The Awakening

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Women’s Rights, Femininity, and Motherhood 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.
Women’s Rights, Femininity, and Motherhood Theme Icon

In the social world of New Orleans, femininity was controlled and defined with severity. At every stage of life, a young woman faced myriad rules and prescriptions; a little girl should be A, a teenage girl should be B, an engaged woman C, a young married woman D, a mother E, a widow F, and on and on and on. In 19th century America, when the women’s rights movement was still quite new, conservative states like Louisiana granted women very few rights. Women could not vote, hold property, or (in most cases) file for divorce. And, in addition, there was a social world of more intangible restrictions: women should not be too warm or too cold, should not expose themselves to sun or to wind, should fear dirt, physical exertion, violence, vice, confusion and darkness of every kind; women should desire marriage above all else, but they should merely tolerate sex; the list seems never-ending.

In the early chapters of the novel, it becomes apparent to Edna that society considers her a possession of her husband’s and a willing, even happy, slave to her children. As the ocean and her realization of her desires through her budding love for Robert grow within her, she rejects these roles. She begins to notice some of the more intangible rules, as well. She distinguishes between two models of femininity: externalized femininity, where nothing is hidden, which is characterized by perfection, delicacy, purity; and internalized femininity, which is thoughtful, strong, contradictory, and chaotic.

The eccentric Mademoiselle Reisz is an outlier to this model, because in society’s eyes her spinsterhood strips her of her femininity. By the end of the novel Edna comes to doubt the harsh, moralizing oppositions of Victorian femininity. She is neither exposed nor hidden, neither shy nor outgoing, neither dirty nor clean, neither bad nor good; like Mademoiselle Reisz, she sees herself as existing outside the roles society has defined for her. And, as an outsider, she sees no role or world for herself.

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Women’s Rights, Femininity, and Motherhood Quotes in The Awakening

Below you will find the important quotes in The Awakening related to the theme of Women’s Rights, Femininity, and Motherhood.
Chapter 1 Quotes

“You are burnt beyond recognition,” he added, looking at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage.

Related Characters: Léonce Pontellier (speaker), Edna Pontellier
Page Number: 2
Explanation and Analysis:

Having just returned from a morning at the beach, Edna is met by her husband, who complains that she has let herself get sunburnt. Léonce is not worried about any physical discomfort on Edna's part; rather, he views her as a piece of "property" which he wishes to keep safe and undamaged. Rather than viewing his wife as a person with an independent mind and will, he instead sees her as nothing more than an object. 

From its very beginning, then, The Awakening makes it clear how tethered and claustrophobic Edna's life is. She cannot even spend time out in the sun without being chastised and scolded by her husband. Rather than caring about her inner life, Edna's partner is only concerned with her outward appearance, showing that she is not expected to have desires, values, or beliefs of her own. 

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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. 

Chapter 4 Quotes

They were women who idolized their children, worshipped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels.

Related Characters: Adèle Ratignolle
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator begins to contrast Edna's lack of motherliness with many of the other women on the island—chief among them, her friend Adèle Ratignolle. While Edna's role as wife and mother does not quite fit her, women like Adèle seem perfectly suited to the task. Indeed, in serving their husbands and their children, they feel themselves blessed, even as they erase themselves as "individuals" and instead become selfless "angels."

It is with a fair amount of sarcasm that the narrator describes these perfect wives and mothers. The idea of destroying oneself as an individual is a horrifying one, and yet these figures view it as a "holy privilege." Although Léonce may wish that his wife were more like these women, readers can clearly see how deluded they are, and how impoverished are their lives. At the same time, however, society esteems these women as paragons of virtue, and the height of femininity. They are content and comfortable, while the more self-aware Edna is increasingly tortured. 

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

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 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 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. 

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 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." 

It was the first kiss of her life to which her nature had really responded. It was a flaming torch that kindled desire.

Related Characters: Edna Pontellier, Alcée Arobin
Page Number: 83
Explanation and Analysis:

After a long period of flirtation, Edna and Alcée Arobin, an infamous seducer of married women, finally kiss. As they do so, the narrator relates that it was "the first kiss" of Edna's life "to which her nature had really responded." Readers can infer that Edna has never before kissed a man she was really attracted to, or experienced desire for someone who wanted her in turn.

Edna's spiritual awakening has now become sexual. For the first time, she now knows what it is to want and be wanted--her frozen mental and physical state has melted entirely. The narrator extends this metaphor, explaining that the kiss Edna experiences is "a flaming torch that kindled desire."

After years of resigning herself to marital relations with a husband to whom she was not attracted, this kiss is revelatory for Edna. It teaches her what actual physical desire feels like, and makes her understand what she has been missing up until now. 

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. 

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.