Teaching Approaches

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Adéle Ratignolle and Mlle. Reisz as Foils for Edna: Adéle Ratignolle and Mlle. Reisz occupy opposite ends of the spectrum between conformity and nonconformity; Edna wavers in the middle. Adéle Ratignolle is the embodiment of the mother-woman. She has foregone the pursuit of independence in service to a life devoted to her husband and her children. Mlle. Reisz lives only for her music. Single, unattractive, and foul-tempered, she represents the woman who has never married or had children. She lives the life of a woman doomed to live alone by not following societal conventions. Edna wants the love of a man without having to give up her life in service to him, and she wants to be true to herself and her art but does not want to be an outcast. 

  • For discussion: How do Adéle’s and Mlle. Reisz’s lives differ? What does each gain by her choices? What does each miss out on? 
  • For discussion: How does Edna’s life compare to Adéle’s? To Mlle. Reisz’s? What price does Edna pay for living her life as she chooses? 
  • For discussion: How does society influence personal desire? Is it possible to fully reconcile one’s personal desires with society’s expectations?

Conflict Between Self and Society as the Basic Premise of The Awakening: Edna’s journey through her awakening presents her with internal and external conflicts. She knows who she would like to be and takes steps to reach that goal. She has difficulties making choices, but she ultimately immerses herself in her art and takes on a lover. Edna also has to contend with society’s response to her choices, because her society rejects a woman standing on her own and fulfilling her own desires. She struggles to forge a functional relationship: Léonce is too traditional and Robert and Alcée are too fearful of society’s retribution if they follow their hearts. 

  • For discussion: Would the conflicts Edna faces in 1899 be conflicts in contemporary society? Why or why not? 
  • For discussion: To what extent is the conflict between personal desires and societal expectations inevitable? Do some chafe against society’s norms more than others? Why?

Sexism as a Major Theme in The Awakening: Because of her decision to work toward personal fulfillment and independence, Edna is forced to confront and examine the rampant sexism in her world. Sexism is woven into the fabric of New Orleans society in The Awakening. Edna’s culture holds numerous sexist codes: that it is acceptable for men to have affairs, but not women; that it is acceptable for men to have interests other than home and hearth, but not women; and that it is acceptable for men to pursue their desires, but not women.

  • For discussion: How do Edna’s experiences with men and women differ? Do men and women have different expectations of Edna? What are they? How does Edna react to their expectations? 
  • For discussion: How do Robert, Alcée, and Léonce contribute to the sexism that Edna faces in the novel? How do their actions differ from one another’s? 
  • For discussion: How are Adéle Ratignolle and Mlle. Reisz affected and shaped by sexism? How do men view them? Treat them? 

Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching

French Names, Words, and Phrases: In keeping with the school of realism, Chopin gives her Creole characters French names. These names can be difficult for students to pronounce as they are reading, and that can prove distracting. Chopin also uses words and phrases from the French language but does not translate them. This can frustrate readers unfamiliar with French. 

  • What to do: Prepare a list of character names and their...

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  • phonetic pronunciations. Say the names aloud and have students repeat names after you to ensure understanding.
  • What to do: Pull out the words and phrases that have significance to the plot. Prepare a handout with the words and phrases—along with their translations—in advance of reading The Awakening.
  • What to do: Provide students with the novel’s historical context, particularly the literary period of realism. Discuss how Chopin’s use of French in the Creole culture represents realism in literature.

The Limitations of Writing in 1899: Chopin had to veil much of the novel’s sexual content. Although it is clear that Edna does engage in sexual relationships with both Robert and Alcée, students may not realize it given how implicit the events are. In Chopin’s time, writing explicitly about sex was considered not only taboo, but also lewd and offensive. Therefore, Chopin had to “hint” at the actual act of having sex so as not to offend. 

  • What to do: Point out to the students the coded words and phrases Chopin uses to signal that Edna is having sexual affairs with her respective partners. If students are to fully appreciate the lengths that Edna has gone to in order to have a life of her own, they will need to understand that she is not merely flirting or befriending these men, but is having sex outside of her marriage—an extremely bold move. 

Alternative Teaching Approaches

There are many ways to interpret The Awakening. Typical focuses include theme, character development, and historical context. Here are a few alternative approaches to teaching the text. 

Focus on the sights that affect Edna. Visualizing the places Chopin describes may be difficult for your students. Use your computer and a projector to display photographs from turn-of-the-century Grand Isle and New Orleans. In order for students to fully understand the confining world of women in 1899, show them pictures of typical apparel from that time and ask them what sorts of limitation that the style of dress then might place on women.

  • For discussion: Focus on the visual imagery in the story. How does Edna visualize the world of Grand Isle? Of New Orleans? What does this sensory information reveal about Edna’s experiences?

Focus on Léonce as a victim. While Edna’s crises seem to color Léonce as an antagonist, Chopin is careful to present a fuller picture of the man. Léonce married Edna and showered her with gifts and attention. Indeed, the women at Grand Isle proclaim him to be a most excellent husband, a fact which Edna concedes. He provides for her and her children and fulfills the roles expected of him. After six years of marriage, Edna has decided that she is unhappy with the world she willingly entered into with Léonce. She has decided to renounce him, their children, and her life with so little warning or discussion that Léonce believes she may be mentally ill. He takes steps to find answers for Edna’s change in personality from Dr. Mandelet, who counsels him to leave Edna alone. He follows the advice, assuming that it is a phase, only to have his wife kill herself, leaving him and their two young sons behind. Léonce’s tragic narrative is well worth examining.

  • For discussion: Ask students to point out locations where this tragedy is most notable, and encourage them to expound upon how Léonce is also affected by societal expectations.

Focus on symbols and motifs used in the story. In order to illustrate the process of Edna’s awakening, Chopin uses symbols and motifs throughout that accentuate dualities and emphasize themes. For example, birds fly freely on Grand Isle but live in cages in New Orleans, thus serving as symbols for how social gatherings are easy and casual on Grand Isle while they are stiff formal obligations in New Orleans.

  • For discussion: Consider the different ways in which the motifs of music, art, and the ocean appear throughout the story. How does Edna interact with each throughout? How do the motifs contribute to the themes in the story?

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