The Development of Edna Pontellier’s Character
Characters win the reader’s attention through common grounds of understanding, situation, or personality. Playing the major role, protagonists possess distinguishing characteristics of a complex character. In The Awakening, Kate Chopin develops the protagonist’s appearance through direct and dramatic description, her personality through her reactions, and her role through the relationship with the theme.
The first physical description of Edna Pontellier occurs when her husband’s comments of her sunburn cause her to look at her “strong, shapely” hands (7). Only after lifting her lawn sleeves above the wrist does she remember the rings that she removed, of which one is her wedding ring. Her “quick and bright” eyes closely match her thick, wavy, yellowish brown hair (9). Gazing intently at an object, she often loses herself in an “inward maze of contemplation” (9). Unlike the “faultless Madonna,” Madame Ratignolle, Edna’s physique leans towards the gentle beauty of “poise and movement” (27). Intertwining the physical appearance of the twenty-eight year old protagonist with the development of her personality, Chopin further establishes the role of the character.
Interactions with other characters reveal unique tendencies of Mrs. Pontellier’s personality. The first conflict the reader witnesses between Mrs. Pontellier and her husband presents a sharp disparity with her infatuation with Robert. Her “little interest” in the worries of her husband and disregard for his conversation allows the reader a glimpse of her disloyal heart, married to her husband yet captivated by another man (12). “Tacit and self-understood,” her devotion to her husband contrasts with the faithful women who adore their husbands (14). When her husband informs her that their son burns with fever, Mrs. Pontellier nonchalantly retorts that she is “quite sure” Raoul suffers from no ailment (13). Her failure to see the “use of anticipating” causes her to defer until the “last minute” to prepare for supper (39). Gathering her children “passionately” yet sometimes forgetting them, Edna’s paradoxical nature attempts to embrace both love and negligence. Her whimsical temper causes her to undress, start to dress, and “change her mind” again (73).
The essence of Mrs. Pontellier’s personality enhances the theme that freedom of choice does not nullify responsibility. As she begins to do and feel “as she likes,” she completely denies her marital and maternal duties (95). Learning to swim in the ocean gives her an exaggerated feeling of power over the working of her “body and her soul,” causing her to grow “daring and reckless” (47). She deliberately neglects her children and ignores her husband, yet refuses to face the inevitable repercussion. Her distorted view of her newfound freedom causes her to see the past as an ineffectual instructor that offers “no lesson” she will heed (76). Perhaps if she had attempted to “penetrate” the future and stopped using tomorrow to “think of everything,” she would have foreseen the termination of her relationship with Robert before forsaking her family (185).
Kate Chopin introduces Mrs. Pontellier to the reader’s sense of sight through detailed descriptions of her figure. Direct characterization of the narrator incorporated with the dramatic presentation of actions reveals the personality of Edna’s character. Her naive concept of her freedom to create an identity that excludes duty leads to her tragic end.
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