I just finished reading The Awakening by Kate Chopin. It's a short novel set in the late 1800s and tells the story of Edna Pontellier, a woman married to a prosperous businessman. Edna was the perfect wife and mother and played her part well. For this, she was rewarded with all the financial security and material possessions she could ask for.

Edna began her personal rediscovery when she met and became friends with a young man on an island. Because of her feelings for him, and a friendship with a pianist that she met on the island, she begins to question her role as wife and mother, and sets out to discover herself.

The story affected me profoundly, and although it was written in 1899, the message is still very pertinent in today's society, and in the roles we play.

Actually, Edna never played the role of the perfect mother. The other women of Grand Isle tried to teach her how, and for a while she tried to learn, but Le'once was never happy with her. The children didn't cry when they fell, they got up and wiped their eyes. In those days, wealthy women were expected to do what now would be considered spoiling, and to have a child who didn't ever wail and cry was inappropriate and disturbing.

The Awakening concerns itself with Edna Pontellier's discovery of self, her emergence into 'personhood' and her rebirth as a self-reliant individual. To do so she eschews the duties that a patriarchal society has thrust upon her. She refuses to have her children be the central focus of her life. She rebukes her husband's attempts to confine her to her "proper and respected role" and instead removes herself from the comfortable household to set up a studio in a small house where she can continue her art and develop her individuality. Edna's development is seen symbolically throughout the book.

As she reflects silently on the shore of the Grand Isle she can't even imagine what it is like to be alone. Early in the book Edna is still engulfed in her role as wife and mother, and looks to these roles for validation. Support from others is not only appreciated, but desperately needed. She pictures solitude as an alien frightening concept, suitable only for men. "Solitude...when she heard it there came before her...the figure of a man standing beside a desolate rock...his attitude was one of hopeless resignation." Edna grows to realize that her life is incomplete. She does not have the freedom that independence can afford. Slowly, with Robert, Madame Ratignolle and Mademoiselle Reisz as her guides she discovers what it is like not to be daughter or wife or mother, but to be thought of only as a woman. She begins her journey.

Mr. Pontellier, her husband, is not receptive to his wife's blossoming individuality and looks upon it as illness. Edna's attitude is changing from one of fearful obedience to dismissal. She ignores her husband's ridicule and threats and simply goes on with her personal renaissance. Edna continues to seek out assistance from the two women she met at the Isle, viewing them as mother figures. She needs some model on which to build her new self, and receives direction from Reisz.

Throughout the novel Edna shies away from men to receive guidance from women. This is a necessary route, as even well-intenentioned men in the novel will, at best, see her struggles as a passing folly, and at worse see her as a horribly impudent and uncaring woman not furfilling her duty, particularly in her attitudes toward her husband and children. The only people to whom Edna can turn, are other women. Only other women are capable of seeing Edna as she truly is, opressed and struggling for her freedom.

The catalyst for Edna's aspirations is Robert. He ignites in Edna a passion not only for the love that she does not feel for her husband, but also a passion to realize her potential. The same potential that lies in the young man. Edna's search for self-actualization is not selfish, it is not an act of decadent self-invovement, nor should it be viewed as a rebellious act against her oppressors. Instead, it is a decisive step to be the person she wishes to be. Edna's search is not symbolic, it is a thing itself.

It is important to keep this in mind because the novel is swept up in symbolism as the plot resolves. Robert returns from his trip abroad to discover Edna as her own person. She is deeply in love with him, and is swept away by her desire for him. Pulled away from her tryst with Robert, she returns to find a note: "I love you. Good-by -- because I love you." Edna, stunned, spends the night alone, awake on the sofa, even as the lamp sputters out. She then goes back to the island, and swims naked far out into the water, drowning.

Why would she drown herself? It's tempting to say that it was a symbolic act, that Edna could not trust herself, and falling in love, would lose her individuality. All the effort she put forth to become her own person is valueless, so she casts herself into the sea. Alternatively, she could see her time at the "pidgeon house" coming to an end, as her husband was returning from New York soon, and she didn't wish to face the unpleasant possiblity of the loss of her current freedom.

However, it is important to note the change in her attitude toward solitude from the beginning of the novel. Edna now thinks that her lifetime trials are "the soul's slavery," she hears the sea as "seductive...inviting the soul to wander in abysses of solitude." She stands, at the end, as her own image of solitude, not frightened, but content and peaceful. She has chosen not to drown in a sea of societal obligations, weighed with chains of tradition, but to approach her own sea, on her own terms, as the water embraces her and she sinks, as a woman alone.

Few, if any, books ever written have pleased everyone who read them. As Bill Cosby once remarked, “I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is to try and please everybody.” Therefore, successful writers often write about touchy subjects. The Awakening by Kate Chopin is no exception.

Dealing primarily with freedoms of women, The Awakening stirred up a great deal of controversy in the late 19th century when it was written, and it ruined Chopin’s writing career from the time it was published until her death. Chopin tried to get people to recognize the simple rights of women as people, as men, in a way. Some people, including women’s rights activists who began to draw major attention after The Awakening was published, grabbed the ideas expressed in the novel, and used them for their causes.

“The author has a clever way of managing a difficult subject, and wisely tempers the emotional elements found in the situation. Such is the cleverness in the handling of the story that you feel pity for the most unfortunate of her sex” (Times).

