The Awakening opens in the late 1800s in Grand Isle, a summer holiday resort popular with the wealthy inhabitants of nearby New Orleans. Edna Pontellier is vacationing with her husband, Léonce, and their two sons at the cottages of Madame Lebrun, which house affluent Creoles from the French Quarter. Léonce is kind and loving but preoccupied with his work. His frequent business-related absences mar his domestic life with Edna. Consequently, Edna spends most of her time with her friend Adèle Ratignolle, a married Creole who epitomizes womanly elegance and charm. Through her relationship with Adèle, Edna learns a great deal about freedom of expression. Because Creole women were expected and assumed to be chaste, they could behave in a forthright and unreserved manner. Exposure to such openness liberates Edna from her previously prudish behavior and repressed emotions and desires. Edna’s relationship with Adèle begins Edna’s process of “awakening” and self-discovery, which constitutes the focus of the book. The process accelerates as Edna comes to know Robert Lebrun, the elder, single son of Madame Lebrun. Robert is known among the Grand Isle vacationers as a man who chooses one woman each year—often a married woman—to whom he then plays “attendant” all summer long. This summer, he devotes himself to Edna, and the two spend their days together lounging and talking by the shore. Adèle Ratignolle often accompanies them.
At first, the relationship between Robert and Edna is innocent. They mostly bathe in the sea or engage in idle talk. As the summer progresses, however, Edna and Robert grow closer, and Robert’s affections and attention inspire in Edna several internal revelations. She feels more alive than ever before, and she starts to paint again as she did in her youth. She also learns to swim and becomes aware of her independence and sexuality. Edna and Robert never openly discuss their love for one another, but the time they spend alone together kindles memories in Edna of the dreams and desires of her youth. She becomes inexplicably depressed at night with her husband and profoundly joyful during her moments of freedom, whether alone or with Robert. Recognizing how intense the relationship between him and Edna has become, Robert honorably removes himself from Grand Isle to avoid consummating his forbidden love. Edna returns to New Orleans a changed woman.
Back in New Orleans, Edna actively pursues her painting and ignores all of her social responsibilities. Worried about the changing attitude and increasing disobedience of his wife, Léonce seeks the guidance of the family physician, Doctor Mandelet. A wise and enlightened man, Doctor Mandelet suspects that Edna’s transformation is the result of an affair, but he hides his suspicions from Léonce. Instead, Doctor Mandelet suggests that Léonce let Edna’s defiance run its course, since attempts to control her would only fuel her rebellion. Léonce heeds the doctor’s advice, allowing Edna to remain home alone while he is away on business. With her husband gone and her children away as well, Edna wholly rejects her former lifestyle. She moves into a home of her own and declares herself independent—the possession of no one. Her love for Robert still intense, Edna pursues an affair with the town seducer, Alcée Arobin, who is able to satisfy her sexual needs. Never emotionally attached to Arobin, Edna maintains control throughout their affair, satisfying her animalistic urges but retaining her freedom from male domination.
At this point, the self-sufficient and unconventional old pianist Mademoiselle Reisz adopts Edna as a sort of protégé, warning Edna of the sacrifices required of an artist. Edna is moved by Mademoiselle Reisz’s piano playing and visits her often. She is also eager to read the letters from abroad that Robert sends the woman. A woman who devotes her life entirely to her art, Mademoiselle serves as an inspiration and model to Edna, who continues her process of awakening and independence. Mademoiselle Reisz is the only person who knows of Robert and Edna’s secret love for one another and she encourages Edna to admit to, and act upon, her feelings. Unable to stay away, Robert returns to New Orleans, finally expressing openly his feelings for Edna. He admits his love but reminds her that they cannot possibly be together, since she is the wife of another man. Edna explains to him her newly established independence, denying the rights of her husband over her and explaining how she and Robert can live together happily, ignoring everything extraneous to their relationship. But despite his love for Edna, Robert feels unable to enter into the adulterous affair.
