What happens in The Awakening?

Edna Pontellier feels stifled in her marriage to Leonce. She experiences a sexual awakening when she meets Robert Lebrun while vacationing on Grand Isle. This leads to an affair that makes Edna question whether she wants to be married.

  • Edna and Leonce Pontellier live in New Orleans, but are vacationing in Grand Isle when the novel begins.

  • While on vacation, Edna meets and falls in love with Robert Lebrun, who appears to return her affections. When he leaves for Mexico, Edna returns to her unhappy marriage.
  • In New Orleans, Edna loses interest in her married life. She has a brief affair with Alcee Arobin, then runs into Robert, who leaves after he and Edna express their love for each other.

  • Edna returns to Grand Isle, where she swims out into the ocean and drowns.

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Summary

Introduction

The breakthrough feminist novel The Awakening, written by Kate Chopin, was published in 1899. The novel follows the identity crisis of Edna Pontellier, a Southern woman living in New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century, a period often referred to as the Gilded Age. Edna’s struggle with her identity and individuality capture the numbing and oppressive roles that women were placed into during the Gilded Age. 

Summary of The Awakening:

The Awakening begins at a resort on Grand Isle, a peninsula south of New Orleans, Louisiana. Edna and her husband, Léonce Pontellier, are vacationing there with their two children. Edna spends the majority of her time with Robert Lebrun, the eldest son of the prominent Lebrun family. The Lebruns own a luxurious house on Grand Isle. Unlike Léonce, Robert treats Edna with genuine interest and respect. Léonce treats Edna as an object and upholds the strict gender roles of his Gilded Age society. While at Grand Isle, Edna begins to feel oppressed by her husband and her expected role in society. 

Eventually, Léonce travels back to the city to do business, leaving Edna at Grand Isle with their two children. During his absence, she spends more time with Robert and the other women staying at the resort. Edna, however, is not a “mother-woman” and does not dote on her children the way that the other mothers do. She is reluctant to invest all of her time and energy into her family, as is expected of her as a mother. Yet she is also good friends with Adèle Ratignolle, who is an “ideal” mother and a very beautiful woman. Edna realizes that she feels differently and cannot be like Adèle, who occupies herself solely with the domestic sphere. Edna comes to view herself as an individual with a “position in the universe.” 

A few weeks later, there is a party on Grand Isle. Most husbands have returned from the city to spend time with their families, and residents celebrate with music, dancing, and plentiful food. Robert convinces Mademoiselle Reisz, a pianist, to play for everyone there. As she plays, Edna becomes emotional and experiences a deep connection to the music. Reisz notices her reaction and tells Edna that she is the only one worth playing for. After Mademoiselle Reisz leaves, Robert suggests that the adults go swimming in the moonlight. Edna, who has been taking swimming lessons all summer, still has not learned to swim well; however, she finds herself swimming fearlessly that night and is overjoyed by this newfound ability and sense of freedom. However, when she swims out alone, she suddenly becomes afraid of drowning. After managing to get back to shore safely, she does not mention her fear to anyone. 

The next morning, Edna awakens early. She leaves Léonce sleeping and calls on Robert. The two take a boat to the Chêniére Caminada to attend a church service. They have a lively conversation while sailing and begin to show more romantic interest in one another. While at church, Edna feels tired and sick. Robert takes her to rest at Madame Antoine’s home. After Edna has rested, she and Robert spend the rest of the day at Madame Antoine’s. The next day, Robert announces at dinner that he is leaving...

(The entire section is 3,656 words.)