Note: Students should bear in mind that the following is not an exhaustive list of the large cast of characters in The Awakening; due to space limitations, only a few of the most significant characters have been considered.
Edna Pontellier: The novel’s protagonist, Edna begins the book fully at home with the mores and conventions (les convenances) of her New Orleans, Creole high society. When she falls in love with young Robert Lebrun, however, during a summer vacation at the resort of Grand Isle, she begins to experience a series of “awakenings,” leading her to understand that she is alone and without hope of true fellowship in the world she has known. The more others seek to define and possess her-as wife; as mother; as lover-the more she defies their expectations (the mark, we readers are told, of an artist’s “courageous soul”) in the pursuit of her independence. Her “own way” ultimately leads her to drown herself in the Gulf of Mexico-not, we are led to believe, out of a suicidal depression, but out of a deeply-sensed conviction that only by giving up her life will she enter a new, true life. As the Summary and Analysis notes indicate, Edna serves as something of a “Christ figure” in the book, yet she “saves” only herself. She is an awakened, enlightened soul who leaves the world around her to its darkened slumber.
Robert Lebrun: Robert is the young man with whom Edna falls in love; in fact, she tells him (in Chapter XXXVI) that it was he who awoke her “out of a life-long, stupid dream.” Sadly for Edna, however, Robert does not seem to realize the significance with which she invests their relationship. While, late in the novel, he professes that her marital status kept him from pursuing his passion for her-and, in fact, later led him to be ashamed of it in the first place-readers may be left with the impression that he is a young man, like so many in the resort society of Grand Isle, who treat the human heart too lightly. His decision to go to Mexico to pursue business deeply hurts Edna. We may be led to infer that, in Mexico, Robert hurts other women as well; they are moved to give him pieces of their own needlework, but all he will say of his relationships with them is, “There are some people who leave impressions not so lasting as the imprint of an oar upon the water.” Yet Robert is one such person himself, as he “skims” over the surface of human emotions, seemingly mindless of the consequences. In the context of the novel, Robert represents an illusory ideal which can never be achieved.
Madame Ratignolle: Early on, readers learn that Adï¿½le Ratignolle is the ideal “mother-woman”-that is, the woman who conforms completely and successfully to les convenances of society, living as a devoted wife, mother, and social hostess. Edna at first enjoys a close relationship with Madame Ratignolle, and in fact seeks to emulate her; as Edna’s “awakening” unfolds, however, she and Madame Ratignolle grow distant. Madame Ratignolle’s illness near the novel’s conclusion leads Edna to the realization that this woman represents all from which Edna feels she must forever escape: the enslavement of her “courageous” soul by children and husbands. Thus, Madame Ratignolle serves as a perfect foil to Edna throughout the book.
Mademoiselle Reisz: Mademoiselle Reisz is a skilled pianist, a woman of artistic temperament whom Edna at first despises, and then comes to befriend. In many ways, she serves as another foil for Edna, representing those ideals to which Edna believes she has been awakened, particularly the ideal of “the courageous soul” which “dares and defies” les convenances of society. She is also the only character who knows about Edna’s affair with Robert.
Alcee Arobin: Arobin is, like Robert Lebrun, a carefree, romantic flirt; unlike Robert, however, Arobin seems more open about this fact. It is ironic, then, that Arobin seems to harbor genuine feelings for Edna, with whom he shares an affair in New Orleans while Robert is in Mexico. Edna, however, never reciprocates Arobin’s feelings, and she flatly rejects any idea of him “possessing” her. Arobin seems to be merely a physical outlet for Edna, as she never abandons her idealized love for Robert.