Selfish Edna Pontellier in The Awakening
Could the actions of Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin's novella The Awakening ever be justified? This question could be argued from two different perspectives. The social view of The Awakening would accuse Edna Pontellier of being selfish and unjustified in her actions. Yet, in terms of the story's romanticism, Edna was in many ways an admirable character. She liberated herself from her restraints and achieved nearly all that she desired. Chopin could have written this novel to glorify a woman in revolt against conventions of the period. Yet, since the social standpoint is more factual and straightforward, it is the basis of this paper. Therefore, no, her affairs, treatment of her family and lovers, and suicide were completely unwarranted. She was not denied love or support by any of those close to her. Ultimately Edna Pontellier was simply selfish.
A typically assumed reason for having an affair is that the person's spouse is, in some way, unsatisfactory. Perhaps by their affair, they are searching for a better source of love. This, however, was not a justifiable cause for Edna's adultery. Mr. Pontellier was a loving husband who tried to show his love for Edna in all of the ways he was able. Léonce showered his wife with valuable gifts. His life revolved around money, and he knew no other way to show his wife how much he loved her. He attempted to compensate Mrs. Pontellier materialistically for the lack of emotional support. While this may not be an ideal solution to the problem, it cannot be denied that Mr. Pontellier was trying to diminish the problems between them. Yet, even though it is understandable that she is upset that her husband lacks family skills, getting married was solely Edna's fault. The history of their relationship is far from perfect. Chopin states "her marriage to Léonce Pontellier was purely an accident... He fell in love...and pressed his suit with an earnestness and an ardor which left nothing to be desired. He pleased her; his absolute devotion flattered her" (18). Edna was not fair to him when she married him without loving him. She "grew fond of her husband" (18), but fondness is not a good reason for marriage. One could make the argument that Mr. Pontellier was a domineering, controlling husband who thought of Edna only as a part of his wealth. However, Léonce Pontellier simply did not know how to express his love and concern for Edna, or his family, in any other way. His life is stressful as a result of his job and his endless worrying over his money, and he has little energy to care for his wife and children as well. He tries as hard as he can, but just lacks family and communication skills. Just because Pontellier cannot express his concern directly doesn't mean that he does not find other ways to care for his family. For example, when he is concerned about Edna's welfare, he goes to the doctor and fully obeys his orders. Another illustration of this is when Edna was lying in the hammock after the dinner party. Léonce reacts by telling her "This is more than folly. I can't permit you to stay out there all night. You must come in the house instantly" (31). One could say that here he tries to control his wife. However, he was simply concerned for her welfare and trying to prevent her from falling sick. Perhaps Léonce does consider his wife a part of his property, but it is because he does not know how to esteem things in any other manner.
Edna Pontellier had two young boys, ages four and five. Generally, toddlers of such an age are very attached to their mothers. Yet the Pontellier boys, Raoul and Etienne, were quite the opposite: "If one of the little Pontiller boys took a tumble whilst at play, he was not apt to rush crying to his mother's arms for comfort; he would more likely pick himself up, wipe the water our of his eyes and the sand out of his mouth, and go on playing" (7). The children had good reason not to be too attached to their mother. It is stated directly that, "in short, Mrs. Pontiller was not a mother-woman" (8). As Chopin writes:
She was fond of her children in an uneven, impulsive way. She would sometimes gather them passionately to her heart; she would sometimes forget them. The year before they had spent part of the summer with their grandmother Pontellier in Iberville. Feeling secure regarding their happiness and welfare, she did not miss them except with an occasional intense longing. Their absence was a sort of relief, though she did not admit this, even to herself. It seemed to free her of a responsibility which she had blindly assumed and for which Fate had not fitted her. (18)
Her children are again taken away from her when Mr. Pontellier leaves because their grandmother is concerned that they will simply be forgotten. Edna should have never had children in the first place if she was not willing or able to care for them. She brought two lives into the world only to practically abandon them. Edna is a child herself when it comes to dealing with her boys. When she does not feel like putting up with them, she shoves the children to their nurse. Yet when she is in a loving mood, she gathers them to her and acts like a mother-woman. This is not fair to her children or to others, like their nurse or grandmother, who must act as a substitute mothers when Edna is not in the mood to care. Dolls, not children, would be better off with Edna.
In contrast to her uneven affection for her children, Edna Pontellier and Robert LeBrun were in love with each other. This is evident in many places in the novella, but directly stated during a conversation between Edna and Mademoiselle Reisz concerning Robert's letters. Mademoiselle Reisz tells Edna, "It's because he loves you, poor fool" (80), and asks her, "Are you in love with Robert" (81)? She replies, "Yes" (81). Yet, in the absence of Robert and Léonce, Edna finds another outlet for her passions through Alcée Arobin. Their relationship shows what a weak and self-centered person Edna truly is. She does not love Arobin since her heart is still committed to Robert, but her hormones are committed to Arobin. Edna stays with Arobin until Robert comes home. When she first sees Robert and he does not admit to loving her, she still stays with Arobin, though he is somewhat pushed to the side. She cannot have what she wants, so, instead, she stays with someone who will satisfy her desires. Yet, when Robert admits to loving her, Arobin is completely forgotten and not mentioned again. Her actions with the two men show her true character. Candidly stated, Edna Pontellier, a married woman, cheats on her boyfriend with the man she loves.
The conclusion of The Awakening is a summation of Edna's actions in the rest of the story. Edna's suicide and abandonment her children, husband, and lovers show that she was too self-preoccupied to ever be part of relationships. One of her last thoughts was about Léonce, Raoul, and Etienne. She thought to herself, "They were a part of her life. But they need not have thought that they could posses her, body and soul" (116). She is not concerned about their welfare but rather finds reasons to leave them. Yet, her family was not even her final conscious thought. That was, instead, about Robert; and it too was selfish. She thought "He did not know; he did not understand. He would never understand" (116). Edna thought not about breaking her lover's heart, but instead of how he did not understand her. Alcée Arobin did not even cross her mind. Edna Pontellier abandoned everyone who cared for and depended on her without a thought of their love. Her suicide, just as the rest of her actions throughout the novella, was completely self-centered.
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. New York: Dover, 1993.
Partner sites: Bulldog, Study Spanish in Mexico, and The Great Gatsby