In short, 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. This may seem like a ponderous weight of wisdom to descend upon the soul of a young woman of twenty-eight—perhaps more wisdom than the Holy Ghost is usually pleased to vouchsafe to any woman. (Chopin, 34)
The complexity of womanhood, identity, and autonomy are explored with great nuance throughout Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. Edna Pontellier is introduced at a point in her life that feels at once like the brink of a fresh start and the edge of a tragic unraveling. Throughout the first chapters of the novel, we see Edna begin to attempt to form an image of herself on her own terms without the use of the societal roles she fills in her community as a basis for it. Edna, like the majority of women in her class during the Victorian era, is expected to devote her time and energy chiefly to other people. In their view, she is not a dynamic human with full control over her destiny but a cog in a machine that should try its best not to disrupt what they view as the natural order of things. Edna’s awakening begins when she chooses to disrupt and that disruption begins as a mental one. She begins resisting the things that are expected of her while simultaneously becoming more sensitive to her own feelings and experiences as well as attuned to the world around her. Edna is shown from the very beginning of the book to have a rich interior life that goes unnoticed by those presumed to be the closest to her. Even Robert, with whom she shares a seemingly rare connection, cannot seem to grasp the depth to which she is beginning to analyze her precarious station in life. Chopin writes Edna’s innermost thoughts with a care that belies a young woman who, although accustomed to hiding her thoughts, is beginning to understand the ways in which she shouldn’t have to conceal and suppress such vital aspects of herself in order to appease those around her.