When Adèle undergoes a difficult and dangerous childbirth, Edna leaves Robert’s arms to go to her friend. She pleads with him to wait for her return. From the time she spends with Edna, Adèle senses that Edna is becoming increasingly distant, and she understands that Edna’s relationship with Robert has intensified. She reminds Edna to think of her children and advocates the socially acceptable lifestyle Edna abandoned so long ago. Doctor Mandelet, while walking Edna home from Adèle’s, urges her to come see him because he is worried about the outcome of her passionate but confused actions. Already reeling under the weight of Adèle’s admonition, Edna begins to perceive herself as having acted selfishly. Edna returns to her house to find Robert gone, a note of farewell left in his place. Robert’s inability to escape the ties of society now prompts Edna’s most devastating awakening. Haunted by thoughts of her children and realizing that she would have eventually found even Robert unable to fulfill her desires and dreams, Edna feels an overwhelming sense of solitude. Alone in a world in which she has found no feeling of belonging, she can find only one answer to the inescapable and heartbreaking limitations of society. She returns to Grand Isle, the site of her first moments of emotional, sexual, and intellectual awareness, and, in a final escape, gives herself to the sea. As she swims through the soft, embracing water, she thinks about her freedom from her husband and children, as well as Robert’s failure to understand her, Doctor Mandelet’s words of wisdom, and Mademoiselle Reisz’s courage. The text leaves open the question of whether the suicide constitutes a cowardly surrender or a liberating triumph.
Edna Pontellier is a respectable woman of the late 1800s who not only acknowledges her sexual desires, but also has the strength and courage to act on them. Breaking through the role appointed to her by society, she discovers her own identity independent of her husband and children. Many of Kate Chopin’s other stories feature passionate, unconventional female protagonists, but none presents a heroine as openly rebellious as Edna. The details and specifics of Edna’s character are key to understanding the novel and its impact on generations of readers.At the beginning of the novel, Edna exists in a sort of semi-conscious state. She is comfortable in her marriage to Léonce and unaware of her own feelings and ambitions. Edna has always been a romantic, enamored with a cavalry officer at a very young age, in love with a man visiting a neighboring plantation in her teens, and infatuated with a tragedian as a young woman. But she saw her marriage to Léonce as the end to her life of passion and the beginning of a life of responsibility.
Although she expected her dreams of romance to disappear along with her youth, her fantasies and yearnings only remain latent, re-emerging on Grand Isle in the form of her passion for Robert Lebrun. The people Edna meets and the experiences she has on Grand Isle awaken desires and urge for music, sexual satisfaction, art, and freedom that she can no longer bear to keep hidden. Like a child, Edna begins to see the world around her with a fresh perspective, forgetting the behavior expected of her and ignoring the effects of her unconventional actions. Yet Edna is often childish as well as childlike: she harbors unrealistic dreams about the possibilities of a wild adulterous romance without consequences, and she fails to consider the needs and desires of anyone but herself. Her flagrant disregard of reality is revealed when she mocks Robert’s apprehensions about adultery, and when she leaves her children in the care of their grandmother without a second thought. Edna’s independence frequently amounts to selfishness.
Yet although the text never presents Edna’s escape from tradition as heroic, it also never declares her actions shameful. The narrative may sometimes portray Edna as selfish in the ways she acts out her defiance of convention, but it never portrays Edna’s defiance itself as intrinsically wrong. Perhaps, even, the novel portrays Edna’s rebellion as intrinsically right. Given the book’s ambiguity, Edna’s decision to commit suicide at the end of the novel can be read either as an act of cowardice—of submission to thoughts of her sons’ reputations and to a sense that life has become too difficult—or as an act of final rebellion—of refusal to sacrifice her integrity by putting her life in the hands of controlling powers.
