In The Awakening, set in Louisiana on the Gulf Coast at the end of the nineteenth century, Kate Chopin explores the personal experiences, emotional conflicts, and intimate feelings and desires of a young woman gradually discovering how she must live her life, contrary to the expectations of her society. The novel is a mainstay of contemporary feminist studies, critically acclaimed for its honest and artistic treatment of a woman’s awakening passions and her refusal to accept the traditional roles to which she has been relegated. It is assigned reading in many literature classes. When Chopin’s novel was first published in 1899, however, it was widely criticized for its treatment of adultery, and reviewers often considered the book “morbid,” “vulgar,” and “disagreeable.”
At the time of Chopin’s death in 1904, The Awakening had not found an appreciative audience; in fact, it did not achieve significant literary recognition and acceptance until 1969, upon the publication of Chopin’s complete works. The book’s impact continued to grow, and The Awakening eventually made its way into popular culture. Chopin’s narrative is frequently performed as a play and has been adapted as a modern dance performance. In 1991, it was made into a television movie, Grand Isle, starring Kelly McGillis.
Through The Awakening’s protagonist, Edna Pontellier, Chopin creates a compelling portrait of a young wife and mother who, unlike her contemporaries, does not love being a wife and mother. In fact, she gradually comes to resent it. Sensitive, intelligent, and artistic, Edna craves the freedom to make her own decisions about her behavior, her activities, and her friends and associates. Her desires remain latent, however, until one summer when her growing attraction for a young man, Robert Lebrun, furthers in her a process of “awakening,” physically, emotionally, and spiritually. It is a journey, once begun, from which Edna cannot return and which ends in the novel’s dramatic conclusion.
At the turn of the twentieth century, the conflicts that plague Edna would have seemed inexplicably foreign to respectable, conventional people. Most women of the day fit the mold of Edna’s friend, Madame Ratignolle, whose energies are directed solely toward her family—a state of being that Edna finds depressing. Edna is part of the same society as Madame Ratignolle yet an outsider—not only a Presbyterian from Kentucky in a land of Roman Catholic Creoles but an independently minded person in a society that follows rules, or at least recognizes them. Edna’s rebellion forms the heart of the narrative, and from her refusal to sacrifice herself in conforming to the expectations of others, Chopin’s major themes are developed.
Kate Chopin herself followed the rules for most of her life. Born Catherine O’Flaherty in St. Louis, Missouri, to an Irish father and an American mother of French heritage, she grew up speaking French as well as English. She married Oscar Chopin in 1870, and the couple settled first in New Orleans and later in Cloutierville, Louisiana. Kate gave birth to six children between 1871 and 1879. When Oscar died in 1882, Chopin was still in her early thirties and had six children to support on her own. She moved back to St. Louis, and by 1889, had started to write and to publish short stories in magazines. Her work often featured the Creole community she had lived among for much of her married life, and many of her protagonists were sensitive, intelligent women like Edna Pontellier. Throughout the last decade of the nineteenth century, Chopin created a name for herself in fiction-writing circles. She also maintained an active social life, though she never remarried.
Kate Chopin was unarguably a writer ahead of her time. In critic Per Seyersted’s 1969 biography, he argues that she “broke new ground in American literature.” Chopin was, he observes, “the first woman writer in her country to accept passion as a legitimate subject for serious, outspoken fiction.” That Kate Chopin’s literary contemporaries generally were unwilling to write about a woman’s most intimate emotions and desires makes The Awakening all the more impressive and courageous.Though not an activist or feminist as the roles are usually defined, Chopin was a leader nonetheless. She wrote honestly about women’s deepest feelings at a time when many women, like Edna before her magical summer, repressed them. Her rich depiction of Edna Pontellier’s inner life and how she comes to terms with it makes The Awakening a significant work in modern American literature, a novel that invites spirited discussion, even today.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Explain what Edna’s awakening is, what causes it, and how it develops over the course of nine months in her life.
2. Describe Edna’s relationships with Léonce Pontellier, Robert Lebrun, and Alcée Arobin and how the relationships differ.
3. Describe the roles money and ownership play in Edna’s discontent.
4. Compare and contrast Edna with the other female characters in the novel, including Mademoiselle Reisz and Madame Ratignolle.
5. Contrast the settings of Grand Isle, Chênière Caminada, and New Orleans and explain what each of them contributes to the novel.
6. Identify the reasons Edna commits suicide.