The Awakening

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Themes and Colors
Convention and Individuality Theme Icon
Women’s Rights, Femininity, and Motherhood Theme Icon
Realism and Romanticism Theme Icon
Action and Reflection Theme Icon
Freedom and Emptiness Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Awakening, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Action and Reflection Theme Icon

Edna senses a gulf between action and thought, between “the outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions.” She feels more comfortable in the inner life, which she has rediscovered very recently. As she questions her habitual actions, her thoughts often seem separate from her body. Other women in the novel are represented by their hands, which are expressive, which do things. Edna’s central feature is her eyes, which are reflective. She is often looking and observing: her sight is a symptom of her new wakefulness. Action, on the other hand, is often related to artifice—the bustling mothers in the park, the dutiful but bored pianists and dancers at Madame Lebrun’s soirée.

But as Edna becomes more confident in her new identity, her actions express her thoughts and beliefs more faithfully. She abandons many tasks that others expect her to perform, like visiting days and household chores, and spends her time painting and visiting real friends. Her love for Robert, especially, seems to connect the outer and the inner self, but the loss of that love divides them irremediably. After Robert leaves, her love becomes a more generalized desire, and the experience of physical desire without its emotional partner shifts her focus to surfaces once again. By the end of the novel she seems trapped in a strange middle space, a limbo between the inner and the outer life, without the resolve to reenter either.

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Action and Reflection Quotes in The Awakening

Below you will find the important quotes in The Awakening related to the theme of Action and Reflection.
Chapter 2 Quotes

Mrs. Pontellier’s eyes were quick and bright; they were a yellowish brown, about the color of her hair. She had a way of turning them swiftly upon an object and holding them there as if lost in some inward maze of contemplation and thought. … She was rather handsome than beautiful. Her face was captivating by reason of a certain frankness of expression and a contradictory subtle play of features.

Related Characters: Edna Pontellier
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

Although Edna begins the novel hampered and deadened, the narrator still implies that she has an active inner life, describing how when she observes an object, she seems "lost in some inward maze of contemplation and thought." Although the "maze" of her inner life may, at the moment, be unknown to her, Edna clearly possesses hidden depths, however unexplored they may be, and a tendency towards inner reflection. 

Even while providing a hint of Edna's interior state, the narrator also establishes how society sees the main character, noting her eyes, the color of her hair, and the quality of her face. From this description, it is clear to readers that most people value Edna only for her attractiveness. They do not know or care that she has an inner life, instead thinking of her only as a "handsome" and well-mannered woman. 

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Chapter 3 Quotes

An indescribable oppression, which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar part of her consciousness, filled her whole being with a vague anguish. It was like a shadow, like a mist passing across her soul’s summer day.

Related Characters: Edna Pontellier
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:

After an evening with Robert and a scolding from her husband, Edna escapes out onto the porch. Feeling restless without knowing why, she feels "oppression" and "anguish," although she cannot identify the cause. This moment of panic and pain is one of the first pangs of the "awakening" that Edna will experience over the course of the novel. Slowly but surely, she is realizing how confined and claustrophobic her life is. Such thoughts are "unfamiliar" to her because she has suppressed them for her entire life. Yet so strong is the sensation that it soon "fill[s] her whole being." 

This passage is also an example of The Awakening's habit of fusing its narrator with the inner thoughts of its main character (a technique called "free indirect discourse"). Having slipped from recounting external events to describing Edna's internal state, the narrator is able to give readers an inside-out view of the turmoil taking place within the heroine. 

Chapter 6 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Edna Pontellier
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

As Edna marvels at her own contradictory impulses, the narrator describes what is happening within her: she is beginning to understand what it means to be a "human being," and to understand how she must relate to her own inner world, and to the world "about her." 

By using such a simple and generalized term—"human being"—the narrator makes clear how barren and deficient Edna's life has been up until now. Told by society and by her husband that she is an object to be possessed and put to use, Edna has not realized that she is, in fact, a subject entitled to feel selfish and capricious desires. 

