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.
Action and Reflection ThemeTracker
Action and Reflection Quotes in The Awakening
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.
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.
At a very early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life—that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.