The Awakening

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Freedom and Emptiness Theme Analysis

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.
Freedom and Emptiness Theme Icon

Freedom, for Edna, is release from the binding rules and stereotypes of convention, which the narrator compares to an ill-fitting garment. Freedom, for her, is also disengagement from obligation of any kind, including obligations to her husband and children. This desire for radical freedom is what is behind her obsession with the sea, a place of complete solitude and emptiness. As she loses her desire for a connection to others, she gets the sense that the people around her are “uncanny, half-human beings” in “an alien world.” She feels loosed from her place in the world, as though she is free to be no longer human. Life itself, with its peculiar and humiliating processes, comes to seem like an obligation when she watches her friend give birth.

Over the course of the novel Edna longs more and more deeply for freedom from, a negative liberty, but she has no clear idea of the freedom to, the impulse to seek satisfaction and achievement - perhaps because her small world gives her so few opportunities. In this way, desire for negative freedom becomes a desire for emptiness, for nothingness. Early on in the novel, convention had seemed to Edna like an uncomfortable outer garment; by the end, emotion itself is such a garment. Even her soul is something that another can possess, and she wants to be possessed in no way. When she dies, drowning alone in the sea, she finally feels naked, finally free.

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Freedom and Emptiness Quotes in The Awakening

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

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A thousand emotions have swept through me tonight. I don’t understand half of them… I wonder if I shall ever be stirred again as Mademoiselle Reisz’s playing moved me tonight. I wonder if any night on earth will again be like this one. It is like a night in a dream. The people about me are like some uncanny, half-human beings.

Related Characters: Edna Pontellier (speaker), Mademoiselle Reisz
Page Number: 29
Explanation and Analysis:

Having been deeply moved by Mademoiselle Reisz's piano playing, and then having swum in the ocean by herself for the first time, Edna attempts to explain her emotions to Robert. She is confused, unable to understand the feelings that have "swept" through her. Fearful that she will never feel this way again, she wonders if "any night on earth will again be like this one."

For years, Edna has moved through life like a sleepwalker. She has kept her behavior correct, and her inner thoughts suppressed. However, the music she has heard, her experience in the ocean, and her growing passion for Robert have awakened her. Unused to such powerful sensations as love and freedom, Edna is unable to even identify what exactly she is feeling. So unreal do her experiences and emotions seem to her that she wonders if she is in a "dream."  

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

She felt no interest in anything about her. The street, the children, the fruit vender, the flowers growing there under her eyes, were all part and parcel of an alien world which had suddenly become antagonistic.

Related Characters: Edna Pontellier, Etienne and Raoul Pontellier
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

The day after her tantrum, Edna awakes with a strange discontent and apathy. She is unable to take "interest in anything about her," finding everything that she surveys to be displeasing and "antagonistic." 

As she slowly but surely awakens, Edna's inner and outer worlds are merging. The discontent and anguish that she feels internally has spilled into her outside life, making the world seem harsh, disharmonious, and disgusting.

Of course, the world is indeed unfriendly to Edna's new emotions, and to her desire to be free. Everything around her seems designed to force her back into the role of wife and mother. Newly aware of how claustrophobic and caging her life is, it makes sense that Edna would suddenly view the world around her as "alien." Having never realized before how confining it was, she is now seeing her circumstances with fresh eyes--and she does not like what she sees. Although Edna's awakening may be a necessary one, it is also deeply painful. 

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 19 Quotes

He could see plainly that she was not herself. That is, he could not see that she was becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world.

Related Characters: Edna Pontellier, Léonce Pontellier
Page Number: 57
Explanation and Analysis:

Reflecting on the sudden change in his wife's behavior, Léonce Pontellier concludes that she is "not herself." The narrator reveals, however, what Edna's husband does not understand. By casting off her masks of dutiful wife and mother, Edna is in fact "becoming herself." The narrator describes the process, relating that the main character is removing the "fictitious self" with which all people represent themselves "before the world." 

By wittily turning a common phrase—"not herself"—on its head, the narrator makes a crucial point. Although Edna's behavior may seem strange and off-putting to those who know her, she is actually (for the first time) being true to her own desires, and uniting her inner with her outer self. 

From here, the narrator broadens out. This type of automatic deception is not unique to Edna. Rather, all people clothe themselves in a "fictitious self" when they go out into the world. What makes Edna unique, rather, is that she is doing away with the dishonest mask that most people wear unconsciously. 