This passage also makes clear the two worlds in which Edna lives: the outer, and the inner. At this moment, her relationship to both worlds is changing. As she realizes that she may act as a free and independent agent in the outside world, she has also begun to listen to her inner world, which drives her in impulsive and sometimes contradictory directions. 

Chapter 7 Quotes

At a very early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life—that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions.

Related Characters: Edna Pontellier
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator turns to Edna's childhood, describing how, from "a very early period," she had understood the difference between inner and outer life. Encouraged by society and family to transform herself into the perfect woman, Edna learned to conform, making herself into the person whom all around her wished her to be. 

At the same time, the young Edna understood that she had a life quite apart from her conformist, external existence: an "inward life." Private and entirely interior, this interior consciousness could question the rules and restrictions imposed on her, even as she outwardly followed them. 

With this passage, the narrator makes clear that Edna has always been observant and thoughtful, however much she has tried to suppress her own questioning and discontent. At the same time, readers can also see how terribly divided Edna is. Although she attempts to put on the mask of a dutiful wife and mother, her inner life desires something far different, and questions her conformist behavior and actions. 

The acme of bliss, which would have been marriage with the tragedian, was not for her in this world. As the devoted wife of a man who worshipped her, 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.

Related Characters: Edna Pontellier
Page Number: 18
Explanation and Analysis:

Turning to Edna's girlhood, the narrator describes a series of infatuations, including one with a famous actor. While still passionately in love with this "tragedian," Edna met her current husband, who flattered her with his devotion, and so won her hand. 

In just a few sentences, the narrator describes Edna's quiet, tragic disillusionment: convinced that she will never marry a man whom she truly loves, she chooses instead to marry a man who worships her. She believes that in doing so, she has moved from the realm of fantasy to the realm of reality, and thinks that her actions are moral and correct.

Although Edna's decision to tun her thoughts away from a hopeless crush on a famous actor may seem rational, it hides a tragic truth beneath it. Convinced that her emotions are meaningless and foolish, Edna has become convinced that actually falling in love with someone who loves her is fantasy—the stuff of "romance and dreams." In other words, she does not believe that true partnership can exist, and so has consigned herself to a marriage without love or true understanding, and to a life of dull realism.

Chapter 10 Quotes

A feeling of exultation overtook her, as if some power of significant import had been given her to control the working of her body and her soul. She grew daring and reckless, overestimating her strength. She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before.

Related Characters: Edna Pontellier
Related Symbols: The Sea
Page Number: 27
Explanation and Analysis:

For her entire summer on the island, Edna has been attempting to learn to swim, and to conquer her fear of the ocean. At last, she succeeds—and as she does so, she suddenly feels "exultation." Glorying in her own independence and power, she becomes "daring," wanting to "swim far out" despite the fact that she has never swum before in her life.

So confined and constrained is Edna that even this small moment of freedom—being able to swim by herself—is intoxicating, making her feel invincible and powerful. She has lived such a dependent and suffocating life that something as simple as being able to propel herself through the water takes on a revelatory quality.

In this passage, the narrator makes clear both the necessity and the danger of such freedom. While Edna is abruptly happier than she has ever been, she is in no way used to these feelings, or to making decisions for herself. Instead, she becomes "reckless," completely unused to being able to make her own decisions, or determine her own future. 

Chapter 12 Quotes

She was blindly following whatever impulse moved her, as if she had placed herself in alien hands for direction, and freed her soul from responsibility.

Related Characters: Edna Pontellier
Page Number: 32
Explanation and Analysis:

Having tasted freedom for the first time, Edna now begins to experiment with the sensation. Rather than acting in a responsible and rational manner, she now chooses the reverse, "blindly following" her own impulses and desires, however contradictory or strange they may be. 

Edna is completely unused to freedom. She has spent her marriage doing what her husband says, and spent her entire life doing what society says. As such, she has essentially no experience with self-direction. Now, as she attempts to embrace freedom, she becomes aimless and reckless, so unused is she to making her own decisions or listening to her own inner desires. 