Mademoiselle Reisz is an unconventional and unpopular older woman who serves as an inspiration to Edna throughout her gradual awakening. A small, homely woman, Mademoiselle is distant and reserved in her interaction with the other guests on Grand Isle. Although she is often called upon to entertain people at gatherings with her expert piano playing, she realizes that Edna is the only one of the guests who is truly touched and moved by the music. Mademoiselle Reisz seeks out Edna shortly after Robert’s departure to Mexico, and her exchange with Edna by the shore fosters a relationship that continues upon their return home to New Orleans. Edna is inexplicably drawn to the older woman, whose lifestyle she envies, despite finding her disagreeable and difficult. In fact, neither Edna nor Mademoiselle Reisz can claim to be particularly fond of the other, but Mademoiselle Reisz understands Edna’s passions and enjoys the company and the opportunity to share her thoughts on art and love. Through her relationship with the pianist, Edna increases her awareness of herself as a woman capable of passionate art and passionate love.
While the two capacities are interconnected, Mademoiselle Reisz serves to further each specifically. Not only is the pianist in touch with her own artistic emotions, she is, on a more pragmatic level, in touch with the traveling Robert and is the only one to whom he speaks of his love for Edna. Mademoiselle Reisz is the woman that Edna could have become, had she lived into her old age and remained independent of her husband and children. Mademoiselle functions as a sort of muse for her young companion, acting as a living example of an entirely self-sufficient woman, who is ruled by her art and her passions, rather than by the expectations of society. Mademoiselle Reisz acts as a foil for Adèle Ratignolle, who lives the socially accepted lifestyle that Mademoiselle Reisz rejected for solitude and freedom.
A foil for Mademoiselle Reisz, Adèle is a devoted wife and mother, the epitome of nineteenth-century womanhood. Adèle spends her days caring for her children, performing her domestic duties, and ensuring the happiness of her husband. Ironically, while Adèle is comfortable and happy with her simple, conformist existence, she unintentionally catalyzes Edna’s movement away from such a lifestyle with her manner of speech: because she and her fellow Creole women are so clearly chaste and irreproachably moral, society allows them to speak openly on such matters as pregnancy, undergarments, and romantic gossip. Adèle’s conversation reminds Edna of the romantic dreams and fantasies of her youth, and Edna gradually begins to uncover the desires that had been suppressed for so many years. Although Adèle’s behavior represents that which is expected of Edna, the effect of her words proves more powerful than her example. Adèle is a static character—she shows no change or growth from the beginning of the novel to its end. She is also somewhat simple: when Edna reveals to Adèle that she would give up her money and her life for her children but not herself, Adèle cannot understand what more one could give than one’s own life. Edna’s understanding of an inner, autonomous spirit defies the belief of the time that women were simply the property of their husbands, who served a specific role as wives and mothers and devoted themselves solely to those around them at their own expense.
Although he remains away in Mexico for much of Edna’s awakening, Robert Lebrun plays an invaluable role in its beginning and end. His flirtations, along with Adèle’s freedom of expression, inspire Edna to forget her reserve and to begin revealing herself to others. For several summers, Robert has devoted himself to women at Grand Isle, showering them with affections rooted in admiration but lacking serious intent. Although notoriously ruled by his passions and impulses, he nevertheless cannot forget the societal conventions that both allow and limit his actions. Unlike the Creole women who play along with his flirtations, enjoying the company and attention, Edna is swept away by Robert’s devotion. She sees in him a promise of the love and excitement that have been missing from her life since she married Léonce. Although he never consummates their relationship physically, Robert’s tender treatment of Edna proves that his love for her extends beyond the superficial adoration he is used to showing his female companions. When Robert recognizes the intensity of his feelings for Edna, he decides to go to Mexico because he cannot bear to be near Edna and know that he may never act on his love. Robert’s courtship of Edna on Grand Isle perches precariously on the boundary between innocence and misconduct, suggesting that defiance and daring may lie beneath his reputation as a harmless flirt. Robert’s sudden return from Mexico and his unrealistic plan to request that Léonce set Edna free so that Robert may make her his wife manifest a bolder side to Robert’s nature. However, Robert pragmatically recognizes the difference between daydream and reality. When he returns to New Orleans, he accepts the impossibility of his intentions, and he ignores Edna’s claims of independence and self-ownership. Despite his sincere love and urgent lust, Robert cannot, as Edna has, escape from or ignore the rules of society.
