Les convenances in The Awakening
The accepted conventions and social mores of the turn of the twentieth-century New Orleans, Creole high society in which Edna Pontellier lives and moves. They are those standards of “acceptable” behavior-e.g., acting the role of devoted wife and doting mother; keeping regular hours of receiving visitors to further her husband’s business prospects; conforming to the accepted religious practices of the day-which Edna, as the novel begins, accepts without question, but increasingly comes to rebel against, defy, and, in the end, reject altogether. Les convenances as a phrase occurs but a few times in the text; as a theme, however, les convenances dominate the action. They are the social forces from which Edna must escape in order to discover who she really is . . . in order to become fully “awakened.”
Loss and gain of self in The Awakening
In this novel, Chopin develops the theme of the true self in a paradoxical way: the more Edna loses herself, the more she finds herself. For example, in Chapter X, when Edna has mastered swimming, she is depicted as “reaching out for the unlimited in which to lose herself.” Yet, in so doing, she is taking an important step along the road to her full “awakening.” In conventional Christian thought, a faithful follower of Jesus loses him- or herself by denying the self, subjugating the self to God (e.g., Mark 8:34-35). In The Awakening, however, Edna loses, not her true self, but the self she has adopted for the sake of society (les convenances; see above). She has been subjugating her true self to others her whole life, as she realizes in Chapter XXXIX as she takes her last journey into the ocean. Only when she abandons that “self” does she “awaken” to her true identity.
Isolation in The Awakening
The more Edna isolates herself from others, the more she discovers who she truly is. The novel posits the view that we possess “true selves” distinct from the true selves of other people. Other characters-Mr. Pontellier; Madame Ratignolle-have so adopted the roles assigned to them by les convenances that they have lost themselves in relationships to other people. It may be considered one irony of the novel that Edna only comes to the “awakening” that isolation is necessary for the birth of her true self through a series of reactions to relationships with others, most especially Robert Lebrun. Although Edna repeatedly states a desire to be left alone as the novel progresses, were she to be granted her wish entirely, her “awakening” might not have developed as it did.