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.
This eNotes lesson plan is designed so that it may be used in numerous ways to accommodate ESL students and to differentiate instruction in the classroom.
Student Lesson Guide
The Lesson Guide is organized for study of the book in sections as indicated by chapters. Lesson Guide pages may be assigned individually and completed at a student’s own pace.
• Lesson Guide pages may be used as pre-reading activities to preview for students the vocabulary words they will encounter in reading each section of the book and to acquaint them generally with its content.
• Before Lesson Guide pages are assigned, questions may be selected from them to use as short quizzes to assess reading...
(The entire section is 457 words.)
1. Is Mr. Pontellier a good man? Why or why not? In what ways could he be considered a good husband? In what ways does he fail Edna?
2. How does Edna’s background make her an outsider? To what extent does this figure into her experiences in the novel?
3. Characterize the descriptions of the ocean throughout the novel. Is the ocean a force to be feared or loved? What ideas are developed through the ocean motif?
4. In the Grand Isle scenes, Chopin writes frequently about what the other guests are doing: the young lovers, the widow, and the children. What purpose do these details serve? Why might she have included them in the narrative?
5. Chopin writes of Edna,...
(The entire section is 725 words.)
demurely: modestly, shyly
fluty: reminiscent of the sound of a flute
lugger: a small sailing ship
pension: French a rented room or cottage
quadroon: a person having one-quarter African-American ancestry
1. What is the specific setting of the first chapter? Describe it.
The novel begins at a popular summer resort run by Madame Lebrun on Grand Isle in the Gulf of Mexico, not far from New Orleans. There is a main house, where Madame Lebrun lives, and numerous guest cottages. The weather is hot and sunny; it is a short walk to the beach where swimming is a popular summer activity....
(The entire section is 422 words.)
befell: happened to someone
dilution: the act of making something weaker in force
incessantly: constantly, without pause
indiscriminately: done at random
languor: the state of tiredness
mercantile: relating to trade or commerce
monotonous: dull and repetitious
peignoir: French a woman’s light dressing gown
reproached: addressed in such a way as to express disapproval
utterances: spoken words or sounds
1. Describe Mr. Pontellier’s demeanor when he returns late in the evening from playing billiards. How does it change? Why?
(The entire section is 400 words.)
accouchement: French the act of giving birth
Creole: a white descendant of French settlers in Louisiana and other parts of the southern US
encumbrance: a burden
impervious: unable to be affected by
insidious: proceeding in a gradual way but with harmful effects
iota: an extremely small amount
mite: a very small amount
prudery: excessive propriety or modesty in speech or conduct
1. Why doesn’t Mr. Pontellier think his wife is a good mother to their sons? How does she compare to other mothers at Grand Isle? In what ways is Edna not a...
(The entire section is 290 words.)
befurbelowed: dressed in the finest manner (from furbelow: any bit of showy trimming or finery)
remonstrate: to plead in protest
sonorous: full of sound
vouchsafe: to give or grant in a gracious or condescending way
1. Why had the vacationers expected that Robert would take a special interest in Mrs. Pontellier?
Since the age of fifteen, Robert attaches himself each summer to “some fair dame or damsel” with whom he spends much time. In the past, he often has been the “devoted attendant” of a married woman....
(The entire section is 346 words.)
acme: the point of perfection
affliction: great suffering
apprehended: captured, seized
candor: the quality of being open and honest in expression; frankness
controversies: disputes between opposing views, especially public disagreements
countenance: a person’s face, facial expression
crash: a coarse plain linen, woolen, or cotton fabric, used for curtains and towels
draggingly: slowly, heavily
effusive: emotionally expressive, enthusiastic
impelled: urged, forced
lateen: a triangular sail extended by a long spar slung to a low mast
muslin: a lightweight cotton fabric...
(The entire section is 472 words.)
acceded: agreed with a request
Angostura: concentrated bitters made of water, alcohol, herbs, and spices
apparition: a ghost, a mirage
blagueur: French a person who talks nonsense
desultory: lacking purpose
Goncourt: famous French writer
imperiling: putting at risk
rockaway: a four-wheel carriage with a fixed top and open sides
thrash: to beat violently
treadle: a foot lever that creates movement of a machine
1. Why does Madame Ratignolle want Robert to leave Mrs. Pontellier alone?
Madame Ratignolle is...
(The entire section is 215 words.)
convulsively: suddenly, frantically
effulgence: a brilliant radiance
imperious: domineering in a haughty manner
indignant: angry toward what is perceived to be unfair
trifle: a thing of little value
weazened: wrinkled and withered
1. When Madame Ratignolle plays a certain piano piece, Edna imagines a man standing on the seashore. What name does Edna give the musical piece that evokes this image? How do the details of the image reflect Edna’s emotional state?
