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.
Convention and Individuality Theme Icon

A person in the middle or high society of 19th century New Orleans lived by intricate systems of social rules. These largely unspoken rules governed minute details of dress and expression, and prescribed certain behaviors for different social roles: mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, virgins and spinsters all measured against their respective Victorian ideals. Of course, every society in every period has created its own unwritten laws; but The Awakening takes place in a society whose rules were particularly stringent. As a young woman, Edna assumes that she must live and die according to these rules, like all the people who surround her.

From an early age, she learns to separate her murky, curious, disobedient inner life from the anonymous outer life—a quality other people perceive as reserve. But sometime during her marriage the inner life goes dark under the weight of convention, and Edna enters a sort of long sleep. Mademoiselle Reisz’s music, Robert’s love, and the strange beauty of the sea startle her awake. Thought, emotion, and will return to her all at once; she examines her various roles as wife, mother, and friend, and finds them all duplicitous and bizarre.

Soon, she learns to ignore convention and to behave according to her idiosyncratic beliefs and impulses. But, as we know, this is much easier said than done. Edna abandons her entire worldview (which, borrowed though it was, had guided her every step) in exchange for—what? When the initial destructive thrill weakens and fades, she finds herself in an emotional wilderness. She is strong enough to denounce and reject a false code, but not quite strong enough to invent a true one. Without it, she is lost—she must live at the mercy of her emotions, which are violent with contradiction. In a way, Chopin’s novel is a cautionary tale: though individuality and inwardness must struggle against convention, one cannot live by inwardness alone.

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Convention and Individuality Quotes in The Awakening

Below you will find the important quotes in The Awakening related to the theme of Convention and Individuality.
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. 

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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 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 17 Quotes

Once she stopped, and taking off her wedding ring, flung it upon the carpet. When she saw it lying there, she stamped her heel upon it, striving to crush it. But the small boot heel did not make an indenture, not a mark upon the little glittering circlet.

Related Characters: Edna Pontellier
Page Number: 52
Explanation and Analysis:

Having fought with her husband about the quality of their dinner and her skill as a housekeeper, Edna grows deeply upset. She feels suffocated by their married life together in New Orleans, yet is unable to escape. Becoming increasingly upset, she approaches something like a tantrum, eventually removing her wedding ring and trying to crush it with her boot; however, she is completely unable to do so.

The symbolism of this passage is clear. Unhappy in her marriage and imprisoned within society's strictures, Edna attempts to destroy the emblem of her marriage: her own wedding ring. She is not strong enough to do so, however, and the ring seems indestructible. Similarly, however much she may struggle for freedom, it is incredibly difficult for Edna to actually escape the role that society has set for her.

This inability to escape has less to do with Edna's lack of strength than with the rigidity of the world around her. In this place and time period, there simply was not room for a woman to be independent, or to have a mind of her own. Edna feels trapped because, in truth, there is simply no place for her new emotions, or for her to seek out a new role for herself. 

Chapter 18 Quotes

The little glimpse of domestic harmony which had been offered her, gave her no regret, no longing. It was not a condition of life which fitted her, and she could see in it but an appalling and hopeless ennui. She was moved by a kind of commiseration for Madame Ratignolle,—a pity for that colorless existence which never uplifted its possessor beyond the region of blind contentment, in which no moment of anguish ever visited her soul, in which she would never have the taste of life’s delirium.

Related Characters: Edna Pontellier, Adèle Ratignolle
Page Number: 56
Explanation and Analysis:

After dining with Adèle Ratignolle and her husband, Edna reflects on how different their domestic tranquility and harmony is from her own unsettled, discontented life. Having observed how Adèle worshiped and deferred to her husband at every turn, Edna realizes that she does not envy her friend, no matter how content she may seem. In fact, she actually pities Adèle, who (she assumes) will never realize the fullness and richness of life.

Having become increasingly aware of her own suffocating circumstances, Edna now feels pity for other women, such as Adèle, who do not perceive the strictures all around them. Although her new condition is a painful and confusing one, Edna reflects that she would rather experience "anguish" and "delirium" rather than return to the "colorless existence" of a woman like Adèle. She is now choosing Romanticism, with all its flaws, over the practical world of Realism.

Chapter 22 Quotes

She won’t go to the marriage. She says a wedding is one of the most lamentable spectacles on earth.