Themes, Conflicts & Symbols
Edna Pontellier, the protagonist of The Awakening, independence and solitude are almost inseparable. The expectations of tradition coupled with the limitations of law gave women of the late 1800s very few opportunities for individual expression, not to mention independence. Expected to perform their domestic duties and care for the health and happiness of their families, Victorian women were prevented from seeking the satisfaction of their own wants and needs. During her gradual awakening, Edna discovers her own identity and acknowledges her emotional and sexual desires. Initially, Edna experiences her independence as no more than an emotion. When she swims for the first time, she discovers her own strength, and through her pursuit of her painting she is reminded of the pleasure of individual creation. Yet when Edna begins to verbalize her feelings of independence, she soon meets resistance from the constraints—most notably, her husband—that weigh on her active life. And when she makes the decision to abandon her former lifestyle, Edna realizes that independent ideas cannot always translate into a simultaneously self-sufficient and socially acceptable existence.
Ultimately, the passion that Robert feels for Edna is not strong enough to join the lovers in a true union of minds, since although Robert’s passion is strong enough to make him feel torn between his love and his sense of moral rectitude; it is not strong enough to make him decide in favor of his love. The note Robert leaves for Edna makes clear to Edna the fact that she is ultimately alone in her awakening. Once Robert refuses to trespass the boundaries of societal convention, Edna acknowledges the profundity of her solitude.
The Implications of Self-Expression, Edna’s discovery of ways to express her leads to the revelation of her long-repressed emotions. During her awakening, Edna learns at least three new “languages.” First, she learns the mode of expression of the Creole women on Grand Isle. Despite their chastity, these women speak freely and share their emotions openly. Their frankness initially shocks Edna, but she soon finds it liberating. Edna learns that she can face her emotions and sexuality directly, without fear. Once her Creole friends show her that it is okay to speak and think about one’s own feelings, Edna begins to acknowledge, name, define, and articulate her emotions. Edna also learns to express herself through art. This lesson occurs in Chapter IX, when Edna hears Mademoiselle Reisz perform on the piano. Whereas previously music had called up images to her mind, the mademoiselle’s piano playing stirs her in a deeper way: “she saw no pictures of solitude, of hope, of longing, or of despair. But the very passions themselves were aroused within her soul, swaying it, lashing it, as the wave’s daily beat upon her splendid body.” As the music ceases to conjure up images in Edna mind, it becomes for Edna a sort of call to something within herself. Additionally, Mademoiselle Reisz has felt that she and Edna have been communicating through the music: noting Edna’s “agitation,” she says that Edna is “the only one” at the party who is “worth playing for.” Once Edna is aware of music’s power to express emotion, she begins to paint as she has never painted before. Painting ceases to be a diversion and becomes instead a form of true expression.
From Robert and Alcée, Edna learns how to express the love and passion she has kept secret for so long. As with her other processes of language-learning, Edna finds that once she learns the “vocabulary” with which to express her needs and desires, she is better able to define them for herself. A pattern emerges—Edna can learn a language from a person but then surpass her teacher’s use of her newfound form of expression. For example, while Adèle teaches her that they can be open with one another, Edna soon wants to apply this frankness to all areas of her life. And although Robert helps to teach her the language of sexuality, she wants to speak this language loudly, as it were, while Robert still feels social pressure to whisper.As Edna’s ability to express herself grows, the number of people who can understand her newfound languages shrinks. Ultimately, Edna’s suicide is linked to a dearth of people who can truly understand and empathize with her. Especially after Robert’s rejection of her in Chapter XXXVIII, Edna is convinced definitively of her essential solitude because the language of convention Robert speaks has become incomprehensible to Edna.
