What is the central idea of Kate Chopin's novel The Awakening?

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The central idea of Kate Chopin's novel The Awakening can be identified in the title of the work. Edna Pointellier, the protagonist of the story, experiences both a psychological/emotional awakening and a sexual one, and the consequences of her personal development prove to be very dramatic for Edna and the members of her family and community.

The central idea of a literary work is also called its theme, and it often includes the notion of a lesson that can be learned from the literary work. From The Awakening, a reader might learn about the high cost of repressing one's own needs for those of others. Edna has given up herself for her family, and eventually, she wakes up and experiences a deep sense of agency, only to take her own life in an ironic gesture of self-actualization.

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The central theme of Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening is implied by the title itself. The book is very much about a variety of different kinds of “awakening” experienced by Edna Pontellier, the main character of the work. Interestingly enough, the title Chopin had originally planned for her text had been A Solitary Soul, a title that would have emphasized Edna’s alienation and isolation. Instead, the present title emphasizes her transformation and her growing consciousness and strength.

Edna awakens, in this work, in a number of ways, including the following:

  • She awakens to the fact that she is not happy in her marriage and that she finds her present life largely unfulfilling.
  • She awakens to a sense of her growing distance from her husband and from much of what he represents.
  • She awakens to the fact that she is not a “mother-woman” – in other words, not a woman whose mind and feelings are centered on her children.
  • She awakens to a growing romantic and even sexual attraction toward Robert Lebrun, who differs significantly from her husband.
  • She awakens to a growing sense of her own power and potential – a fact symbolized by her very first swim in the ocean.
  • She awakens to a growing sense of artistic skill and artistic ambition, both of which are symbolized by her increasing devotion to her painting.
  • She awakens to the idea that sex and love may not always go together; thus, she loves Robert, but she has sex with Alcee.
  • She awakens to the idea that she can live her own life and be her own woman, as is symbolized by her purchase of her own little house near the end of the novel.
  • Finally she awakens (if that is the right verb) to the idea that she may never achieve true freedom and true fulfillment and that the only option open to her may be the option of self-destruction.

Chopin describes various literal awakenings from sleep throughout the novel, and she also repeats variations of the word “awake” throughout the text. One of the most significant of these comes near the end of the book, when Edna finally sees Robert again:

She found in his eyes, when he looked at her for one silent moment, the same tender caress, with an added warmth and entreaty which had not been there before – the same glance which had penetrated to the sleeping places of her soul and awakened them.

This passage helps remind us that Robert was instrumental in helping to "awaken" Edna, but by this point in the novel she is so thoroughly awakened -- so completely liberated from traditional assumptions -- that she shocks even Robert and takes some delight in doing so. Edna is now awakened in ways that had never been the case before, which is why the final paragraphs of the book, which can be read either as a fuller awakening or as a resignation to the deepest sleep of all, have so often been debated.


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