The Awakening by Kate Chopin published 1899 is a dramatic novel which elicits various topics concerning the societal obligations which many of us are confronted with. An obligation in the context of the society of the people in this essay is a requirement which seems completely obligatory from the view of the public, however, is indifferent towards whether it applies to the person themself. It could be constrictive, or deconstructive for the person, as they either align with or misalign with certain conformities. To demonstrate this, is the example of the lead character of this book, Edna Pontellier, who exhibits the struggles, and the blessings, of middle-class life. She pushes against the barriers imposed upon her way of life, forming new ideals and uncovering new lifestyles, ones that fill the void of her suppressed passion. Then the integrity and stability provided by society falls away, and Edna finds herself breached and despondent, now confronting a new set of problems within her moral self, the uncertainty of who she wants to be. Therefore, we see how societal standards provide, yet take away, from our psychological proficiency.
Edna, due to her role as wife of her family, has her duties to maintain the structure and image her family holds. “If it was not a mother’s place to look after children, whose on earth was it?”, (Ch. III) Edna is expected to cater to the satisfactions and demands of her children. “’Why, my dear, I should think you’d understand by this time that people don’t do such things; we’ve got to observe les convenances…’”, (Ch. XVII) where Edna is told she cannot be absent for her in-home day, where neighbours and friends stop by to visit: “do such things”, and that she must follow the regulations of propriety: “observe les convenances”. Her peers do not attempt to interpret how such expectations would not be fair to her, her husband Mr. Pontellier expects her to upkeep the form and function of their family, society would require her to maintain prim and proper relations, to be consistent in her behaviour, to show ‘class’. “’Why?’ asked her companion. ‘Why do you love him when you ought not to?’” (Ch. XXVI) The social expectations afflicted upon Edna are evidently without her input, therefore apply pressure to restrict her character and sense of being.
Such inhibitions to her sense of being, disallowance of her own expression affected Edna on a psychological level. “She could not have told why she was crying. Such experiences as the foregoing were not uncommon in her married life. They seemed never before to have weighed much against the abundance of her husband’s kindness and a uniform devotion which had come to be tacit and self-understood,” (Ch. III). Edna realizes that she severely lacks self-satisfaction and begins seeking spiritual outlets away from her monotonous life, building a new sense of being, “…Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her,” (Ch. IV). Things of freedom, wandering, free of constraint, “The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander…” (Ch. IV). Edna was finding she was opposed against all social constructions, segregations and structures on how to behave. She despises elements of the middle-class life like marriage, “The acme of bliss, which would have been a marriage with the tragedian, was not for her in this world.” (Ch. XXVII) An interesting exposition of Edna’s changes come from chapter seven, showing for one of the few times throughout the novel, the interior thought patterns of Edna, “Mrs. Pontellier was not a woman given to confidences, a characteristic hitherto contrary to her nature. Even as a child she had lived her own small life all within herself,” and “she felt she would take her place with a certain dignity in the world of reality, closing the portals forever behind her upon the realm of romance and dreams.” These quotes are significant, for they tell us in which specifically the changes in personality Edna undergoes. Even as a child, she experienced both sides of her conflict in personality, inhibiting her desires and passions, while holding fantasies of “romance and dreams”. It is possible that Edna truly desired her dreams at a younger age, however she may have been influenced by opinions of figures of society, to want a married “romance”, and dreams “money and respectability”. She would have stymied her true desires for fake longings, and it is arguable of that being responsible for her sense of confinement. Evident is how society causes a deficit in mental health of its subjects, causing internalization of feelings, and loss of sense of meaning.
