Society were the two most powerful forces trying to shape Edna Pontellier into the woman they desired, but Edna is eventually able to break their grip by her suicide. Raoul and Etienne had power over her soul, reminding her endlessly of the torture of childbirth that nature demands of her. Leonce and society owned her soul, telling her to be submissive, to keep home, adore her children, and keep up appearances, but it was Raoul and Etienne who imprisoned her soul. Edna’s passion for identity and self-definition stopped her loving her children and announcing that she would give up nearly anything for them, but her desire for individuality and self-definition led her to her deathly rebirth.