Kate Chopin’s The Awakening has been heralded as a pioneering feminist novel since its publication in 1899. Set in the oppressive environment of the postbellum American South, the plot centres around Edna Pontellier (a respectable young mother and wife) and her struggle to achieve sexual and personal emancipation. Edna is a brilliantly written character, joining the likes of Jane Eyre amongst the heroines of protofeminism. Breaking through the passive role appointed to her by society, Edna not only acknowledges her dreams and desires but also has the strength and courage to act on them. It is, in its most simple form, the story of a woman discovering her own identity independent of her husband and children. It’s also a heart wrenching love story, or almost-love story.
Enter Robert Lebrun.
After a painstaking year of friendship and building sexual tension, Robert and Edna confess their love for each other near the end of the novel. It’s dramatic and passionate and primes the reader for the satisfying resolution of a union. Edna sits on Robert’s porch alone, restless, and decides: to hell with the consequences, she will finally spend the night with him and finally, finally embark on the affair they have both secretly longed for, for so long. She marches into the house ‘with the intoxication of expectancy’ and then—
She finds him gone. The house is empty. Nothing but an eight word note remains: “I love you. Goodbye — because I love you.” (p. 124)
This is so shocking because it occurs at the climax of the novel — right at the moment when Edna and Robert’s romance comes the closest to fulfilment and fruition. The reader feels cheated, the happy ending is snatched away. But why? Initially, I blamed Robert, obviously, him being a man and all. Men! And their flighty non-committal bullshit! And then, oh god, I realised that during the exchange between the two of them confessing their mutual romantic feelings, Edna pretty much tells him flat out that she will never marry him: “I give myself where I choose. If he were to say, ‘Here, Robert, take her and be happy; she is yours.’ I should laugh at you both.” (p.119) Edna admits here that even if Robert is the love of her life, she will never marry him because she does not want to be tied down; she wants to remain a free spirit, untethered by expectations or feelings both from and towards a man. Robert’s decision to leave shortly after hearing this is because he knows that he will never have Edna, at least not in the way he really wants — not only because of societal expectations (her being a married woman and mother), but also because she will never give herself fully (“Edna had once told Madame Ratignolle that she would never sacrifice herself (…) for anyone.”) (p.53).
Edna will never belong to anyone other than herself. Robert ultimately knows this, I think; knows that his dreams of marriage and a family would only serve to limit and restrict her independence, her growing interests, passions, and desires to explore and experience and break free from oppressive social constraints. He can’t bring himself to dim or deaden her dreams, or to deprive her of the kind of life she she wants, so he leaves. At the height of her self-actualisation, he leaves. He loves her in this moment—infinitely—for who she is, for who she wants to be; but he knows all too well: that by not wanting to be anyone’s anything, she will never be his, either.
Ugh. I love this book.