Edna calls the piano piece “Solitude.” The man she envisions is alone on the...
(The entire section is 280 words.)
capricious: exhibiting sudden changes of mood or behavior
flippancy: lack of respect or seriousness
supercilious: behaving as if one is superior to others
1. When Robert leads the pension group on a nighttime swim, what is different about Edna’s experience in the water?
Usually Edna becomes fearful in the water and cannot swim, even though she’s tried to learn, but at this time, she swims and finds swimming easy and empowering. The freedom of swimming is thrilling to her.
2. What frightens Edna at one point when she is in the water?
Edna swims far away from the others and...
(The entire section is 264 words.)
piquant: pleasantly exciting, appealing
pirogue: a long, narrow canoe made from a single tree trunk
sardonically: with a tone of ill-humored mockery
suffused: spread through or over
writhing: twisting, squirming movements
1. Why does Edna want to linger outside in the hammock very late at night? How and why does she openly defy her husband when he insists she come inside? What does her defiance imply?
Edna is still under the spell of her remarkable, “dreamlike” evening; her desire to be alone is so compelling that she does not respond obediently out of habit when...
(The entire section is 456 words.)
illumination: enlightenment; freedom from ignorance
mullets: marine fish
repose: temporary rest, a state of peace
1. When Edna feels ill during mass and leaves the church, how does Robert take care of her?
He looks after Edna and escorts her to the home of Madame Antoine, where he knows Edna will be able to rest.
2. Describe how Edna and Robert spend the day at Madame Antoine’s. How does Robert continue to show his affection for Edna throughout the day and evening?
Edna dozes, and then sleeps heavily in a room at Madame Antoine’s while Robert waits...
(The entire section is 305 words.)
Ah! si tu savais: French Ah! If you knew
1.What has transpired at the Pontelliers’ cottage in Edna’s absence? What do she and Robert do when they arrive?
Edna’s youngest son, Etienne, has refused to go to bed, and Madame Ratignolle has stepped in to help calm him. Edna’s oldest, Raoul, is already asleep, and Mr. Pontellier has gone to Klein’s. Edna soothes Etienne to sleep. Robert helps her get him settled, and then leaves to go alone to the beach.
2. When Edna is alone, she thinks of the summer on Grand Isle and wonders why it is different from “any and every other summer of her...
(The entire section is 298 words.)
commodious: roomy, comfortable
haste: urgency of action
predominating: exerting the strongest influence or control; being the greatest in number or amount
unscrupulous: not honest or fair
1. Where is Robert going? When? Why does his departure seem odd?
He is going to Mexico on the very night he states his plans. His departure seems odd because it is so abrupt. He did not mention it to Edna even though he spent the morning with her. It is very unlike him not to have shared his plans with her.
2. According to Robert, why is he going to Mexico and leaving so soon? Based on his conversation...
(The entire section is 369 words.)
amiable: having or displaying a friendly and pleasant manner
appease: to satisfy someone by agreeing to a request
damask: woven fabric with a pattern on both sides, usually a table linen
fluted: narrow, tall, trumpet-shaped
grotesque: comically or repulsively ugly
impertinent: rude, disrespectful
indenture: a legal, formal agreement reflecting a debt or purchase obligation
procession: a number of people moving together in an orderly fashion
1. How does Edna deal with Robert’s absence?
She misses him immensely and longs to talk about him. She...
(The entire section is 713 words.)
alacrity: brisk and cheerful readiness
antagonistic: showing active hostility toward someone or something
banquette: an upholstered bench
complacency: smug satisfaction with achievements
darning: mending holes in garments with a sewing needle
discreditable: tending to bring harm to a reputation
ennui: dissatisfaction from lack of excitement; boredom
fusion: the joining of two or more things together
repast: a meal
wares: things offered for sale
1. What is Edna’s state of mind as the chapter begins?
Edna is “self-absorbed”...
(The entire section is 311 words.)
atelier: a studio used by an artist
expedients: means of attaining an end, especially one that is convenient but considered improper or immoral
insolent: rude, disrespectful
pandemonium: wild and noisy disorder or confusion; an uproar
tacit: understood without being explained
1. What changes does Mr. Pontellier observe in his wife? How does he feel about her new behavior? What does he fail to understand about it?
Mr. Pontellier notes that Edna is not submissive as she once was, that she does not care to keep up her roles as a wife and mother, and that she argues with...
(The entire section is 435 words.)
altercation: a noisy disagreement in public
bantered: offered a playful exchange of remarks
contortions: positions involving twisting or bending out of shape
impetuosity: the quality or condition of acting quickly without thought or care
scintillant: brilliant, skillful, clever
thwart: to prevent
1. Why does Edna seek out Mademoiselle Reisz?
Edna is unhappy and wants to hear Mademoiselle Reisz play the piano.
