She begins to feel an attraction toward Robert Lebrun, and this becomes the catalyst for her internal struggle between conventionality and instinct. It is unthinkable for Edna, a married woman, to become involved with Robert. Her duty is to her husband and children. Her attraction for Robert, however, is too strong to allow her to simply dismiss him. She begins to contemplate the unthinkable, and thus begins the struggle between the conventions of her world and her new-found instincts. Her rebellion against conventionality does not end with her feeling for Robert, however, but spills over into other facets of her life. Thus Robert becomes the means through which her internal struggle is born and realized. Unlike James, Chopin portrays her theme mostly through the use of symbolism.
Although her choice of words is sometimes startlingly insightful, it is through the wealth of representative symbols and images in The Awakening that Chopin examines and reveals her theme. The first such symbols we encounter are Edna’s wedding rings. They are at this point symbolic not only of her conventionality, but also of her ignorance that she is trapped by convention. In the first chapter, Edna returns from a swim with Robert, her would-be lover, to the cottage where her husband Leonce sits reading the Saturday newspaper. She had given her rings to him to hold for her. Upon returning, She silently reached out to him, and he, understanding, took the rings from his vest pocket and dropped them into her open palm. She slipped them upon her fingers. In other words, she blindly accepts a return to the conventions of marriage and patriarchy which bind her, perhaps even welcoming their long-known comfort. Her instincts have not yet surfaced.
Later that night Leonce returns from a night at the local club. Upset that his wife seems to evince little interest in his conversation, he upbraids her for the lack of attention she displays towards him and the children. His conventional male sense of superiority cannot stand to be slighted, and so he seeks to reestablish his authority by scolding her. Edna realizes this on an instinctive level and, upset, she begins to cry. Her instincts have not been awakened, precisely, but she experiences a deep dissatisfaction with the conventions that motivate Leonce’s rebuke. It is a vague dissatisfaction, one she does not as yet understand sufficiently to articulate, even to herself.
Chopin explains that An indescribable oppression, which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar part of her consciousness, filled her whole being with a vague anguish (49). At this point she has begun to feel the oppression of the conventional world, but her instincts have not yet led her to rebel against them. A third series of references in the opening chapters symbolizes Edna’s conventionality. These are associated with Edna’s reluctance to openly acknowledge her own sexuality. We are told that the Creoles’ freedom of expression was at first incomprehensible to her, and that Never would Edna Pontellier forget the shock with which she heard Madame Ratignolle relating to old Monsieur Farival the harrowing story of one of her accouchements, withholding no intimate detail.
Similarly, a book of an erotic nature had been going around the summer compound. The others read the book openly, but when it was Edna’s turn She felt moved to read the book in secret and solitude (Ibid). These incidents are symbolic of Edna’s conventionality suppressing her instincts towards free expression and exploration of her own sexuality as a woman. Later in the novel, however, once Edna’s instincts have led her to rebel against the stifling conventions of her patriarchal world, sexual imagery abounds.
On the night of her final dinner party in Leonce’s house, for example, Arobin stays after the others have gone. This entire scene is sensuous. Arobin strokes and caresses Edna, kissing the palm of her hand. By this time she has left conventionality far behind, symbolized here by her willingness to explore a sexual relationship with Arobin. He makes no answer when she bids him good night, except to continue to caress her. He did not say good night until she had become supple to his gentle, seductive entreaties. Further symbolism of Edna’s recently awakened sexuality is seen when she meets Robert at the out of the way cafe she frequents. Before Robert arrives she is stroking the old cat owned by the proprietress, suggestive of auto-eroticism. When Robert enters she pushes the cat away to make room for him. Once Robert is settled comfortably the cat climbs onto his lap, and he stroked her silky fur.
Through the use of the cat as a symbol Chopin is demonstrating Edna’s willingness to follow her own sexual instincts rather than the dictates of convention. There are three major events which symbolize the struggle between conventionality and instinct in Edna Pontellier. All three occur on the same night, and follow directly on the heels of one another. The first occurs when Mademoiselle Reisz plays for the assembled group one Saturday night. Usually, music conjured up images for Edna. One, of a naked man standing alone on the seashore, is described by Chopin to show us that even in her own imagination Edna’s world is governed by patriarchal images.
But tonight is different. No images come to her, But the very passions themselves were aroused within her soul, swaying it, lashing it, as the waves daily beat upon her splendid body. She trembled, she was choking, and the tears blinded her. Edna is no longer bound solely by the patriarchal conventions. She has abandoned her conventionality. Immediately after this Robert proposes a swim, at that mystic hour and under that mystic moon (Ibid). On this night, for the first time, Edna is able to swim on her own, like a child, who of a sudden realizes its powers, and walks for the first time alone. Chopin says She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before (Ibid). And so she does, swimming so far out that for a moment she is afraid that she has gone too far. But she conquers her fears and swims.
Her instincts have rushed in to fill the void left by the absence of convention. Physically and symbolically, she has left the world of patriarchy behind her. The third event happens on Edna’s return from her first swim. Leonce orders her to bed, and she refuses him. She has now completely abandoned her conventionality and the male authority, symbolized by Leonce, that goes with it. She realizes how often she has responded automatically to his commanding tone, But she could not realize why or how she should have yielded to him before (Chopin 78). When she finally goes to bed it is on her own terms, and in her own time. But the struggle to leave conventionality behind and to follow her instincts is not an easy one for Edna. As Mme. Reisz warns her, The artist must possess the courageous soul., the soul that dares and defies.
In the end Edna realizes that she cannot completely abandon the conventions of her world and remain within it. She returns one last time to Grand Isle, for one final swim. On the surface her swim is simply a suicide. It appears that Edna has given up, that she hasn’t the courageous soul of which Mme. Reisz spoke. But symbolically it is much more. It is in fact the final triumph of her instincts over her conventionality. The swim is her final repudiation of the conventions which continue to try to reclaim her. Notice that Chopin never actually tells us that Edna is dead. What she does tell us is that Edna felt like some newborn creature, opening its eyes in a familiar world it had never known (Chopin 175).
The last sentences of the novel describe Edna’s thoughts as nostalgic, fastening on to some of the happier symbols and images of her life. Edna, in fact, is swimming not to her death, but rather towards life, back into her own vision, back into the imaginative openness of her childhood (Sandra M. Gilbert, in Chopin 31). Thus we see the final difference between James’ and Chopin’s portrayal of this theme.
James’ Winterbourne and Chopin’s Edna Pontellier face the same internal struggle between conventionality and instinct. Whereas Winterbourne returns to conventionality, however, Edna leaves it behind her and swims towards a new life, a life where her instincts hold ultimate sway. Yet the theme in both works is similar in one way. For, while the weight of judgement does fall against the ex-patriots in Daisy Miller, we realize that they are not wholly in the wrong, for they do recognize Giovanelli for what he is.
And although we praise Daisy for her refusal to submit to their conventions, we realize that she was not necessarily perfectly correct in ignoring all of the conventions. Similarly, we praise Edna for breaking free from the conventions that a patriarchal society forced upon her. In the end, however, she is forced to leave that world, since she cannot accept any of its conventions. The true theme in both Daisy Miller and The Awakening, then, is not that it is better to flout convention and live by instinct, but that life must necessarily be a synthesis of convention and instinct.