Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Awakening deals with the sexual awakening of a woman who has led the conventional life of an upper-middle-class wife and mother until the age of twenty-eight, then finds herself feeling so frustrated and suffocated that she is willing to defy the conventions of Louisiana Creole society to gain spiritual independence. She gradually abandons housekeeping, social visits, entertaining at home, and all the duties of a woman of her station. Defiantly, she begins to lead a bohemian lifestyle and to exercise freedom of choice in matters of sex.

The novel is divided into thirty-nine short chapters, each consisting of a single significant scene. Most of the story is told through the viewpoint of Edna Pontellier, an exceptionally sensitive and observant woman who can see into the characters of other people. The scenes not only present the various characters’ personalities but also paint a picture of homes, furnishings, clothing, servants, entertainment, and other aspects of life in the late nineteenth century.

The first scenes take place at a summer resort on Grand Isle near New Orleans. City dwellers come to escape the city heat, but even on the island the subtropical heat and humidity are oppressive. The women and children remain on Grand Isle throughout the summer, while most of the men come over only on weekends and return to the city to conduct business.

A few younger men have no pressing business matters to which to attend. These bachelors amuse themselves by flirting blatantly with the married women. This behavior is tolerated in Creole society because the code of sexual morality is so strict that it is taken for granted that the relationships will remain platonic. Edna Pontellier, who is the most attractive woman on the island, is courted by the handsome young Robert Lebrun with the benign approval of Edna’s husband. A combination of factors, however, turns their affair from a game into something more complex and potentially disastrous.

Once Edna falls in love with Robert, she experiences an adverse reaction to her husband. She realizes that she has never truly loved him and can barely stand to continue having intimate marital relations with him. Edna’s character transformation is described in detail; it is also dramatized through Edna’s overt behavior.

In one nighttime scene, Leonce keeps calling to his wife to come to bed. It was impossible for authors in Kate Chopin’s day to discuss sex in explicit terms; however, Edna’s repeated refusals to her husband’s entreaties make it clear what is happening. She knows that he wants to have sexual intercourse and, for the first time in their marriage, she is refusing to allow herself to be used.

Robert is in love with Edna but not so deeply that he is willing to make any extraordinary sacrifices. Instead, he goes to Mexico to pursue a lucrative business opportunity. Robert steadfastly avoids communicating with her by mail because he realizes that such correspondence would exceed the bounds of social propriety.

Edna accepts the advances of another young man, Alcee Arobin, although she senses that he is only intoxicated by her beauty and does not understand her as a fellow human being. Here again, the author is unable to describe how far their relationship goes, but she provides strong suggestions that Edna and Alcee become illicit lovers.

By this time, Edna finds her husband so repulsive that she insists on moving out of their home and setting up her own household, providing her with better opportunities to see Arobin. She is becoming a successful artist, and her sketches and paintings are bringing in enough money to allow her to declare her independence.

When Robert returns, Edna finds that she is even more in love with him and that Arobin means little more to her than her own husband. Robert still loves her but lacks her courage and contempt for public opinion. At the last moment, when she is prepared to run away with him, she finds a note stating that he cannot bring himself to violate her marital bonds and to disgrace himself in Creole society. Edna’s disappointing experiences with her husband, Arobin, and Lebrun have plunged her into a state of depression. Feeling that life is no longer worth living, she takes off all of her clothes and swims out into the ocean until she becomes exhausted and drowns.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*Grand Isle

*Grand Isle. Island resort in the Gulf of Mexico about fifty miles south of New Orleans, Louisiana, where Léonce Pontellier’s family stays in a summer cottage. Léonce goes to his office in Carondelet Street in the financial quarter of New Orleans during the week, returning to the island on weekends.

The Pontelliers do not have a happy marriage. Like most characters in the novel, Léonce is a Creole descendant of New Orleans’s original French and Spanish settlers, and he is quite content with his life. His wife, Edna, however, was raised in a Presbyterian home in Kentucky, and is restless under the restrictions of Louisiana’s patriarchal Roman Catholic society. At Grand Isle, she displays the first signs of independence and begins to become her own person—to “awaken.” She befriends Mademoiselle Reisz, whose creativity she admires, and carries on a summer flirtation with Robert Lebrun, a son of the property owner. She also spends time at the beach with Robert and her children, learns to swim, and even swims out far from the shore alone. Her resistance to Léonce has begun; she is, Kate Chopin writes, “like one who awakens gradually out of a dream.” Grand Isle thus represents her first feelings of freedom.

