The Awakening confronts religion and the significance of the religious institution in western society in a variety of ways. Adele Ratignolle is a Madonna figure or as Chopin words it “mother woman”, that is entirely devoted to her children. Like the Madonna, she radiates purity and is a perfect mother. A standard protagonist Edna Pontellier cannot dream of achieving.
Adele serves as a foil to Edna-but does that mean Edna is Mary Magdalene? As are most works by Chopin, not everything is black and white.
Women’s roles and expectations in society are a central theme of The Awakening. The novel chronicles the spiritual, intellectual, and sexual awakening of Edna Pontellier, a late 19th century housewife to the wealthy Léonce Pontellier. She begins to emancipate herself from the chains of society and her role as both a wife and a mother.
If women are to be truly equal to men- why must they play one of two roles. Often women are divided into the two Marys as I would call it. The Virgin or the Magdalene. The mother or the temptress. In a more modern expression, “The woman you marry and the woman you fuck.” While men have the opportunity to explore all the bounds of their character, traditionally women have been restricted to this binary of either being pure virgins or evil temptresses.
Edna herself wonders which woman she is when she remarks, “I’m going pull myself together- try to determine what character of woman I am; for, candidly I don’t know. By all codes which I am acquainted with, I am a devilishly wicked specimen of the sex. But some way I can’t convince myself that I am. I must think about it.”
She does not speak of herself as a person. Rather a character that was written by someone else. Because of someone else, her personal growth was cut short due to the expectation of marriage and childbearing at a young age. Subsequently, Edna must awaken and undergo the process of self-discovery later in life than in her adolescence, as is the tradition of most bildungsroman.
If Edna is not the motherly saint, then who is she? She is selfish and impulsive, but not necessarily wicked. She expresses no malicious intent; however, she is with sin.
The seven deadly sins are as follows: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth. Throughout the course of her awakening, Edna finds herself committing each sin.
The sin of pride when she assures herself a great artist and decides to abandon her wifely duties. As well as her refusal to put anyone before herself, not even her children. She even admits that she would rather die than give up any part of her identity for her children, mainly because she places no value upon her life.
Greed as she thinks of only herself and does not think of how her actions will impact others. Edna gives into all her impulses, and expects everyone around her to follow her whims, never feeling the need to explain herself.
Lust as she lusts over Alcee Arobin even though she is married to Léonce and in love with Robert Leburn. Since Robert is considered “pure” and “selfless”, their love is never consummated.
Envy whenever Robert ignores her. She was envious that Robert first writes to his mother instead of her not understanding why Robert is hesitant to enter a relationship with her. Envy blinds her to the own where she wanted Robert to be hers and hers alone. This causes the reader to wonder if Edna really does love him or is obsessed with this awakened ideal, he sparked inside of her.
Gluttony occurs more subtly. Edna indulges herself more with things such as alcohol, sweets, and gambling. Gluttony is not just overeating, but rather overindulging. Her overindulging with drinking, eating, and gambling are all examples of gluttony.
Edna’s wrath ensues when she left Léonce, causing the worst possible scandal for not only for herself, but him. She gives him the bill for her secret going away party and antagonizes him for her unhappiness.
Her worst sin perhaps is sloth. Her decision to do nothing and abandon all responsibilities is what ultimately caused her demise. She claimed to have loved Robert but does not seek him. She instead allows other characters to seek her. Her own children are even neglected. Edna explained that she loved her children, but would never give herself up for them, she would only die for them because she placed no value on her life.
Edna heard the tempting call of the ocean and followed it. Her story ends with her suicide by drowning, one of the worst sins. However, is Edna a wicked woman? She only wanted to be free in a world that expected her to be chained. Her husband frequently neglected her and her children, yet Edna is the one who is villainized for doing so. No one in The Awakening is completely innocent. Even the pure and saintly Adele gossiped, and flirted with other men. No human can achieve perfection, yet women are expected to. And they are expected to do so flawlessly. Edna failed to perfect herself into a standard thus her punishment is death. Edna achieves her dream of freedom through death. All these complex contradictions are what makes The Awakening the enduring classic that it is. Edna was not saved or damned, she was simply a woman that dreamed of reaching the sun, and fell in the water to drown.