Much of the novel’s appeal lies in the themes that Chopin explores, largely one of duality. There is a constant struggle in the story between different ideals and extremes that become apparent through the main character of Edna Pontellier. Ultimately, Edna becomes a victim of duality, as she constantly has to manage between emotional, psychological and literal manifestations of her dual existence.
From the beginning of the story, it’s clear that Edna is in emotional distress. Perhaps the best example of her emotional duality is how she feels towards other people. There are times where she puts up with those who are with her at the summer cottages but she doesn’t necessarily like them or like to be with them. She often finds herself being an outside, listening to music outside or swaying on the hammock by herself. She also questions her relationship with Leonce, her husband. It’s not to say that it’s a love-hate relationship, but more a question of if she loves him or not. Duality again, she has to deal with the fact that there are two sides to her emotions; whether she loves Leonce or not, whether she loves Leonce or Robert and whether Robert loves her at all.
Psychologically, too, Edna has a dual existence. She is often battling between what society expects her to do and what she expects or wants from herself. She decides later on in the story that she doesn’t want to attend certain dinner parties or friends’ houses and she is condemned by her social peers in whispers behind her back for it. But has she done anything wrong? Edna has simply realized that she would much rather live her own free will than what society is forcing upon her. Beyond emotional, Edna more so becomes a victim of this psychological duality because of the pressures that come along with it. While an emotional duality is much more internal, the psychological is one that exists both inside Edna and outside. One of the major themes of the book, in fact, is the slow progression from one of her dual existences to the other; in this case, her progression from someone who lives within the social normality to someone who lives in large part for themselves.
There are also literal manifestations of Edna’s duality, though they largely exist outside of Edna herself. The best example is the tiny cottage she buys and moves into out of her enormous mansion while Leonce and the kids are gone. This is a perfect example of her duality; there’s the house that she bought that is quaint and tiny and that she likes, then there is the mansion that Leonce bought that is large and vast and that he likes. The subtlest literal manifestation of Edna’s duality though comes from Chopin herself. There is a point in the novel in which Chopin shifts the name she refers to Edna as from Mrs. Pontellier. It wasn’t drastic nor was it very noticeable, but it’s a literary technique that Chopin uses quite effectively.
In the end, it’s Edna’s double life and stress of duality that leads to her death. She progresses ever so slowly in the novel from a character repressed by her own expectations as well as society’s expectations. When she manages to finally give these up, she floats away to a vast ocean that is representative of the possibilities of the openness of the mind, presumably to drown.
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. The Heath Anthology of American Literature . 5th Ed . Vols. C, D, & E: 1865-Present. Ed. Paul Lauter. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006. 363-453