At the end of the novel, Edna returns to Grand Isle in the off season and, feeling no further possibilities in her life, removes all her clothes, swims far out into the sea, and drowns.

*Chenière Caminada

*Chenière Caminada. Island between Grand Isle and the Louisiana coast to which Edna, Robert, and others go by boat to attend mass on Sunday. After falling asleep during the service, Edna awakens and asks how many years she has slept. Chenière Caminada is one of many islands in this area that represent choices in life. Edna talks of going with Robert to look for pirate gold at Grand Terre, for example, an island adjacent to Grand Isle.

*New Orleans

*New Orleans. Colorful and culturally diverse Gulf port city, at the mouth of the great Mississippi River, where the Pontelliers own a charming home on Esplanade Street in the city’s most fashionable neighborhood. Pontellier is proud of his house, for he values all his possessions highly—including his wife, Edna. However, their life on Esplanade Street feels increasingly restrictive to Edna after the family’s summer on Grand Isle. Regarding her home as a prison, she starts to break free, first by failing to be “at home” when other women call, and then by beginning an affair with the experienced playboy Alcée Arobin. New Orleans is thus the hub of the repressive Creole society Edna seeks to flee.

Pigeon House

Pigeon House. Smaller house into which Edna moves after failing to find freedom in her own home, even when her husband and children are away. Edna is happy in her new surroundings: “Every step which she took toward relieving herself from obligations added to her strength and expansion as an individual.” The house thus represents her physical removal from conventional and repressive Creole society.

Garden restaurant

Garden restaurant. Suburban restaurant in which Edna runs into Robert, and their affair seems about to begin. However, Robert is a product of the same Catholic and patriarchal Creole society that produced Léonce and would not think of taking another man’s property—unless to make her his own property. Edna feels trapped by every relationship; only when she is away from the city—as when she is on Grand Isle or in this garden restaurant—does she begin to feel her true nature.

Edna’s childhood home

Edna’s childhood home. House in Kentucky bluegrass country in which Edna grew up and about which she often thinks. Her last thoughts in her life return there, to the site of her early romances and happiness. It is not her childhood family that matters to her, for she later argues with her father and refuses to go to her sister’s wedding. Rather, the Kentucky home and her Presbyterian upbringing signify Edna’s differences from both her husband and most of the other Creoles in New Orleans. “She is not one of us; she is not like us,” the Creole woman Madame Lebrun warns her son—meaning, she is not from New Orleans Creole society.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Kate Chopin’s The Awakening has become one of the classics of feminist literature because of its theme of sexual awakening and a woman’s right to freedom of choice in matters of love. Feminists believe that the sexual repression of women, which is still common throughout the world, is a necessary precondition of the political repression and economic exploitation of women that are also still found on every continent of the globe. Feminists believe that until women have control of their own bodies, they cannot hope to have control of their own lives.

Chopin was ahead of her time. Her novel The Awakening met with critical abuse and public denunciation. A reviewer writing for the magazine Public Opinion in 1899 stated that he was “well satisfied” with Edna’s suicide because she deserved to die for her immoral behavior. Chopin never wrote another novel and gradually gave up writing altogether. During the early part of the twentieth century, she had become virtually forgotten. Then the very qualities that had caused her to be condemned as an evil influence brought her to the attention of a few critics who saw that Chopin had created a minor masterpiece of feminist literature.

Currently, The Awakening is enjoying great popularity and is available in many different editions. The rediscovery of this novel has revived interest in Chopin’s other writings. Several biographies have been published, along with a number of full-length critical studies. The Awakening is assigned as required reading in many women’s studies and literature courses. Because of the renewed interest in her groundbreaking novel, Chopin is also being read in translation in many foreign countries, including France and Japan. She is one of the few writers to have had the good fortune to be figuratively brought back from the dead, and her work is exerting a considerable influence on women’s literature and feminism in general.

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Suffragettes march for women's voting rights Published by Gale Cengage

Creole Society
Kate Chopin lived in, and generally wrote about, life in the South. In The Awakening, she wrote...

(The entire section is 600 words.)


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Chopin lived in, and generally wrote about, life in the South. In The Awakening, she wrote specifically about Creole society in...

(The entire section is 249 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Point of View
An objective third person narrates the story of Edna Pontellier and her search for self in The...

(The entire section is 844 words.)

Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

An objective third person narrates the story of Edna Pontellier and her search for self in The Awakening. The narrator does not...

