The Awakening concerns itself with Edna Pontellier's discovery of self, her emergence into 'personhood' and her rebirth as a self-reliant individual. To do so she eschews the duties that a patriarchal society has thrust upon her. She refuses to have her children be the central focus of her life. She rebukes her husband's attempts to confine her to her "proper and respected role" and instead removes herself from the comfortable household to set up a studio in a small house where she can continue her art and develop her individuality. Edna's development is seen symbolically throughout the book.

As she reflects silently on the shore of the Grand Isle she can't even imagine what it is like to be alone. Early in the book Edna is still engulfed in her role as wife and mother, and looks to these roles for validation. Support from others is not only appreciated, but desperately needed. She pictures solitude as an alien frightening concept, suitable only for men. "Solitude...when she heard it there came before her...the figure of a man standing beside a desolate rock...his attitude was one of hopeless resignation." Edna grows to realize that her life is incomplete. She does not have the freedom that independence can afford. Slowly, with Robert, Madame Ratignolle and Mademoiselle Reisz as her guides she discovers what it is like not to be daughter or wife or mother, but to be thought of only as a woman. She begins her journey.

Mr. Pontellier, her husband, is not receptive to his wife's blossoming individuality and looks upon it as illness. Edna's attitude is changing from one of fearful obedience to dismissal. She ignores her husband's ridicule and threats and simply goes on with her personal renaissance. Edna continues to seek out assistance from the two women she met at the Isle, viewing them as mother figures. She needs some model on which to build her new self, and receives direction from Reisz.

Throughout the novel Edna shies away from men to receive guidance from women. This is a necessary route, as even well-intenentioned men in the novel will, at best, see her struggles as a passing folly, and at worse see her as a horribly impudent and uncaring woman not furfilling her duty, particularly in her attitudes toward her husband and children. The only people to whom Edna can turn, are other women. Only other women are capable of seeing Edna as she truly is, opressed and struggling for her freedom.

The catalyst for Edna's aspirations is Robert. He ignites in Edna a passion not only for the love that she does not feel for her husband, but also a passion to realize her potential. The same potential that lies in the young man. Edna's search for self-actualization is not selfish, it is not an act of decadent self-invovement, nor should it be viewed as a rebellious act against her oppressors. Instead, it is a decisive step to be the person she wishes to be. Edna's search is not symbolic, it is a thing itself.

It is important to keep this in mind because the novel is swept up in symbolism as the plot resolves. Robert returns from his trip abroad to discover Edna as her own person. She is deeply in love with him, and is swept away by her desire for him. Pulled away from her tryst with Robert, she returns to find a note: "I love you. Good-by -- because I love you." Edna, stunned, spends the night alone, awake on the sofa, even as the lamp sputters out. She then goes back to the island, and swims naked far out into the water, drowning.

Why would she drown herself? It's tempting to say that it was a symbolic act, that Edna could not trust herself, and falling in love, would lose her individuality. All the effort she put forth to become her own person is valueless, so she casts herself into the sea. Alternatively, she could see her time at the "pidgeon house" coming to an end, as her husband was returning from New York soon, and she didn't wish to face the unpleasant possiblity of the loss of her current freedom.

However, it is important to note the change in her attitude toward solitude from the beginning of the novel. Edna now thinks that her lifetime trials are "the soul's slavery," she hears the sea as "seductive...inviting the soul to wander in abysses of solitude." She stands, at the end, as her own image of solitude, not frightened, but content and peaceful. She has chosen not to drown in a sea of societal obligations, weighed with chains of tradition, but to approach her own sea, on her own terms, as the water embraces her and she sinks, as a woman alone.