In the midst of awakening, Edna is in a murky and perilous place. Although she has begun to throw off the values of society, she has no values of her own, and so is completely unguided by her own principles and unsure of how to proceed. 

Chapter 23 Quotes

He observed his hostess attentively from under his shaggy brows, and noted a subtle change which had transformed her 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. There was no repression in her glance or gesture. She reminded him of some beautiful, sleek animal waking up in the sun.

Related Characters: Edna Pontellier, Doctor Mandelet
Page Number: 70
Explanation and Analysis:

The doctor who is Léonte's confidante pays a visit to the Pontelliers, and is shocked by the transformation of Edna. While he remembers her as "listless," he now finds her "energetic" and full of life. Unable to understand the change in Edna, he eventually assumes that she must be in love with another man. 

Although the doctor cannot fathom Edna's transformation, readers know its cause. Even the relatively unobservant doctor notices that Edna resembles a "beautiful animal" who is "waking up" because of the sun. The liveliness and energy that the doctor perceives is, in fact, another symptom of Edna's awakening. Having removed herself from societal expectations, and having at last begun to gratify her own wants and desires, it makes sense that Edna should seem more alive than ever. After suppressing herself for years, she has finally begun to live her life more fully. 

Chapter 32 Quotes

There was with her a feeling of having descended in the social scale, with a corresponding sense of having risen in the spiritual. Every step which she took toward relieving herself from obligations added to her strength and expansion as an individual. She began to look with her own eye: to see and apprehend the deeper undercurrents of life.

Related Characters: Edna Pontellier
Page Number: 94
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator relates Edna's feelings about her new house, which is much smaller and less grand than her husband's dwelling. Edna delights in this descent "in the social scale," believing that it will correspond with a rise "in the spiritual" realm. The more she erases the "obligations" of the social world, she believes, the more she will expand "as an individual." 

With every successive step, Edna is removing herself further and further from societal expectations. She started the book as a rich wife and mother; she is now separated from her children and her husband, lives in a small house, and has taken a lover. All of these changes, Edna believes, will help her find her true self, and to observe "the deeper undercurrents of life."

After years of sacrificing her inner life for external appearances, Edna is now doing the reverse. By distancing herself from every convention to which she once conformed, the Edna hopes to finally become her own person. 

Chapter 35 Quotes

She answered her husband with friendly evasiveness, - not with any fixed design to mislead him, only because all sense of reality had gone out of her life; she had abandoned herself to Fate, and awaited the consequences with indifference.

Related Characters: Edna Pontellier, Léonce Pontellier
Page Number: 104
Explanation and Analysis:

Having seen Robert, but not fully reconciled with him, Edna falls into a strange sort of apathy. When she writes a letter to her husband, she does not tell him about her life—not because she wants to "mislead him," but because the goings-on around her do not feel real. Instead, Edna has "abandoned herself to Fate." Her attitude toward her existence, now, is one of "indifference."

After her exultation and joy in her own independence, Edna has now found its dark side: purposelessness. She has no place in society, and does not know whether the man she loves will return her affections. With no experience exerting her own autonomy or pursuing her own desires, Edna does not know how to continue. She has cut herself off from all external expectations, but in so doing, she has removed any sense of connection or meaning from her life. 

Chapter 36 Quotes

It was you who awoke me last summer out of a life-long, stupid dream.

Related Characters: Edna Pontellier (speaker), Robert Lebrun
Page Number: 109
Explanation and Analysis:

Edna attempts to explain her awakening to Robert, stating that spending time with him made her understand that her life until then had been a "stupid dream." Loving Robert, she implies, was the first desire she ever experienced that was for herself, rather than because society told her to want something. This experience of selfish and uncontrollable desire made her realize that, up until this point, she had suppressed her wishes and impulses in favor of others' expectations and beliefs.

Edna also continues the theme of her life as a wife and mother as a kind of "dream." She has moved so far away from her prior personality that she can now hardly view her past experiences as real. She condemns them, too, calling them "stupid," exemplifying just how much contempt and hatred she feels for the person she once was, and the life she once lived.