Most of us act a little wild when we are far away from home. Society may still exist no matter where we go, but a society of strangers whom we may never see again has far less authority over us compared to a society of colleagues and close acquaintances. When people find themselves in spaces where the cameras are off and only unknown faces are nearby, there is no telling how differently people will act or what new experiences they will try.
The case is no different for the characters involved in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening or for the characters in the 1994 film, Sirens, directed by John Duigan. The main female characters in each of these stories, Chopin’s Edna Pontellier and Duigan’s Estella Campion, are both married women who were groomed and raised within middle-upper class or upper-upper class societies. Due to circumstances of their husbands’ work or their positions in society, each woman travels to an island far away from their normal social circles. Even though both characters are accompanied by their respective husbands to these distant locations, these women are left to their own devices for the bulk of their time traveling. During these moments of separation, each woman discovers her own secret desires for various types of freedom.
Although both Edna and Estella experience several different types of freedom, especially since their husbands seem completely occupied with other matters, both stories seem to focus on these women’s exploration into their sexual desires.
Edna and her husband, Léonce, have traveled to Grand Isle with their two children in order to vacation during the summer, as is common amongst socialites of their class. Even though they are supposedly on vacation, most of the men of this social circle only visit the island on weekends, since they stay in town during the week to conduct business. As Edna has a fulltime nanny taking care of her children, she is free to travel the island and explore at her own leisure. As she does explore, she meets with a well-known rakish character, Robert Lebrun, who becomes her traveling companion and, at some point, her lover. As he has no career of his own to speak of, he stays on the island during the summer months, giving all his attention to his lady friend of choice. Although some people blame Robert for leading Edna astray, in reality he’s nothing more than a tool or excuse that Edna uses to start her self-exploration. Her sexual desires of the flesh, as committed with Robert, merely opened her eyes to her other sexual desires for freedom and authority within her own life. This awakening on the island forges Edna into a different woman, a woman no longer content to play the role of submissive society wife. Her eyes once opened cannot be closed. She knows what she desires, because, while on the island, she discovers what she lacks, which is full access to her own pleasure and the ability to make choices for herself.
For Estella, her portrayal in her story implies that she came from a much higher social class than that of her husband. The reasons for why she married down remain unclear, if that is indeed what she did. Nevertheless, her husband is a religious leader and a respectable man. To support his calling, she travels with him to Australia and into a remote, backwater town that has not even the slightest semblance to the high society she has become accustomed. While the surroundings seem bizarre and alien to Estella, she nevertheless knows her societal place as a supportive wife. Therefore, she bares her burden without one word of complaint. Her husband, Anthony, seems genuinely loving and respectful of his wife, but in many ways he has taken her sacrifices for granted. As he busies himself with trying to reform Norman Lindsay, an Australian artist who produces nude and somewhat blasphemous artwork, Anthony gives his wife liberty to explore Lindsay’s property and to socialize with Lindsay’s wife as well as the three gorgeous young women who live on the property as Lindsay’s nude models. Amongst these bohemian women, Estella tries to remain polite, but her societal mannerisms create dissonance the women cannot ignore. While Estella attempts to act modest and chased, two of the models, especially Sheela, flaunt their flesh and hedonistic beliefs. The other model, Giddy, wishes to be posh like Estella, which gives Estella some reason to try and remain locked within her societal rules. Being a role model, however, is not enough to counteract Estella’s true desires. Sheela recognizes Estella’s desires and sets the stage to make Estella confront her own sexual appetite.
The major difference between Edna and Estella’s exploration of sexual desires includes how each woman accepts and acknowledges those desires once realized.
Edna cannot go back to who she was before visiting the island. She does not wish to be rude about it, but she knows exactly what she wants and she asks for it directly. Edna lets her husband know that she wants her own residence. During the late 1800s, couples in high society rarely got divorced, and instead they simply lived in separate houses to maintain appearances. A declaration for her own space, though, represented her declaration for divorce. While her husband never suspected that anything was going wrong in their marriage, to refuse to give her space would risk further issues that could go public, thus he agrees to engage in this peculiar dance with Edna as a way to give her what she wants without losing face.
Eventually, even the idea of keeping up appearances was too much for Edna to bear. She would always be a kept wife, and, if she wanted to remain within a certain level of luxury, she would always have to accept that she would not possess full authority over her own life. To get around that, she decides to run away with her lover and start a new life under her own rules. Robert, her lover, on the other hand, cannot challenge his role within society, and thus he refuses to leave with her. Beaten but not defeated, Edna seeks out her own freedom by returning back to her place of awakening, Grand Isle, where she swims out into the ocean to gain true mastery over herself and find peace on her own terms.
In comparison, Estella’s decisions and methods of acceptance are more comedic and realistic. Even though she has had an affair, she does not wish to leave her husband. Despite the fact that her relationship with Anthony is more polite than passionate, she still cares for him, or at the very least she cares about her reputation. Nothing about the portrayal of Estella implies that she wants to be viewed as a fallen, divorced woman. Unlike Edna, she cannot allow herself to go down that path. She certainly enjoys pleasure, and part of her wants it, but she doesn’t see absolute pleasure as something truly attainable. As she struggles with her feelings and thoughts on the matter, she approaches her husband in an attempt to tell him the truth of what has happened. Unbeknownst to Estella, Anthony secretly saw her giving into her bisexual tendencies with the models. He did not see her in the midst of her affair with the Lindsay’s handyman, though. Thus, when Estella tries to admit her actions as a way to approach the subject and to move forward, Anthony stops her, himself most likely unable to deal with the idea of his wife being bisexual or sexually promiscuous. Instead, he insists that it is better for the two of them to have secrets from each other.
Thus, Estella remains torn. A part of her wants to justify her exploration into hedonism, physical pleasure, and bisexuality by associating it with a fanciful costume she can wear whenever she chooses. Deep down inside, she knows her desires are more than just fantasies to ignore. Her husband’s refusal to let her verbally explore her emotions with him causes her to build a slight resentment toward Anthony that fully manifests itself in the final scene of the movie. Anthony has become irate that Lindsay has included a nude figure in his latest painting that looks like Estella. When Estella views it, instead of taking her husband’s side, as society dictates, she comments on the image being a good likeness, allowing her to acknowledge the true version of herself represented on the canvas, even if that version of herself cannot live within her own flesh.