Edna begins feeling passion again, finding things that speak to her person, doing wonders for her attractiveness, “…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,” (Ch. XXIII). It would seem with following her passions, contradicting society, Edna’s vibrancy of character and appeal to be around grows, showing how being the way she wants worked amazingly for her, and for her health. Unfortunately, where happiness may come from flouting the law, reality still comes crashing down to ruin it. We begin to see how Edna begins feeling the oppression of society, “There was with her a feeling of having descended in the social scale, with a corresponding sense of having risen in the spiritual,” (Ch. XXXII). While having risen in the spiritual sense includes higher senses of happiness, it also involves deeper senses of sadness, of and regret. “It was not despair; but it seemed to her as if life were passing by, leaving its promise broken and unfulfilled,” (Ch. XV). “The present alone was significant; was hers, to torture her as it was doing then with the biting conviction that she had lost that which she had held,” (Ch. XIV) Edna regrets losing the stability, security provided by society, for when following passion, it requires strength, as there are no barriers preventing from being lost, or run over, or veering off in one direction, so to speak. Mme. Reisz, a friend, speaking to Edna said, “’The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth,’” (Ch. XXVII). Although interpretable in multiple ways, this quote coincides with what afflicts Edna, for with following her lust, she came upon the difficulties imposed by being independent from a society that imposes an alternate lifestyle. Edna soars “above” tradition, which is a formidable thing to do, as it involves avoiding being “bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth.”
It is eventually society which ended Edna, for while benefitting from breaking free of her chains, she found that there was naught in her world which she still desired. “There was no one thing in the world that she desired. There was no human being whom she wanted near her except Robert; and she even realized that the day would come when he, too, and the thought of him would melt out of her existence, leaving her alone.” (Ch. XXXIX) She lost her passion, personified by Robert, her long love throughout the novel. A void replaced her passion when she lost her potential of being with Robert, and that I would argue is what strove her to end her life. I am bewildered by how she would decide there is no passion elsewhere to discover, yet countless I regard her decision justified, for in the realm of emotion only figurative ideas can form decisions. The most logical conclusion is to say she found not enough in the world for which allowed her to be the way she desired, “’But I don’t want anything but my own way. That is wanting a good deal, of course, when you have to trample upon the lives, the hearts, the prejudices of others…’” (Ch. XXXVIII). The irony is that before, coinciding with social standards, Edna had felt she was missing an element in her sense of being, same thing after she changed, “Despondency had come upon her there in the wakeful night, and had never lifted,” (Ch. XXXIX). There are perils to both sides, and perhaps both sides lack an element the other side has. It might be, if Edna had persevered and continued to live, she would have pursued a more balanced lifestyle, one allowing expression of her passion while also giving her the foundation society provides.
The conflict of person vs. society is a common trope, not only in stories, but also among us in the real life. What The Awakening may have taught us is that there are benefits to being a stable and ‘respectable’ old-fashioned middle-class style personality, or a rebellious and free-spirited one. We all seek freshness, freedom of expression, yet we take up relationships with those we love, and follow routines. This is indeterminable by external factors, I would say, for the truth of what convenes best to us is found within, therefore makes little sense, and requires time and discovered understanding to eventually be able to answer. Often when we are young, we choose to break free from the society, to live free, without our parents, on the road. Then we return after a while, sit down, get a job, live stationary. This is a common observation, yet is the opposite in Edna’s case, who had spent much of her adulthood without the necessary step of already having explored her will for freedom. I would argue the massive shock of having all this longing to be free thrown at her may have been a bit much for her, for through understanding and following it, she went to the opposite extreme of where she was before, through the severity of her feeling. That is why I regret her death, and wish she would have seen through the extremity, to return perhaps to a place a better emotional stability.
The Awakening elicits many inquisitions on the nature of the human mind, making us wonder how we are influenced by the world we live in, and how that affects how we choose the way we wish to be. The novel gives one of the most in-depth expositions of the cognitive strife involved in breaking from an old way of being, for going ‘free’, like in many stories, showing in detail what type of incentives were required for Edna to break from society, and the influence that had on her. Edna enjoys no longer conforming to society’s expectations, yet by leaving the security of society, she faced the risk of losing her willpower and strength to be different, “’The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings.” Therefore, the benefits of living conservatively, or freely, have their opposites benefits, and it is forever debatable which side is best to follow for anyone, and how we should go about approaching our lives between the two sides.