Related Characters: Léonce Pontellier (speaker), Edna Pontellier
Page Number: 66
Explanation and Analysis:

Confused by his wife's new rebellious behavior, Léonce Pontellier consults a doctor. When the other man suggests that he send Edna up to her sister's wedding to be among her own family, Léonce replies that she will not go, as she thinks that weddings are "the most lamentable spectacles on earth."

After years of trying to be a dutiful wife and mother, Edna has hurtled headlong in the other direction. She is now convinced that marriage is an evil institution, because it requires women to give up themselves for their husbands. She pities women such as Adèle and her sister, who are still satisfied with the institution of marriage, because she believes that they simply do not see the terrible truth that she does.

Even as Edna articulates these strong negative feelings towards marriage and men, it is shocking how her husband and the doctor treat her pronouncements. Believing her to be a silly, unstable woman, they do not try to understand why Edna is upset, or what she means. Instead, they simply believe her to be fickle, and reassure themselves that her strange behavior will pass with time. 

Chapter 27 Quotes

“One of these days,” she said, “I’m going to pull myself together for a while and think—try to determine what character of a woman I am; for, candidly, I don’t know. By all the 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.”

Related Characters: Edna Pontellier (speaker)
Page Number: 82
Explanation and Analysis:

Speaking to Alcée Arobin, who will soon become her lover, Edna wonders aloud whether she is a good woman or a bad woman. She reflects that, based on the "codes" of society, she is "devilishly wicked," but adds that she does not feel wicked. 

Edna's inner life has now come into direct conflict with external expectations. By following her own desires, Edna has slowly come to the realization that she does not want to be a wife to her husband, or a mother to her children. Now, in fact, she stands on the cusp of an affair with a notorious seducer of married women.

Yet though society frowns on this behavior, Edna has now behaved so out of malice, ill will, or immorality. Instead, she is simply attempting to escape the strict limitations that society has placed on her, her behavior, and her thoughts. In being true to herself, it is accurate that she has broken those rules—yet both she and readers alike must wonder whether doing so really makes her "wicked." 

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 36 Quotes

You have been a very, very foolish boy, wasting your time dreaming of impossible things when you speak of Mr. Pontellier setting me free! I am no longer one of Mr. Pontellier’s possessions to dispose of or not. I give myself where I choose. If he were to say, ‘Here, Robert, take her and be happy; she is yours,’ I should laugh at you both.

Related Characters: Edna Pontellier (speaker), Robert Lebrun, Léonce Pontellier
Page Number: 108
Explanation and Analysis:

Having finally kissed Edna, Robert explains that he stayed away from her up until now because she was married, and belonged to another man. Edna, however, scoffs at this sentiment. She explains that she is "no longer one of Mr. Pontellier's possessions," and that she may give herself to Robert if she chooses.

This statement truly exemplifies how far Edna has come from the beginning of the book. As the narrative started, Edna quietly accepted the way that her husband treated her like an object. Now, however, she is even laughing at the man she loves, so absurd is the idea of her belonging to her husband.

Even as readers witness how confident Edna is in her autonomy and her freedom, we also begin to sense that Robert might not be as enlightened as our main character. He still thinks of Edna as bound to another man, and does not seem to understand that she now considers herself entirely her own person, responsible to neither her husband nor her children. 

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. 

Chapter 37 Quotes

With an inward agony, with a flaming, outspoken revolt against the ways of Nature, she witnessed the scene of torture.

Related Characters: Edna Pontellier, Adèle Ratignolle
Page Number: 110
Explanation and Analysis:

Edna is summoned to Adéle Ratignolle's bedside, where she watches her friend give birth. As she sees the expectant mother's physical anguish, Edna herself feels an "inward agony." She hates "Nature" for imposing such "torture" on women, and internally "revolt[s]" against a world of such pain and unfairness. 

Traditionally, childbirth and motherhood are considered the pinnacles of a woman's life. In reality, however, natural childbirth is a painful and dangerous process, one that unfairly falls entirely to women. Edna feels an internal sense of disgust and injustice, one that makes her despise Nature for forcing women through such an ordeal.

Edna's inner life has now broken from the entire world. She now hates not only society, but also nature itself, and palpably feels the pain and injustice of being a woman in the world. Her love for Robert remains her one last link to the world around her.