When Edna Pontellier is first described, the narrator says that “She was rather handsome than beautiful” (5). The novel opens with Edna vacationing at Grand Isle with her husband and children. Over the course of the summer there, she experiences the “awakening,” a growing awareness of herself as an individual spirit, apart from her identity as wife, mother and daughter. Recognizing herself as different from the kind of “mother-women” who populate the beach, whose lives are filled with pregnancy and devotion to their children, Edna tries to explain her difference to her friend, Madame Ratignolle, who exemplifies just such a “mother-woman”: “”I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself” (46). It is this enigmatic statement which sets up the rest of the story, as Edna works to uncover just what within herself is this “essential.”
The novel ends with her death, either by accident, or active or passive suicide, depending on the reader’s perspective and understanding of Edna. She returns alone to Grand Isle and swims out too far to return. As she swims, the narrator notes that “she understood now clearly what she had meant long ago when she said to Adèle Ratignolle that she would give up the unessential, but she would never sacrifice herself for her children” (108). At the time of the novel’s release, it was condemned for its amorality: critics said that no woman would behave like this. When I have read this book in classes, students are often critical of her leaving her children behind. Typically, attention is brought to the lack of options which Edna has: although she has a caring, supportive husband who, despite his preoccupation with maintaining duties to society such as regular at-homes, does seem to genuinely desire Edna’s happiness, even in these best of circumstances, her options are quite limited. There does not seem to be a way in which Edna can live a happy life.
Chopin seems to be drawing attention to the illusions with which people surround themselves, in an attempt to believe in their own happiness. Throughout the novel, Edna discards and leaves behinds more and more people, items, and parts of her identity (itself possibly a suicidal characteristic): first in giving up her social obligations, then her move from her stately house on Esplanade for her “pigeon house” down the street, delivering her children to mother-in-law’s in the country, and finally her disrobing on the beach, standing naked by the ocean, which makes her feel “like some new-born creature, opening its eyes in a familiar world that it had never known” (109). Once again, the feeling that Edna is in a world in which she does not belong is evoked.
The story of the championing of the novel is as significant as the novel itself. Upon its release in 1899, critics were appalled at its portrayal of such an amoral woman, and it went out of print. It was not until the 1960s that it was rediscovered by a generation of feminist readers and scholars who championed and celebrated its honest and frank portrayal of both feminine sensuality and crisis. Since then, however, it has become one of the most commonly read novels in higher education.