2. Victor revels in telling Edna privately about his adventures and indiscretions with women. How does Edna feel about his confidences? How is she supposed to feel?...
(The entire section is 305 words.)
forthwith: at once, immediately
gaiter: a cloth covering reaching from the instep to above the ankle
prunella: a thick fabric
1. Why might Robert have written to Mademoiselle Reisz—and not to his family—about Edna?
Mademoiselle Reisz’s disagreeable temperament and unconventional life have put her on the periphery of Grand Isle society, which may make her a safer confidante when it comes to Robert’s feelings about Edna. Also, Mademoiselle Reisz had made an emotional connection with Edna during the summer, one that Robert shared; consequently, he might see in Mademoiselle Reisz a kindred spirit. Finally, Robert had...
(The entire section is 174 words.)
idiosyncrasies: unique behaviors or ways of thought peculiar to an individual
lamentable: especially bad, unsatisfactory
laurels: awards; praises
portly: stout, somewhat fat
profusion: a large quantity
temerity: excessive boldness, confidence
1. Who is Dr. Mandelet? Why does Mr. Pontellier go to see him?
Dr. Mandelet is a semi-retired physician, who is also an old friend of Mr. Pontellier’s. Mr. Pontellier cannot determine what is wrong with his wife, and he is worried. He thinks the wise doctor can help.
2. Why does Mr. Pontellier make a point of telling Dr. Mandelet...
(The entire section is 291 words.)
claret: red wine
filial: relating to one’s relationship with or feelings toward his or her family members
inestimable: too great to calculate
listless: lacking energy or excitement
palpitant: marked by trembling or throbbing
perambulations: leisurely travels
1. Describe Edna’s father in terms of his appearance, personal history, and general attitude.
Edna’s father is formidable, commanding, handsome, and a bit vain about his appearance. Tall and thin, he wears padding in his coats to...
(The entire section is 541 words.)
larder: a place to store food
ponderous: oppressively and unpleasantly dull
1. When the Colonel says Mr. Pontellier should be harder on Edna, Mr. Pontellier recalls having a “vague suspicion” that the Colonel “had coerced his own wife into her grave.” What does this reflection indicate about Mr. Pontellier?
Mr. Pontellier is perceptive in his observations about the Colonel, and his reflections show that he would not treat his own wife harshly. At a moment when Mr. Pontellier could show firmness or compassion toward Edna, he chooses compassion.
2. Describe three things...
(The entire section is 232 words.)
cicatrice: a scar of a healed wound
deplored: felt strong disapproval
ingenuous: free from reserve or restraint
nonplused: confused, surprised
saber: a sword with a curved blade
spasmodic: occurring in brief, irregular bursts
tactless: lacking in sensitivity toward difficult issues
1. How does Edna occupy her time as she continues to live alone? Does she feel peaceful and contented with her life?
Edna pursues her work as an artist and finds satisfaction in it, but she can’t work when the weather is gloomy; she needs sunshine...
(The entire section is 473 words.)
animalism: behavior appropriate to animals
mackintosh: a full-length waterproof coat
1. Describe how Edna’s relationship with Alcée has developed over time.
Edna now sees Alcée or is reminded of him almost every day. He is “prolific” in finding reasons to see her; he treats her with “good-humored subservience” and “tacit adoration,” always ready to “submit to her moods,” regardless of how Edna happens to be feeling. Their conversations have become intimate. She is sometimes shocked and embarrassed by what Alcée says to her, but it pleases Edna, “appealing to the animalism that stirred impatiently within...
(The entire section is 402 words.)
multitudinous: very numerous, many
tabouret: a small stool or table
1. Mademoiselle Reisz tells Edna: “The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth.” What is the meaning of her metaphor? How does it relate to Edna?
Mademoiselle Reisz is explaining through the metaphor of a bird that wants to “soar” that those who dare to ignore society’s unwritten rules and live as they choose will not succeed unless they are strong enough to bear condemnation; they will suffer, and they will be...
(The entire section is 489 words.)
cravat: a necktie
garnet: a deep red precious stone; deep red in color
hastened: rushed; moved along quickly
lorgnettes: pairs of opera glasses with handles
sally: a witty or lively remark
volubility: ready and rapid speech; fluency in speaking
1. What is Edna doing when Alcée arrives to see her? Why is it unusual?
Edna is up on a ladder, removing a picture from the wall. It is unusual for a woman of her social position to perform such physical labor, and what she is doing is potentially dangerous.
