As the main protagonist, Edna undergoes a significant change in attitude, behavior, and overall character throughout the course of the novel, as she becomes aware of and examines the private, unvoiced thoughts that constitute her true self. Her characterization was strikingly ambivalent for its time: She is neither a flawless heroine nor a fallen woman, and her rebellion seems motivated more by the self-centered desire to fulfill her whims and wishes than to battle for a great cause larger than herself.
Edna is initially symbolized by the caged green-and-yellow parrot of the opening scene, the parrot that insists, in French, that everyone “go away, for God’s sake.” Like the parrot, Edna begins to desire solitude, pushing away her husband and former friends to achieve time alone in which she can work on her art or engage in self-reflection.
From the start, she is different from her husband and all her friends because she is a Presbyterian from Kentucky rather than a Creole Catholic. Physically, she is different from other women with her distinctive face and figure. Also, unlike the other women by whom she is surrounded, she is not a mother-woman, one who is willing to sacrifice her very self to her husband, children, and household.
Although not a particularly strong or rebellious spirit in the past, during her summer on Grand Isle, Edna develops a devotion to the pursuit of passion and sensuality, two qualities lacking in her marriage and home. She has a great weakness for the melodrama of unrequited or unfulfilled love. The passion she develops for Robert over the summer becomes her all-consuming occupation and, in part, instigates her radical departures from convention upon returning to New Orleans. Her obsession with Robert is ultimately suspect in its sincerity, given her instinctive attraction to adversity in love.
Also key in her development are Mademoiselle Reisz’s piano performances, which stir up great emotions in Edna and both feed and enflame her need for some drama in her life. Edna’s days at the racetrack function in the same way: Intoxicated by success at betting on the horses, she is reluctant to come back down to earth.
Out of that desire for stimulation comes a meaningless but sexually charged affair with Alcee Arobin. While she has no romantic feelings for him, she feels a potent physical attraction to him, an attraction that results in a sexual awakening just as Mademoiselle Reisz’s piano performances brought about an emotional awakening.
Seeking to improve her skills as an artist is another result of her increasing need for self-fulfillment. As she begins to act in accordance with her own desires rather than with upper-class society’s expectations, her illustrations and paintings “grow in force and individuality.” She could not become a great artist, however, because she is not focused or ambitious enough to work when depressed or in gloomy weather, a limitation indicative of her poor grasp of resolutions and endings.
Throughout the novel, Edna never looks ahead to the consequences of her actions for herself or anyone else or how the situations she creates will resolve themselves. For example, when arranging to rent her own little house, she does not seem to be conscious of the fact that she is leaving her husband, thinking only that when Leonce returned there “would have to be an understanding, an explanation. Conditions would some way adjust themselves.” Only at the end of the novel, at Madame Ratignolle’s dramatic insistence, does she consider the effect of her actions on her sons.
Overall, Edna’s spirit is strong enough to begin a rebellion but too weak to maintain it, although some readers have interpreted her suicide as a triumphant escape from those personal and social forces that she perceived as enslaving her.