There were days when she was unhappy, she did not know why —when it did not seem worth while to be glad or sorry, to be alive or dead; when life appeared to her like a grotesque pandemonium and humanity like worms struggling blindly toward inevitable annihilation. She could not work on such a day.

Related Characters: Edna Pontellier
Page Number: 58
Explanation and Analysis:

As Edna begins to free herself from the restraints of her life as a wife and mother, her emotions remain in turmoil. Although she neglects the household, choosing instead to paint, she does not always feel happy, longing for her summer with Robert, and indeed falling into depression. During these times (which are described with a surprisingly modern accuracy), she does not even care whether she is dead or alive, thinking life itself to be "a grotesque pandemonium."

Although Edna increasingly neglects the obligations and strictures that made her miserable, her life still has no purpose. Having never before made her own decisions or chosen her own pursuits, she now wonders whether her existence has any meaning at all. The freedom that she sought has led to anxiety and emptiness. Although she is no longer forced into roles that do not fit her, no new employment or sense of fulfillment rises to take their place. Without her jobs as wife and mother, Edna has become a woman without a place, and without an identity. 

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 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 30 Quotes

But as she sat there amid her guests, she felt the old ennui overtake her; the hopelessness which so often assailed her, which came upon her like an obsession, like something extraneous, independent of volition. … There came over her the acute longing which always summoned into her spiritual vision the presence of the beloved one.

Related Characters: Edna Pontellier
Page Number: 89
Explanation and Analysis:

In order to celebrate moving out of her husband's house, Edna throws herself a glamorous party for her twenty-ninth birthday. Yet though she plays the glamorous and charming hostess, Edna is unhappy. She feels "hopelessness" assail her, and longs to be with Robert, the man she loves and has lost. 

Despite having removed herself from the boundaries of societal norms, Edna remains dissatisfied. She has no purpose in her life, and no one to love. Alcée Arobin has ignited her sexual desire, but she does not feel any emotional attachment to him. Although Edna may be freer than she was before, she still does not have the love of the man she truly wants.

This passage also provides an excellent example of the boundaries of the internal and external. On the outside, Edna is all ease and grace, making her guests feel comfortable at her strange gathering. On the inside, she is full of anguish and discontent, longing for someone who is not present. 

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

I always feel so sorry for women who don’t like to walk; they miss so much—so many rare little glimpses of life; and we women learn so little of life on the whole.

Related Characters: Edna Pontellier (speaker)
Page Number: 106
Explanation and Analysis:

Attempting to make innocent conversation with Robert, Edna observes that she pities "women who don't like to walk," because it is one of the few ways that women can learn about life. After all, she comments, "we women learn so little of life on the whole."

This offhand comment shows how disillusioned Edna has truly become, and how distant she feels from all of humanity. She envies men for their freedom, and pities women for their ignorance, believing that only she can see how false and empty their lives really are. Her statement about how "little" women learn is a reference to how confined women's lives are, and how sheltered (and imprisoned) they are by societal expectations imposed on them by men. 

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. 

Chapter 39 Quotes

There was no one thing in the world that she desired. There was no human being whom she wanted near her except Robert; and she even realized that the day would come when he, too, and the thought of him would melt out of her existence, leaving her alone. The children appeared before her like antagonists who had overcome her; who had overpowered and sought to drag her into the soul’s slavery for the rest of her days. But she knew a way to elude them.

Related Characters: Edna Pontellier, Robert Lebrun, Etienne and Raoul Pontellier
Related Symbols: The Sea
Page Number: 115
Explanation and Analysis:

Despairing and alone, abandoned by Robert and unwilling to return to her family, Edna swims out to sea, where she will soon die. As she comes to her decision, she thinks about Robert—her final link to the world—and realizes that one day she will forget even him. Remembering her children and her love for them, she realizes that returning to them would "drag" her back into a "slavery" to them.

At this moment, Edna truly believes that she has no remaining human connections, and no other choice. She does not love her husband; the man she loves has left her; and although she loves her children, resuming her role as a mother would mean erasing the new self that she has found. Confronted with either eternal emptiness or unending obligation, Edna instead chooses the ultimate freedom: death. In so doing, she will escape the aimless, free life that she has led, while also "elud[ing]" a life spent in devotion to others. 

By presenting these equally hopeless options, the narrator makes clear how the society in which Edna exists has, essentially, killed her. It has made her equally unable to be free and to be tethered. Detached as she is from humanity, and empty as her life is without her lover or her children, she has no other option but to die.