2. Describe Edna’s treatment of Alcée the day after their sexual...
(The entire section is 316 words.)
ensconced: settled in a safe, secure place
snuggery: a comfortable, private place
supple: gracefully flexible
1. Describe how Edna has made her new house, “the pigeon-house,” seem “habitable and homelike.” What surprises her when she walks into her living room?
Edna has left a lamp on and burning low, and had placed books on the table, rugs on the floor, and a few pictures on the walls. She is surprised to find the room filled with flowers, a gift from Alcée.
2. What does Edna do upon arriving at her own house? Why? How does Edna describe her feelings to Alcée?
(The entire section is 339 words.)
boast: to talk with excessive pride about one’s achievements
imprudent: rash; not showing care for the consequences of an action
thoroughfares: roads or streets that lead at each end into other streets
1. Why is Madame Ratignolle concerned about Edna? Of what does she warn Edna?
Madame Ratignolle is concerned about Edna’s reputation. She believes Edna acts without giving her actions sufficient thought; she advises Edna “to be a little careful while living alone” and suggests that Mademoiselle Reisz stay with her. She warns that Alcée Arobin’s visiting Edna has been a subject of recent discussion, and “his...
(The entire section is 390 words.)
blotter: something used to absorb excess liquid or ink
despondency: loss of hope
mettle: the ability to cope well with difficulties; courage
recapitulated: repeated, summarized
stupor: dulled sensibility
torpid: mentally or physically inactive
torrid: parched with heat, especially of the sun; giving off intense heat
1. What two events precede Robert’s abrupt departure from Edna’s home?
Edna notices Robert’s tobacco pouch, which he acknowledges a woman gave him, and she asks him a number of questions, rooted in jealousy, about the woman who made it for him,...
(The entire section is 440 words.)
cur: an aggressive dog
laborious: hard; difficult; burdensome
mulatresse: French a female mulatto, a woman with one white parent and one black parent or a
woman with black and white ancestry
subterfuges: deceptive devices or stratagems
1. Edna and Robert run into each other at an out-of-the-way garden where an old woman serves coffee and a few simple foods. What does it imply that they should encounter each other there?
The garden is outside the city, “too modest to attract the attention of people of fashion, and so quiet as to have escaped the notice of those in search of...
(The entire section is 391 words.)
1. How are Madame Ratignolle’s appearance and behavior different when she is in labor?
Usually Madame Ratignolle is the epitome of gentleness, charm, fashion, and beauty. While she is laboring to deliver her baby, however, she wears a nightgown, her hair is secured in a braid, and she nervously clutches a handkerchief, wiping beads of sweat from her face after a painful contraction. She appears to be exhausted, her face “drawn and pinched” and her “sweet blue eyes haggard and unnatural.” She complains about Doctor Mandelet’s being late, calls him incompetent, declares...
(The entire section is 348 words.)
arbitrary: chosen or determined at random
decoy: somebody or something used to deceive or divert attention
dupe: a victim of deceit
trample: to tread heavily on something or somebody so as to cause damage or injury
1. Why does Doctor Mandelet send his driver on so that he can walk Edna home? What is his attitude toward her? How does he attempt to help Edna?
Edna declines a ride from Doctor Mandelet, saying that she wants to walk and is not afraid to walk alone. Doctor Mandelet does not want her to walk alone; she has just been shaken by witnessing a birth, and her husband has told Doctor Mandelet that she has...
(The entire section is 609 words.)
scantling: pieces of lumber or stone measured and cut
1. What is the setting of the final chapter? Why is it fitting for the conclusion of the novel?
The final chapter takes place on Grand Isle, at the pension where Edna met Robert. It is an appropriate setting because it brings the narrative full circle.
2. The author expresses Edna’s thoughts as Edna walks down to the sea: “She understood now clearly what she had meant long ago when she said to Adèle Ratignolle that she would give up the unessential, but she would never sacrifice herself for her children.” Why does Edna feel she is being asked to...
(The entire section is 558 words.)
1. Mr. Pontellier could be described as
2. The Pontellier’s marriage is
B. deeply loving.
3. Edna gravitates toward Madame Ratignolle because
A. Madame Ratignolle has Robert’s confidences.
B. Mr. Ratignolle is handsome and Edna wants to be closer to him through his wife.
C. Madame Ratignolle is...
(The entire section is 1084 words.)
1. Chopin writes:
[Edna] tried to discover wherein this summer had been different from any and every other summer of her life. She could only realize that she herself—her present self—was in some way different from the other self.
Choose three specific events from the summer in Grand Isle that are critical to Edna’s self-discovery. Describe them and how they changed her. Support your discussion with details from the text.
Edna herself credits her awakening to Robert Lebrun, and the effect he had on her, but several specific events build on one another throughout the summer.
When Mademoiselle Reisz, a gifted musician, plays the piano for Edna for...
(The entire section is 2467 words.)