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When Kate Chopin published her novel, The Awakening, in 1899, it was controversial as it explored female sexuality, questioned societal conventions, and, overall, dared to address topics that were considered extremely taboo at the time.
Below is a brief summary of the text and a little information about Chopin herself. We will address some of the main themes, literary devices, and important quotes in The Awakening - don't worry, we're going to look at that infamous ambiguous ending, too!
Chopin's novel centres on Edna Pontellier, who is unsatisfied with her life as a young married woman with two children. Over the course of the text, Edna experiences an 'awakening' to the restrictions that society has placed upon her; as a woman, she is expected to be a wife and mother - nothing more. The Awakening follows Edna's journey as she abandons her traditional societal role and, instead, explores herself and her sexuality to the great disapproval of many around her, including her husband, Mr Pontellier.
Edna leads a privileged life; her husband is a successful businessman, and the family is wealthy enough to vacation in the affluent resort of Grand Isle in the Gulf of Mexico, where the majority of The Awakening is set. Because Mr Pontellier is often away on business, Edna has the freedom and opportunity to explore her identity once she realises how passively she had been living. Edna's behaviour is also partly a response to Mr Pontellier's own actions. In chapter three, Mr Pontellier comes home in the night and drunkenly accuses Edna of the 'habitual neglect' of their children. Dejected by this, Edna cries and senses a profound discontentment with her current situation.
Edna spends a great deal of time with her close friend Madame Adéle Ratignolle, who exemplifies the idea of a perfect Victorian wife and mother - in Edna's eyes, everything she is not. This encourages Edna to explore who she truly is instead. Edna also begins a friendship with Robert Lebrun, the son of the woman whose home they are staying in. This friendship soon develops into a clear romantic connection, but neither pursues the other for a long time.
Edna is also introduced to Mademoiselle Reisz, a talented piano player and independent woman who moves Edna with her music. This pushes Edna further towards shedding her old self, and it also encourages her to engage in artistic expression. However, the real catalyst for Edna's awakening is when she finally gets the courage to swim out to sea and experience a moment of pure liberation.
As we will explore shortly, the sea could be considered its own character in Chopin's novel. The swim gives Edna the courage to disobey Mr Pontellier and allows her to confidently spend more time with Robert. However, fearful of his own deep feelings for Edna and her status as a married woman, Robert soon departs, upsetting Edna deeply. Edna then begins an affair with a well-known local ladies' man, Alcée Arobin, and finally commits adultery, signifying a break with her old self.
Edna and Robert eventually confess their love and kiss when they reunite in New Orleans, but their love is not consummated. Edna is called off to assist with Madame Ratignolle's difficult pregnancy and, when she returns to New Orleans, Robert has left again.
Despite the changes Edna has experienced, she does not have a happy end. Assisting Madame Ratignolle as she gives birth to her next child makes Edna question all her transgressions. She is aware that, no matter what, she will always be trapped by the societal pressures to be a good wife and mother, and Robert's departure solidifies this.
Edna returns to the sea at Grand Isle, where she had her first awakening; again, she wades in naked, but this time, it is for a very different reason. Although she is physically free in this moment, she remains restricted by society, and Chopin's message seems to be that this is inescapable. Although it is never explicitly said, it seems that Edna takes her own life here and that this is how The Awakening ends.
Kate Chopin was born in 1850 to a wealthy family in St. Louis. She enjoyed a privileged childhood surrounded by independent women. Chopin was already a well-known writer by the time she published The Awakening in 1899, but this changed the tide of her career. The novel was controversial because of its frank dealings with female sexuality and the issues that women faced. She did not enjoy as much literary success after 1899, and her health began to fail. Kate Chopin died in 1904 at age 54.
The Awakening is a fictional novel narrated in the third person. The narrator tends to favour Edna Pontellier's perspective. It could also be seen as psychological fiction as it tracks Edna's psychological development, and we spend a great deal of time hearing her thoughts. The Awakening is also known for its accurate depiction of Grand Isle and New Orleans in the late nineteenth century.
The central theme of Kate Chopin's The Awakening is Edna's exploration of what it means to be a woman in a world ruled by repressive Victorian morality. As she compares herself to the seemingly perfect Madame Ratignolle and the independent Mademoiselle Reisz, Edna is encouraged to explore her own identity and question the oppressive patriarchal society she lives in. As reflected in the quote below, Edna loves her children deeply but cannot see herself sacrificing absolutely everything for them as was expected of women at the time. Most controversial for a book published in 1899, Chopin's novel also shows Edna as a sexual being, connecting with her sexuality and having intercourse beyond the strict bounds of traditional marriage.
I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn't give myself. I can't make it more clear; it's only something which I am beginning to comprehend, which is revealing itself to me.
Also connected to the above theme, marriage is also very important in The Awakening. The relationship we are given the biggest insight into is that of the Pontellier's - and this is not a positive representation. Mr Pontellier is not necessarily a tyrannical husband, but he is one that adheres strictly to societal conventions to the extent that, when Edna begins to change and transgress the established conventions of the society she lives in, Mr Pontellier believes her to be unwell. It is significant that, after her great moment of awakening in learning to swim, one of the first things Edna does is disobey Mr Pontellier's orders. In The Awakening, marriage is presented as something that traps and restricts women, and the only way they can survive this predicament (while staying alive) is to shrink themselves as Edna believes Madame Ratignolle does.
