Form and Content

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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.

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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

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*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.

Setting

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Chopin lived in, and generally wrote about, life in the South. In The Awakening, she wrote specifically about Creole society in Louisiana. Creoles saw themselves as different from Anglo-Americans and maintained cultural traditions passed down from their French and Spanish ancestors. They enjoyed gambling, entertainment, and social gatherings and spent a great deal of time in these activities. The Creoles seldom accepted outsiders to their social circles and felt that newcomers should live by their rules. Men dominated the households and expected their women to provide them with well-kept homes and many children to carry on the family name. Women responded by bearing children and refining their social talents. While the Creole men caroused, their women kept well-run houses and perfected their accomplishments in music, art, and conversation. Such refined women enhanced their husbands' social status.

The setting contributes to Edna's conflict in The Awakening. The events in the novel take place in the late 1800s, and most of the action is set in the heart of New Orleans society. The city bustles with social gatherings, business meetings, and the impersonal pace of busy people. However, it is Grand Isle, a resort near New Orleans, that has the most influence on Edna. The Grand Isle in the Gulf of Mexico offers an intimate and relaxed atmosphere for walks along the beach, leisurely swimming, and moonlit conversations. Edna falls in love on the Grand Isle and changes her life upon return to, and under the cover of, hectic city life.

Literary Style

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Point of View

An objective third person narrates the story of Edna Pontellier and her search for self in The Awakening. The narrator does not criticize or applaud characters for their traits or their actions. Most importantly, the narrator withholds judgement of Edna and the choices she makes.

Conflict

The basic premise of The Awakening is conflict. Edna Pontellier discovers that she cannot be the person society expects her to be and seeks to resolve the problem by changing her life. Even as she recognizes the conflict within herself and begins to deal with it, the people with whom she associates present her with new challenges. Edna believes that she can be an artist and a lover and still be independent. Alcée and Robert prove her wrong. They reimpose the original conflict by proving to Edna that they can see her in only one way. While each has his separate view, both men reflect society's beliefs that women have certain functions in life. Edna is right back where she started.

Setting

The setting contributes to the conflict. The story takes place in the late 1800s. Most of the action is set in the heart of Creole society, New Orleans. The city bustles with social gatherings, business meetings, and the impersonal pace of busy people. However, it is Grand Isle, a resort near New Orleans, that has the most influence on Edna. The Grand Isle in the Gulf of Mexico offers an intimate and relaxed atmosphere for walks along the beach, leisurely swimming, and moonlit conversations. Edna falls in love on the Grand Isle and changes her life upon return to, and under the cover of, hectic city life.

Imagery

Imagery used in the story emphasizes the conflict with which Edna struggles. Edna realizes that she can not tolerate being confined to marriage and motherhood, but nor is she free to love and create. Society sees the two choices as complete opposites. Other opposing images emphasize the contradiction. New Orleans city life, with its stiff social rules, contrasts with the openness and ease of life on the Grand Isle. Birds fly freely on the Grand Isle, while they live in cages in the city. Edna's friends, Adèle and Mlle. Reisz, are complete opposites as well. Adèle exemplifies the traditional Southern woman while Mlle. Reisz represents the typical societal outcast. The final, and most significant, image is the seductive acceptance of the sea. It mirrors both birth and death.

Foil

Foil is used to emphasize the primary conflict by exaggerating the distinct differences among Edna, Adèle, and Mlle. Reisz. Edna knows that she does not want to be, and will not be, like Adèle. Adèle lives only for her husband and her children. While she loves her family and they love her, she has given up her own will and bows to the whims of those around her. Unlike Adèle, Mlle. Reisz has forsaken love and relationships for her music. Her lonely life revolves around playing for audiences who don't appreciate her talent. Edna does not want to be like either woman. She would like to combine the best of both of them. Edna wants to be needed and loved, like Adèle, but would also like to pursue her own interests, like Mlle. Reisz. The idea of having to remain in her marriage, with all its responsibilities and restrictions, smothers her. On the other hand, if loneliness is the price she has to pay for freedom, Edna does not want that either. The constant interplay among the three characters keeps the conflict alive.

Symbolism

All of the images found in The Awakening gain more symbolic meaning as the story progresses, but the sea is the primary symbol. The sea represents the differences between choice and blind obedience, self-determination and predestination, and ultimately, between life and death. It is while at the seaside resort that Edna first realizes that she can still feel love and that she can change her life. She learns to swim at this time, too, and experiences the power of the connection between mind and body. Both of these experiences contribute to Edna's determination to find herself. To Edna, the sea represents acceptance, comfort, and self-renewal. Later, a disillusioned Edna returns to the sea to try to renew the feeling of freedom that she experienced on learning to swim and on changing her life. The sea again beckons her, and Edna willingly releases to it the conflict within her.

Realism

The author honestly portrays Edna's conflicts. Edna faces her first dilemma when she is attracted to Robert Lebrun. She is sexually aroused and wants to consummate the relationship with Robert. She then ponders her role in life, does not like what she sees, and makes changes to redefine it for herself. Kate Chopin puts Edna in real-life situations and gives her real-life emotions. At the time the novel was written, this was unheard of. Now, critics recognize that Chopin was ahead of her time in her frank exploration of the relationship between self and society.

Literary Qualities

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An objective third person narrates the story of Edna Pontellier and her search for self in The Awakening. The narrator does not criticize or applaud characters for their traits or their actions. Most important, the narrator withholds judgement of Edna and the choices she makes.

