The Awakening Summary

The Awakening is a novel by Kate Chopin about Edna Pontellier, who is stifled by her marriage. A passionate and fulfilling affair makes Edna question everything about her life.

  • While on vacation on Grand Isle, Edna Pontellier has a passionate affair with Robert Lebrun. However, Robert leaves for Mexico, and Edna returns to her unsatisfying marriage.
  • Edna and her husband returns to New Orleans. Edna has a brief affair with another man, then runs into Robert, who leaves after he and Edna confess their love for each other.

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

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Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1120

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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 for Mexico. This news takes Edna by surprise, and she becomes angry with him for not telling her sooner. Robert goes to say good-bye to Edna but behaves formally. After he leaves, Edna feels sad and frustrated, realizing that she has lost someone she is truly passionate about. 

Edna returns with Léonce and their children to their extravagant and well-furnished house in New Orleans. For the majority of her marriage, Edna has been confined in the home; however, since Edna’s change of identity, or “awakening,” she starts doing things for herself. Léonce is irritated and surprised by her new attitude, thinking that she is not herself. Soon, Edna goes to visit the old pianist, Mademoiselle Reisz, who tells Edna about a letter she received from Robert. Mrs. Reisz helps Edna realizes that Robert truly loves her. Meanwhile, Léonce goes to visit Doctor Mandelet. Léonce asks Mandelet about Edna, explaining her change in behavior and views on the rights of women. Mandelet explains that Edna is simply going through a phase and should be back to her old self eventually. After Léonce leaves, Mandelet reflects on the matter and suspects that another man might be involved in Edna’s change of behavior. When Edna hears that her younger sister, Janet, is getting married, she breaks from social norms and decides not to go because the whole idea of marriage has become repulsive to her.

When Léonce leaves for a long business trip to New York City, Léonce’s mother takes care of his and Edna’s two children, leaving Edna alone. Edna enjoys the solitude and begins selling her paintings and winning money at the horse races. She meets a man named Alcée Arobin and starts an affair with him. While visiting Madame Reisz, she learns that Robert is returning from Mexico. Edna soon decides to move out of Léonce’s home, as it does not feel like her home anymore. She buys a small house down the street and throws an extravagant dinner party for her close friends at Léonce’s home to celebrate. She moves all of her own things into the new house and then sends a cheerful letter to Léonce telling him she has moved. Léonce, upon learning of Edna’s decision, admits that he only cares about what it looks like to others.

Meanwhile, Edna accidentally meets the newly returned Robert in passing. At first, he behaves formally, which confuses Edna. However, the two spend more time together and eventually admit their love for one another. While Robert visits Edna’s new home, Edna is suddenly called away to support Adèle, who is having another child. As Edna witnesses childbirth again, she is reminded of her own experience giving birth and the pain she associates with it. When she returns home from Adèle’s, she finds that Robert is gone and has left her a small note that says, “I love you. Good-by—because I love you.” After reading the note, she becomes despondent. She lies on her couch awake all night. The next day, she goes to the beach at Grand Isle, where she strips off her clothing and swims out into the water, as far as she can possibly go. When she becomes too tired to swim anymore, she drowns.

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