Top tip: do a little research of your own on gender norms at this time to see what Edna and women like her had to contend with.
The ending of Chopin's novel is something that has garnered a lot of critical attention. Although it seems that Edna Pontellier takes her own life at the end of the story, this is never made explicit. As she swims out to sea naked, Edna has flashbacks to moments and people in her life, suggesting these may be her last moments on Earth.
If we are to assume that Edna is about to commit suicide, then we also have to ask why Kate Chopin chose to end her novel like this? Chopin takes a negative view of social and gender norms in her novel, but she also shows that they are very difficult to escape as, despite everything, Edna cannot fully free herself from them. In taking her own life, she finally gains control and agency in a world that wants her to obey, as represented by Mr Pontellier. It is the only way to truly escape the obligations placed upon her by society to be the perfect wife and mother, but nothing else. According to this interpretation of the ending, Chopin takes a very pessimistic view of womanhood in Victorian society in The Awakening.
She thought of Léonce and the children. They were a part of her life. But they need not have thought that they could possess her, body and soul.
As we've already mentioned, the sea could be considered its own character in The Awakening. It marks two of the most significant moments in Edna's growth journey towards understanding her identity. The first of which is when Edna gains the courage to swim out alone, marking a total change in her attitudes and a recognition of herself as an autonomous person beyond Mr Pontellier and their children. Edna then returns to the sea at the end of the novel to seemingly take her own life. This marks another revelation for her, this time a much more negative one. She recognises that societal pressures are inescapable and this is her only way to be truly free.
Can you think of any other examples of symbolism in The Awakening?
The Awakening remains a very significant text in the canon of English and American Literature, as Chopin wrote about women in a way that was rarely done at the time. The Awakening discusses female sexuality, allows Edna to undertake her journey to become a sexual being, and even includes adultery! In many ways, Kate Chopin anticipated the Women's Suffrage Movement that would be coming down the line in the near future.
'Looking at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property.'
Refers to Mr Pontellier's views on Edna as his wife.
'In short, Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother-woman...They were women who idolized their children, worshipped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wing as ministering angels.'
Exemplifies everything Victorian society believes a woman should be and everything Edna is not.
'The very first chords which Mademoiselle Reisz struck upon the piano sent a keen tremor down Mrs. Pontellier's spinal column. It was not the first time she had heard an artist at the piano. Perhaps it was the first time she was ready, perhaps the first time her being was tempered to take an impress of the abiding truth.'
One of Edna's moments of awakening. She sees Mademoiselle Reisz as a powerful and independent female artist and this inspires Edna to invest time in her own art.
'A feeling of exultation overtook her, as if some power of significant import had been given her to control the working of her body and her soul. She grew daring and reckless, overestimating her strength. She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before.'
Edna's defining moment of awakening when she gains the courage to swim out. This marks a permanent change in her and her sense of identity.
'Léonce, go to bed...Don't speak to me like that again; I shall not answer you.'
Marks the first time Edna has ever stood up to her husband in the wake of her awakening.
'Her husband seemed to her now like a person whom she had married without love as an excuse.'
Exemplifies how marriage plays a limiting role for women in The Awakening.
'There was the hum of bees, and the musky odor of pinks filled the air.'
The last line in Chopin's novel before Edna takes her own life.
The meaning of The Awakening is that for Edna, and for many women at the time, marriage is something restrictive. This is shown by Edna's own awakening to this truth using the symbolism of the sea.
The message of The Awakening is that women are often trapped in the restrictive roles of wife and mother and not encouraged to explore their own real identities and sexualities.
The Awakening was controversial because it discussed issues of women's identity and sexuality in a world that very much wanted women to stick to the traditional roles of wife and mother.
The opening scenes of The Awakening are significant because they establish the setting of the story and also show the unequal relationship that exists between Edna and Mr Pontellier.
Birds are often seen as representing freedom, and birds in this novel are linked to Edna in her journey of self-discovery. Caged birds in the story represent trapped women and the bird with a broken wing at the end of the novel represents Edna's acceptance that she cannot escape society.
Who wrote The Awakening?
Kate Chopin wrote The Awakening.
What is one of the key symbols in The Awakening?
Who inspires Edna to explore artistic expression?
How does The Awakening present marriage?
Negatively, as something restrictive to women.
Why was The Awakening controversial at the time of publishing?
Because it dealt with taboo issues of female sexuality.
What genre could The Awakening be considered?
Which character is considered to be the perfect 'mother-woman'?
Why does Edna take her own life at the end of The Awakening?
Because she sees it as the only way to escape society's restrictions.
Why is Edna's refusal to obey Mr Pontellier after her swim significant?
Because it is the first time she has stood up to him and marks a change in her.
Why was The Awakening a significant novel in the context of English Literature?
Because it openly discussed female identity and sexuality in a way that was taboo in 1899.
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