Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
For Edna Pontellier, the protagonist of The Awakening, independence and isolation are almost inseparable. The expectations of tradition coupled with the limitations of law gave women of the late 1800s very few opportunities for individual expression, not to mention independence. Expected to perform their domestic duties and care for the health and happiness of their families, Victorian women were prevented from seeking the satisfaction of their own wants and needs. During her gradual awakening, Edna discovers her own identity and acknowledges her emotional and sexual desires. Initially, Edna experiences her independence as no more than an emotion. When she swims for the first time, she discovers her own strength, and through her pursuit of her painting she is reminded of the pleasure of individual creation. Yet when Edna begins to verbalize her feelings of independence, she soon meets resistance from the constraints—most notably, her husband—that weigh on her active life. And when she makes the decision to abandon her former lifestyle, Edna realizes that independent ideas cannot always translate into a simultaneously self-sufficient and socially acceptable existence.
Ultimately, the passion that Robert feels for Edna is not strong enough to join the lovers in a true union of minds, since although Robert’s passion is strong enough to make him feel torn between his love and his sense of moral rectitude, it is not strong enough to make him decide in favor of his love. The note Robert leaves for Edna makes clear to Edna the fact that she is ultimately alone in her awakening. Once Robert refuses to trespass the boundaries of societal convention, Edna acknowledges the profundity of her solitude.
Read about the related theme of alienation in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
Edna’s discovery of ways to express herself leads to the revelation of her long-repressed emotions. During her awakening, Edna learns at least three new “languages.” First, she learns the mode of expression of the Creole women on Grand Isle. Despite their chastity, these women speak freely and share their emotions openly. Their frankness initially shocks Edna, but she soon finds it liberating. Edna learns that she can face her emotions and sexuality directly, without fear. Once her Creole friends show her that it is okay to speak and think about one’s own feelings, Edna begins to acknowledge, name, define, and articulate her emotions.
Edna also learns to express herself through art. This lesson occurs in Chapter 9, when Edna hears Mademoiselle Reisz perform on the piano. Whereas previously music had called up images to her mind, the mademoiselle’s piano playing stirs her in a deeper way: “she saw no pictures of solitude, of hope, of longing, or of despair. But the very passions themselves were aroused within her soul, swaying it, lashing it, as the waves daily beat upon her splendid body.” As the music ceases to conjure up images in Edna’s mind, it becomes for Edna a sort of call to something within herself. Additionally, Mademoiselle Reisz has felt that she and Edna have been communicating through the music: noting Edna’s “agitation,” she says that Edna is “the only one” at the party who is “worth playing for.” Once Edna is aware of music’s power to express emotion, she begins to paint as she has never painted before. Painting ceases to be a diversion and becomes instead a form of true expression.
From Robert and Alcée, Edna learns how to express the love and passion she has kept secret for so long. As with her other processes of language-learning, Edna finds that once she learns the “vocabulary” with which to express her needs and desires, she is better able to define them for herself. A pattern emerges—Edna can learn a language from a person but then surpass her teacher’s use of her newfound form of expression. For example, while Adèle teaches her that they can be open with one another, Edna soon wants to apply this frankness to all areas of her life. And although Robert helps to teach her the language of sexuality, she wants to speak this language loudly, as it were, while Robert still feels social pressure to whisper.
As Edna’s ability to express herself grows, the number of people who can understand her newfound languages shrinks. Ultimately, Edna’s suicide is linked to a dearth of people who can truly understand and empathize with her. Especially after Robert’s rejection of her in Chapter 38, Edna is convinced definitively of her essential solitude because the language of convention Robert speaks has become incomprehensible to Edna. Although Robert has taught her the language of sexuality, Edna has become too fluent. In this dilemma, Edna mirrors the parrot in Chapter 1, which speaks French and “a little Spanish” but “also a language which nobody understood, unless it was the mocking-bird. . . .” The mockingbird, which merely whistles inarticulate “fluty notes” with “maddening persistence,” resembles Edna’s friends who seem to understand Edna but do not speak back.
Read about the related theme of communication in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.
Throughout the novel, Edna experiences an unspecified sense of malaise and despondency whose source she is unable to pinpoint. It becomes apparent that she feels trapped, forced into the narrowly defined roles afforded to women; pursuing the self-fulfillment and self-realization she craves only leads to isolation, further exacerbating her depression. By the novel’s end, Edna has discovered that the role she wants—that of an independent women—is incongruous with the world’s expectations, culminating in her suicide.
The Awakening portrays marriage as a trap and a false promise of happiness for unwitting women. In Chapter 7, the narrator describes Edna’s marriage to Léonce as “purely an accident,” indicating that she was thrown toward Léonce by circumstance. In the narrator’s description of Edna and Léonce’s courtship, the narrator mentions Edna falling for various men before she meets Léonce, but at no point does she consider the implications of being a wife, that is, building a household with someone and having children. In this sense, Edna wants love, but because society ties love to marriage, by falling in love she becomes saddled with a lifestyle she has not fully bargained for. As Edna becomes conscious of herself as an individual, she begins seeing Adèle, who is happy in her marriage, as living in “blind contentment,” happy only because she doesn’t know to ask for more.
The marriages within The Awakening depict wives who must subvert their identities and desires in favor of their husbands. For example, Léonce’s first concern when Edna refuses to take visitors is that she may have snubbed one of his business associate’s wives. Edna taking visitors, therefore, is not meant to offer her a social outlet or social advancement, but rather functions as an extension of Léonce’s business. This pattern continues in Adèle’s marriage to Monsieur Ratignolle, whom Creole society considers the ideal couple. Although the narrator states that Adèle and her husband are two halves of a whole, Adèle hangs on Monsieur Ratignolle’s every word, supporting his ideas instead of contributing her own. Monsieur Ratignolle attends Edna’s party on behalf of both himself and Adèle, as if her presence is not necessary. Therefore, although their marriage may be happy, it is a happiness dependent on Adèle shrinking herself, living for her husband and children without consideration of her own needs.
Read more about marriage as a theme in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.