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 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...
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