bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth.’”
“Whither would you soar?” (Gilbert, 138)
Aware of Edna’s inclinations and journey, Mademoiselle Reisz serves as a “refuge” for Edna’s restless soul, meandering over the possibilities and absurdities of existence. (Gilbert, 154) But, alas even Mademoiselle Reisz cannot be responsible for Mrs. Pontellier’s choices and paths on her spiritual quest for self-fulfillment.
The last two stages of Coleman’s model, first relationships and identity integration, are perhaps the least developed in The Awakening as Edna Pontellier’s coming out story. First relationships represent the need for intimacy which is often developed within the context of long-term committed relationships. From a social learning perspective, the goal of first relationships is to understand how one may develop intimate relationships---that combine both emotional depth and sexual desire---in a patriarchal society where the norm is opposite-sex only marriages that are based on the distribution of wealth, the commodification of sexuality, and the disregard of emotive needs. (Coleman, 38)
Edna’s attempts at relationships with men are at best unrequited and at worst superficial. Mr. Pontellier and his marriage to Edna signifies the uncaring, selfish patriarchal dominance of the society in which they lived:
When Mr. Pontellier learned of his wife’s intention to abandon
her home and take up her residence elsewhere, he immediately wrote her a letter of unqualified disapproval and remonstrance. She had given reasons which he was unwilling to acknowledge as adequate. He hoped she had not acted upon her rash impulse; and he begged her to consider first, foremost, and above all else, what people would say. (Gilbert, 150)
Nor were Edna’s relationships with Robert Lebrun or Alcee Arobin any more fulfilling. These failures to find a satisfying, authentic relationship with another, however, were less a reflection on Edna as creative agent, than they were a sign of Victorian society’s inability or unwillingness to dispose of its own puritanical rigidity. The deeply embedded nature of Victorian gender roles and sexual expectations sublimated and doomed genuine, fulfilling relationships based on mutual love, affection, and spiritual solidarity.
What is more important than Edna’s ability or inability to succeed in social relations, however, is her potential to become more than what Victorian society allowed or cared for her to be defined. (Chase, et. al., 814) Coleman asserts that the final stage of coming out, identity integration, incorporates the private, or hidden, self into the public, or role-bound, self. This synthesis facilitates the emergence of a solid, aesthetic, creative, self-defined identity and self-image characterized by non-possessiveness, mutual trust, and freedom. (Coleman, 39)
Coleman, however, also notes that the resolution of the conflict between the public face one allows others to see and the hidden truth of one’s self-identity, as manifested in the pre-coming out stage, ultimately requires resolution. The choices he offers for the resolution of this existential dilemma are these: suicide; hiding one’s true feelings and desires; or, bravely squaring off with the existential crisis of being different and deviating from the prefabricated roles that society demands human beings assume. By acknowledging the universal condition that individual human beings possess differences that enrich being human, individuals challenge the cultural barriers that prevent them from realizing their own authenticity and freedom. (Coleman, 39)Conclusion
Some would argue that Edna Pontellier, in the final analysis, is a weak and inauthentic character because (1.) she presumably commits suicide, and (2.) she faails to create an authentic existence for herself. This conclusion, it seems, is mistaken. Although she does presumably swim to her death in the last scene of The Awakening, and although she does not find authenticity in her relationships with men, these two conclusions perhaps miss the point. Edna Pontellier succeeds in coming out of a meaningless marriage and, as an artist of individuality, asserts her freedom to be something other than she is despite the absurdity of human existence. In doing so she displays an aesthetic of self and personhood that makes her much more genuine and believable than less artfully constructed characters. In the end, Edna is free of the societal restraints that characterized Victorian culture: “She looked into the distance, and the old terror flamed up for an instant, then sank again.”
For Each of You
Be who you are and will be
learn to cherish
that boisterous Black Angel that drives you
up one day and down another
protecting the place where your power rises
running like hot blood
from the same source
as your pain.
When you are hungry
learn to eat
whatever sustains you
but do not be mislead by the details
simply because you live them.
Do not let your head deny
any memory of what passes through them
nor your eyes nor your heart
everything can be used
except what is wasteful
(you will need to remember this
when you are accused of destruction).
Even when they are dangerous
examine the heart of those machines
which you hate
before you discard them
but do not mourn their lack of power
lest you be condemned
to relive them.