(The entire section is 1266 words.)

Social Sensitivity

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The Awakening has taken on a new significance since the advent of the women's movement. Literary debates have raged over the...

(The entire section is 684 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

  • 1890s: The women's movement begins to gain a foothold on American society. However, women still do not have the...

(The entire section is 164 words.)

Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Research the Creole culture. Explain how Creoles have both Spanish and French ancestry and how that ancestry affects their lifestyle....

(The entire section is 125 words.)

Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Compare and contrast New Orleans' Carondelet Street and New York's Wall Street in 1899. Does Carondelet Street still exist?


(The entire section is 110 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

  • Trace the history of the women's rights movement beginning with the first political convention held in 1848 at Seneca Falls, New York and...

(The entire section is 236 words.)

Related Titles / Adaptations

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Bayou Folk is Chopin's 1894 collection of stories that present the people of Natchitoches Parish as they live and love in daily life....

(The entire section is 527 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

  • The Awakening is the basis for the film, The End of August, released in 1982. Produced by Warren Jacobson and Sally...

(The entire section is 72 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

  • Bayou Folk is Chopin's 1894 collection of stories that present the people of Natchitoches Parish as they live and love in...

(The entire section is 453 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Quotations of The Awakening are taken from the following editions:
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. New York: Avon Books, 1972.
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening, edited by Margo Culley, 2nd edition. Norton, 1994.

Dyer, Joyce. The Awakening: A Novel of Beginnings. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993.

Koloski, Bernard, ed. Approaches to Teaching Chopin’s The Awakening. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1988.

Martin, Wendy, ed. New Essays on The Awakening. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Skaggs, Peggy. Kate Chopin. Boston:...

(The entire section is 1038 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Bloom, Harold, ed. Kate Chopin. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. A collection of ten critical essays on Chopin’s works, with considerable discussion of The Awakening. The editor’s introduction contains a thought-provoking comparison of The Awakening with the poetry of Walt Whitman.

Bonner, Thomas, Jr. The Kate Chopin Companion: With Chopin’s Translations from French Fiction. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988. An attractive and useful volume consisting mainly of a dictionary of characters, places, titles, terms, and people from the life and work of Chopin. Most of the translations are of stories by Guy de Maupassant, including “Solitude,” which is essential reading for anyone wishing to understand Chopin’s psychological outlook.

Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. Edited by Margaret Culley. New York: W. W. Norton, 1976. Contains fifteen essays or critical excerpts and ten 1899 reviews. Also contains background material on the situation of women in Chopin’s time.

Ewell, Barbara C. Kate Chopin. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1986. A biography of Chopin which surveys her writings in their entirety. Ewell emphasizes that The Awakening is Chopin’s best-known and most important creation but represents only a portion of her total achievement as a writer. This excellent study also contains a chronology, a bibliography, and comprehensive endnotes.

Fryer, Judith. The Faces of Eve: Women in the Nineteenth Century Novel. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976. A chapter describes Edna Pontellier as the first woman in American fiction who is a fully developed character.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1981.

Keesey, Donald, Comp. Contexts for Criticism. 2d ed. Mountain View, Calif.: Mayfield, 1994. Considers The Awakening from the perspectives of historical, formal, reader response, mimetic, intertextual, and poststructural criticism.

Martin, Wendy, ed. New Essays on “The Awakening.” Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1988. A collection of four essays about Chopin’s novel with a lengthy introduction by the editor, who provides an overview of Chopin’s life and work. Each essay offers a distinct point of view; together they are intended to represent the best contemporary ideas about The Awakening by the so-called New Critics.

Platizky, Roger. “Chopin’s The Awakening.” The Explicator 53, no. 2 (Winter, 1995): 99-103.

Seyersted, Per. Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969. Reprint. New York: Octagon Books, 1980. An excellent biography by an authority on the author who served as editor of The Complete Works of Kate Chopin, published by Louisiana State University Press in 1970. Seyersted was influential in bringing Chopin back into the literary spotlight as a feminist writer of the first rank.

Toth, Emily. Kate Chopin. New York: William Morrow, 1990. An exhaustively researched book regarded by many critics as the definitive biography of Chopin. Toth identifies real-life models for Chopin’s literary characters. Many photographs are included.

Ziff, Larzer. The American 1890’s: Life and Times of a Lost Generation. New York: Viking Press, 1966. A social and literary history of the decade. Depicts Chopin as an artist and a pioneer in women’s rights.