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The story concerns Edna Pontellier's "awakening" from the slumber of southern womanhood. How she will manage her new perceptions, amid her family and lovers, is the novel's main concern.
Edna is clearly the main character, although she is not quite a standard nineteenth-century "heroine." Edna is complex, sometimes spoiled, sometimes perceptive, and always searching. When she sees herself as a separate and distinctive individual, her world is turned upside down. She tries desperately to set it right.
There is no exact character working against Edna. "Society" in general, and patriarchy in particular, are the forces that she struggles against. The Awakening is a story of a life lived; it is not a fable or romance and therefore the good/evil dichotomy is not very helpful. Edna is also at the mercy of an interior stirring, an "awakening" of the sort that changes people's lives. Her ability to handle such an emotional upheaval is the plot's driving concern.
Regarding the other characters, there are some who do not always have Edna's best interests at heart. Madame Reisz often watches Edna's turmoil longing to see an ugly display; she also goads Edna on in her hopeless love for Robert. Alternately, Alcée Arobin's interest in Edna may only have to do with his desire for a conquest, and adds up to no real regard for Edna herself. Lastly, Léonce Pontellier may appear "antagonistic" because he so strictly conforms to the conventions that Edna wants to shed, and because he is her direct patriarchal "oppressor." But it is important to understand that Léonce is doing the job that society has taught him to do, and that it would never occur to him to question his position until Edna's awakening forces him to do so. The result, concerning Léonce, is never revealed.
The climax comes when Edna goes to attend the birth of Adèle's child and realizes the tragedy of motherhood, only to return to her house and discover that Robert has left her once again. After this, she is so fully "awake" that she cannot sleep.
Edna cannot figure out how to live with the complexity of the freedom she has fought so hard to establish for herself. Certainly, her confusion over motherhood has something to do with this: after all, her own mother was hounded out of the world by her father. By firmly deciding to live outside of the usual patriarchal order, Edna finds herself with few alternatives. Since she cannot seem to formulate one, and since she refuses to go back to her old world, she must die. The novel can be viewed as a comedy by those readers who consider Edna's death as the only possible solution to living under patriarchy, or as a tragedy by those who would argue that Edna has, ironically, sacrificed herself, although she swore that she never would.