However, the ideas expressed in the novel did not agree with the general population. One review sated:

‘The Awakening,’ by Kate Chopin, is a feeble reflection of Bourget, theme and manner of treatment both suggesting the French novelist.... If the author had secured our sympathy for this unpleasant person it would not have been a small victory, but we are well satisfied when Mrs. Pontellier deliberately swims out to her death in the waters of the gulf” (Opinion).

Clearly, some who read the book did not agree at all with the messages Chopin was trying to send, which called for women to do what they felt was right. Most people, including many women, felt that it was a wife’s job and obligation to do whatever their husband asked, take care of their families, and have as many babies as possible. Chopin, a single mother of six, obviously did not agree (hence, the controversy).

Chopin used several techniques of influencing her readers, especially by writing about a situation with conflict. She grabbed the reader right away with an interesting setting, full of opposing characters, whose opposing viewpoints naturally created, at the very least, something entertaining.

The story takes place in New Orleans, but starts off in Grand Isle, a vacation hot spot for rich married couples. Grand Isle symbolizes a kind of separation from society, where Edna’s feelings grow toward Robert Lebrun, a young man whose mother owns the cottages on the island. New Orleans represents the return to society, where things must settle down and conform.

Some of the characters providing conflict include Adéle Ratignolle, one of Edna’s close friends. Adéle lives for her children and her husband. She spends all of her time being a mother, and is the ideal woman of her society. However, Mademoiselle Reisz is of a completely different sort. She never married, and lived independently her whole life. She is a major influence on Edna, who is captivated by her piano playing. Robert Lebrun also plays a significant impact on Edna, and is probably her biggest influence in the story. Their relationship starts out with him joking and flirting with her, but eventually they fall in love. Edna’s final expression of love toward a man who is not her husband is one of the major climaxes of the book.

What is really captivating is the ending, when it is realized that Edna, the protagonist, is caught in her society with nowhere to go and no one to turn to. When Edna swims out to sea, it is clear that if this could be taking place, something is dreadfully wrong with society.

Altogether, this was a well written piece of literature exemplifying the women’s rights movement, and calling to attention outright flaws in the way society was. Since the novel was written, women have been granted the right to vote, and made large bounds forward toward equality, but somehow the old society remains, and somehow, it isn’t as big an issue as it should be.


Chopin, Kate. The Awakening.

The New York Times Book Review, June 24, 1899, p. 408. Reprinted in Twentieth- Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 14.

Public Opinion, Vol. XXVI, No. 25. June 22. 1899. p. 794. Reprinted in Twentieth- Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 14.

Stone, Carol. Women's Studies, Vol. 13, Nos. 1 & 2, 1986, pp. 23-31. Reprinted in Novels for Students, Vol. 3.

"The Awakening" was first published in 1899. The writeups about it above date from 2001, meaning that a not insubstantial part of the work's history has been between the first review above and this review.

This book can be read from several different perspectives. One of the first questions is how much the author, Kate Chopin, chooses to identify with the protagonist, Edna Pontellier. The usual first reading, even in a work of literary fiction, is to think of the protagonist as the heroine, although they may possess flaws. How you feel about Chopin's relation towards Edna probably depends on how you feel about Edna herself. If you view Edna Pontellier as a paragon of self-expression and principled refusal to accept the world's strictures, you might believe that the author is writing her story as an autobiography. If you take the story of Edna's liberation as a little more problematic, you might view the book's psychologically detailed prose with a more nuanced eye. But I am getting ahead of myself.

"The Awakening" is a short (150 pages in my edition) biographical novel about Edna Pontellier, the daughter of Kentucky aristocrats who has married an upper class Creole (in this sense, of French descent) businessman and moved to Louisiana. She is 28 and has several children. But, of course, despite her luxurious and stress free life, she feels unsatisfied. She has no real feelings for her husband, and the life of a wife and mother bores her. She is introduced to two young men, Robert Lebrun and Alcee Arobin, and apparently has emotional or sexual relationships with one or both of them. (Although it was quite scandalous when released, the descriptions of intimacy are very tame and ambiguous.)

Some of my thoughts about this novel might be overly critical, given its historical role in the development of the novel, of using psychological realism, and of incorporating feminist themes. All of those should be acknowledged, but my biggest problem is, for a work about "awakening", the protagonist remains blind to many facets of the world around her. She is an upper class woman who has all her physical needs provided for her. Her realization of her own psychological imprisonment doesn't seem to evoke any desires to understand others. This is especially notable when she complains about having too many servants to oversee, when she enjoys watching "the darkies lay the cane", and when she has her "octoroon maid" sit as a model for a portrait. This isn't just a matter of my modern political or social sensibilities: the awakening makes her more aware of her own psychological needs, but it seems not to extend to others. Her try at psychological liberation only goes down the most obvious, self-indulgent path. Her idea is to use her husband and father's money to live with only one servant, and to make some money through painting. To me, this all seems a bit like the wealthy sorority sister who travels to Costa Rica for a one week vacation and discovers her spiritual side. None of which is to fault the book, because it is quite likely that Chopin was attempting to portray not just a stagnant, stratified society, but the facile nature of people's escape from it.

At the beginning, I said that a substantial part of the time since the book's publication can be observed right here. I grew up tacitly believing that personal self-discovery went hand in hand with social awareness. In the 1990s, people would have believed that implicitly. Now, I see that belief as a historical oddity: the romantic belief in personal uniqueness has often , naturally, gone along with the belief that social structures are not worth examining, and that the feelings of others, especially socially different others, are not important. My reading of this book is very different, and probably more accurate, than it would have been a dozen years ago.

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