Power, or the desire for it, is an intoxicating, and at times corrupting concept. Power could mean authority, or freedom: both of which the protagonist in The Awakening by Kate Chopin, Edna Pontellier, longs for. In an ironic twist that seems almost out of place in book that deals with gender power dynamics and the constraints of the Victorian Era, what initially empowers and frees Edna eventually leads to her personal and social undoing, and finally her death at her own hands.
The book opens with Edna as Mrs. Pontellier. She is vacationing on Grand Isle with her husband, Leonce, and their two sons. While Leonce whiles his leisure days away at the club and beach, Edna passes the time with Robert: a man who devotes himself as an “attendant”, or companion, to a different married woman each summer. The summer in which our book begins, Edna is Robert’s chosen target. Leonce is not jealous of Robert’s relationship with his wife, mainly due to his absolute confidence in Edna as his wife: Leonce views her as his possession, and assumes that Robert could no sooner steal her away than he could rob Leonce of his silver. The thought does not cross Leonce’s mind that Edna might fall in love with Robert.
Several factors in the beginning of the book serve to emphasize the power dynamics Edna will go on to rebel against. The first is another of Edna’s companions, Adele (with whom Robert also carried on a relationship at one point). While Edna is shown to favor a casual, laid-back style of parenting, Adele smothers her children with affection. Adele represents the ideal portrait of womanhood in the era in which the book is sent, from the meticulous house she keeps, to her adoration of her children, to her submissiveness and docility towards her husband. Edna does not explicitly resist these hallmarks of womanhood, but her discontent and longing for something more is foreshadowed by the lack of domestic harmony and content in Edna’s life.
Edna’s first “awakening” comes from the ocean. Never having learned how to swim, one night after a party she wades into the ocean and strikes out towards the horizon. In awe of herself and her own physical strength, she wonders at herself never learning before now, admonishing herself for “splashing around like a baby”. This functions as a metaphor that foreshadows Edna’s emotional awakening, that she is done behaving like a child.
Despite the carefree and casual attitude Robert’s relationships are generally regarded with, both by the social circle to which he belongs and by Robert himself, his relationship with Edna quickly spirals into something beyond companionship: as Edna’s days on Grand Isle slide to an end, Edna and Robert find themselves falling in love. Robert senses the disquiet in Edna, the willingness in her to abandon her husband and her life for him. This is not out of pure infatuation, or a whim on Edna’s part: Robert is attentive to her wishes and treats her as a person, rather than as a possession of his, at least while she belongs to someone else. While Edna used to find her husband’s habits endearing, after her time with Robert she feels emotionally unfulfilled with Leonce. The combination of Edna’s discontent with her married life, and her attachment to Robert stir up fear in Robert, and with a genuine belief that Edna might leave her husband for him, he flees on a “vacation” to Mexico. Even with this man who has treated her as an equal for the first time, Edna has her decisions made for her.
On their return to their home in New Orleans, Edna alternates between exhilarating joy and extreme sadness. Her experience with Robert and the state of her relationship with Leonce have left her utterly disillusioned with the customs of social life in her circle, with her neglecting duties such as rejecting visitors. The rejection of this social custom that was once a cornerstone of her life (that serves doubly to allow Edna to socialize, and maintain her husband’s business relationships) could be seen as a grasp for power: by refusing to allow her peers to see her in her current state, and also no longer working to maintain relationships for the sake of her husband, Edna is allowed to exist in whatever state she wishes, without inviting gossip or scandal upon herself. Leonce dismisses Edna’s mental state as a passing phase, and does not concern himself with it. Shortly after, Leonce begins to travel for business and Edna’s children go to stay with their maternal grandmother. With Edna alone for the first time in her life as a married woman, she begins to explore her newfound power.
With finances from her husband, her own winnings from the racetrack, artistic friends, and no husband or children to take her attention away, Edna is in a position of complete power: over herself. Enjoying her freedom immensely, and blaming her husband as the reason she never had it, she seeks to remove all traces of him from her life. She moves out of her house into a much smaller house, refusing to take anything Leonce bought for her. That leaves nothing but a plain housedress, which she happily goes to her new home in. This shows just how desperate Edna is for power, any sort of power: no matter the humiliating conditions it comes under, she wishes to be beholden to no one but herself.
The final phase of Edna’s life, and struggle for power is ushered in by a public rejection of “respectability” she carries on an affair with notorious casanova Alcee, and criticizes the domestic tranquility of Adele’s life. It is here that the desperation for power becomes more evident, Edna no longer pays any mind to the opinion of her husband (who is still attempting to keep up appearances, claiming that their family home is being renovated by a famous architect rather than admitting his wife has effectively left him). Through Edna’s turbulent, emotional awakening there has been a constant dedication: the idea of living happily with Robert. She has romanticized their time together, to the point where almost nothing could live up to her expectations.
Despite the rose colored glasses through which she has been viewing their relationship, she is given an entirely different kind of awakening when she eventually encounters Robert again. He wishes for her to leave her husband and marries him, which shocks Edna. She associates traditional married life, and the subsequent gender power dynamics with her husband. By contrast, Edna associates Robert with the new, liberated way of living she has become accustomed to, and is stunned by Robert’s admission. Rejecting him brutally, she is left reeling by the fact that the relationship she has been envisioning with Robert all this time, the relationship that a majority of the decisions Edna made rested on, will never come. In the end, what freed Edna was what trapped her eternally.
Frustrated and confused, Edna returns to the first place she truly felt as though she had power over her life: the ocean. Swimming to the point of complete physical exhaustion, Edna succumbs to another power for the very last time. She dies beholden to no one, belonging to no one.