The Awakening is a story about the difficulty of finding love. During a summer holiday at Grand Isle, Edna Pontellier awakens to her own unhappiness and grows aware of needs and urges for a sensual love beyond what she has known in her conventional marriage. Leonce Pontellier, a busy businessman with a big house, a lot of money and a pretty young wife, regards his wife, Edna, as ‘a valuable piece of personal property’ (4). Edna is the selfish type of women who needs attention, and Leonce does not satisfy her. Her dissatisfaction is the beginning of her awakening as Edna strives to find fulfillment. She experiences different types of love throughout the novel as she awakens from the conventional love of Leonce to the sensual love of Robert to the love of Alcee. Despite Edna’s conventional expression of love for her husband and children, her romantic urges represent her true awakening to the meaning of sensual love, an awakening that ironically leads not to fulfillment but to solitude and apparent death.
Edna’s conventional love towards Leonce is expressed in the beginning of the novel when the author states that Edna and Leonce’s marriage was a mistake: “Her marriage to Leonce Pontellier was purely an accident, in this respect resembling many other marriages which masquerade as the decrees of fate” (18). Edna’s feeling towards her marriage is that she “wants more.” Leonce is a busy businessman who does not spend enough time with Edna, which she does not like. She is determined to find more, so she falls into a relationship with Robert.
Edna’s sensual love with Robert is a first step in her awakening. Robert, a Creole who is dramatic and passionate, has a history of flirting with different woman each summer at Grand Isle. When he pays attention to Edna, she is awakened by his charm: ‘Edna felt as if she was being borne away from some anchorage which had held her fast, whose chains had been loosening ‘ had snapped the night before when the mystic spirit was abroad, leaving her free to drift whithersoever she chose to set her sails’ (33). As Edna and Robert’s relationship becomes stronger and more intimate, Robert realizes that he is falling in love with Edna. As Robert is afraid of adultery, he abandons Edna by fleeing to Mexico.
After Robert abandons her, Edna moves closer towards her destructive love with Alcee. She leaves her family and moves into the ‘Pigeon House.’ When she meets Alcee at the horse races, she allows him to take her home and seduce her, the final stage in her awakening to love: ‘It was the first kiss of her life to which her nature had really responded. It was a flaming torch that kindled desire’ (80). By committing adultery, Edna has completely rebelled against her husband Leonce and has broken the rules of Creole society: ‘She felt somewhat like a women who in a moment of passion is betrayed into an act of infidelity, and realizes the significance of the act without being wholly awakened from its glamour’ (74). But Edna has not only violated the Creole codes, she has also broken moral and spiritual rules. Her awakening has led her to an affair with a man whom she does not love, and her realization of this leads her to despair.
In her search for love, Edna Pontellier isolates herself from her friends and her family and her lovers, an isolation that ultimately leads her to a state of total solitude. Edna’s awakening is ironic, leading her not to the enlightened, fulfilling love she seeks, but to a solitary desperation. We all want to love and be loved, even though the search for love can be difficult. The Awakening shows us just how necessary, yet dangerous, that search for love can be.