The basic premise of The Awakening is conflict. Edna Pontellier discovers that she cannot be the person society expects her to be and seeks to resolve the problem by changing her life. Even as she recognizes the conflict within herself and begins to deal with it, the people with whom she associates present her with new challenges. Edna believes that she can be an artist and a lover and still be independent. Alcee and Robert prove her wrong. They reimpose the original conflict by proving to Edna that they can see her in only one way. While each has his separate view, both men reflect society's beliefs that women have certain functions in life. Edna is right back where she started.

Imagery used in the story emphasizes the conflict with which Edna struggles. Edna realizes that she cannot tolerate being confined to marriage and motherhood, nor is she free to love and create. Society sees the two choices as complete opposites. Other opposing images emphasize the contradiction. New Orleans city life, with its stiff social rules, contrasts with the openness and ease of life on the Grand Isle. Birds fly freely on the Grand Isle, while they live in cages in the city. Edna's friends, Adele and Mlle. Reisz, are complete opposites as well. Adele exemplifies the traditional Southern woman while Mlle. Reisz represents the typical societal outcast. The final, and most significant, image is the seductive acceptance of the sea. It mirrors both birth and death.

Foil is used to emphasize the primary conflict by exaggerating the distinct differences among Edna, Adele, and Mlle. Reisz. Edna knows that she does not want to be, and will not be, like Adele. Adele lives only for her husband and her children. While she loves her family and they love her, she has given up her own will and bows to the whims of those around her. Unlike Adele, Mile. Reisz has forsaken love and relationships for her music. Her lonely life revolves around playing for audiences who do not appreciate her talent. Edna does not want to be like either woman. She would like to combine the best of both of them. Edna wants to be needed and loved, like Adele, but would also like to pursue her own interests, like Mlle. Reisz. The idea of having to remain in her marriage, with all its responsibilities and restrictions, smothers her. On the other hand, if loneliness is the price she has to pay for freedom, Edna does not want that either. The constant interplay among the three characters keeps the conflict alive.

All of the images found in The Awakening gain more symbolic meaning as the story progresses, but the sea is the primary symbol. The sea represents the differences between choice and blind obedience, self-determination and predestination, and ultimately, between life and death. It is while at the seaside resort that Edna first realizes that she can still feel love and that she can change her life. She learns to swim at this time, too, and experiences the power of the connection between mind and body. Both of these experiences contribute to Edna's determination to find herself. To Edna, the sea represents acceptance, comfort, and self-renewal. Later, a disillusioned Edna returns to the sea to try to renew the feeling of freedom that she experienced on learning to swim and on changing her life. The sea again beckons her, and Edna willingly releases to it the conflict within her.

The author honestly portrays Edna's conflicts. Edna faces her first dilemma when she is attracted to Robert Lebrun. She is sexually aroused and wants to consummate the relationship with Robert. She then ponders her role in life, does not like what she sees, and makes changes to redefine it for herself. Chopin puts Edna in real-life situations and gives her real-life emotions. At the time the novel was written, such candor was unheard of. Now, critics recognize that Chopin was ahead of her time in her frank exploration of the relationship between self and society.

Critics condemned The Awakening when it was first published in 1899. They criticized Chopin's direct treatment of such moral issues as extramarital affairs and female sexuality. At the end of the nineteenth century, good literature simply did not discuss women's emotions. It ignored the fact that women have the same impulses as men. For Edna to admit, even to herself, that she was sexually aroused, was shocking. For her to actually engage in an affair was scandalous.

Critics also denounced Chopin's seeming acceptance of Edna's search for personal freedom. They were appalled at the choices Edna made to acquire her freedom. Women were expected to accept their station in life and to repress any feelings they might have that could be considered nonconformist. Edna not only disliked her role in life, she also blatantly refused to continue it. Readers naturally sided with Leonce when Edna refused to have sex with him. When Edna moved out of the house, readers criticized her for abandoning her children. Critics felt Chopin was overstepping her rights to discuss Edna's thoughts and improprieties so objectively. They felt that Chopin should have punished Edna in some way.

The public, too, took offense at Edna's passion and adultery and virtually cheered her ultimate suicide. Women who wanted to keep their social standing lived within the rules of society. While men could have affairs and still be respected, society despised women who did. Edna could have had her thoughts if she had kept them to herself. For Edna to openly air them and to act upon them was a moral outrage. The public disapproved not only of the character, but of the author who could write so dispassionately about such improper behavior. As a result, Chopin's hometown library removed the book from its shelves, and the local Fine Arts Club banned Chopin from its membership.

The Awakening remained unnoticed for several years after the commotion it initially caused. In the 1930s, however, the book came back into the limelight when a new generation of literary critics reexamined it. A close scrutiny of the work revealed its positive elements. The researcher who first studied it appreciated Chopin's attention to literary form—particularly her mastery of form and theme. Chopin's composition has a poetic unity to it that comes from her application of symbolic imagery to plot. An example of this is Chopin's use of the sea— as a symbol of life and death as well as the site for the main action in the plot.

Since that initial reexamination of the work, other critics have applauded Chopin's use of psychological realism, symbolic imagery, and sensual themes. For example, Per Seyersted stated that Chopin was the first female to write about sex in an intelligent, realistic and non-judgmental way. Other critics agree that Chopin used sex in The Awakening not to moralize, but to reveal certain psychological characteristics of her characters. Characters become real people with real emotions as a result of the way Chopin dealt with their sexuality. This atttribute raised the book above the "sex fiction" that one critic accused Chopin of writing, according to Margo Culley who edited the second edition of The Awakening. The book's form, style, characterization, and symbolism contribute to both its early opposition as well as to its acclaimed acceptance today.

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