Although Robert has taught her the language of sexuality, Edna has become too fluent. In this dilemma, Edna mirrors the parrot in Chapter I, which speaks French and “a little Spanish” but “also a language which nobody understood, unless it was the mocking-bird. . . .” The mockingbird, which merely whistles inarticulate “fluty notes” with “maddening persistence,” resembles Edna’s friends who seem to understand Edna but do not speak back. Throughout The Awakening, the manner in which each of the characters uses and understands music gives us a sense of Edna’s ideological alignment in relation to the novel’s other characters. Additionally, Edna’s exploration of music and her meditations upon its significance enable her own (visual) art to flourish. Edna first learns about the emotive power of music from Mademoiselle Reisz. Whereas Adèle Ratignolle’s piano playing had merely conjured sentimental pictures for Edna, the older woman’s playing stirs new feelings and probes unexplored emotional territories in her. Mademoiselle Reisz uses music as a form of artistic expression, not merely as a way of entertaining others. In contrast to Mademoiselle Reisz,. Their piano playing—entertaining but not provocative, pleasant but not challenging—similarly serves as the model for how women should use art. It becomes clear that, for a Victorian woman, the use of art as a form of self-exploration and self-articulation constitutes a rebellion. Correspondingly, Mademoiselle Reisz’s use of music situates her as a nonconformist and a sympathetic confidante for Edna’s awakening. The difference Edna detects between the piano-playing of Mademoiselle Reisz and Adèle Ratignolle seems also to testify to Edna’s emotional growth. She reaches a point in her awakening in which she is able to hear what a piece of music says to her, rather than idly inventing random pictures to accompany the sounds. Thus, music, or Edna’s changing reactions to it, also serves to help the reader locate Edna in her development.
Images of children, and verbal allusions to them, occur throughout the novel. Edna herself is often metaphorically related to a child. In her awakening, she is undergoing a form of rebirth as she discovers the world from a fresh, childlike, perspective. Yet Edna’s childishness has a less admirable side. Edna becomes self-absorbed, she disregards others, and she fails to think realistically about the future or to meditate on her the consequences of her actions. Ultimately, Edna’s thoughts of her children inspire her to commit suicide, because she realizes that no matter how little she depends on others, her children’s lives will always be affected by society’s opinion of her.
Moreover, her children represent an obligation that, unlike Edna’s obligation to her husband, is irrevocable. Because children are so closely linked to Edna’s suicide, her increasing allusions to “the little lives” of her children prefigure her tragic end. Houses plays a motif for example, Edna stays in many houses in The Awakening: the cottages on Grand Isle, Madame Antoine’s home on the Chênière Caminada, the big house in New Orleans, and her “pigeon house.” Each of these houses serves as a marker of her progress as she undergoes her awakening. Edna is expected to be a “mother-woman” on Grand Isle, and to be the perfect social hostess in New Orleans. While she is living in the cottage on Grand Isle and in the big house in New Orleans, Edna maintains stays within the “walls” of these traditional roles and does not look beyond them.
However, when she and Robert slip away to the Chênière Caminada, their temporary rest in Madame Antoine’s house symbolizes the shift that Edna has undergone. Staying in the house, Edna finds herself in a new, romantic, and foreign world. It is as though the old social structures must have disappeared, and on this new island Edna can forget the other guests on Grand Isle and create a world of her own. Significantly, Madame Antoine’s house serves only as a temporary shelter—it is not a “home.” Edna’s newfound world of liberty is not a place where she can remain. The “pigeon house” does allow Edna to be both at “home” and independent. Once she moves to the pigeon house, Edna no longer has to look at the material objects that Léonce has purchased and with which Edna equates herself. She can behave as she likes, without regard to how others will view her actions. In the end, however, the little house will prove not to be the solution Edna expected. While it does provide her with independence and isolation, allowing her to progress in her sexual awakening and to escape the gilded cage that Léonce’s house constituted, Edna finds herself cooped anew, if less extravagantly. The fact that her final house resembles those used to keep domesticated pigeons does not bode well for Edna’s fate. In the end, feeling alternately an exile and a prisoner, she is “at home” nowhere. Only in death can she hope to find the things a home offers—respite, privacy, shelter, and comfort. In The Awakening, caged birds serve as reminders of Edna’s entrapment and also of the entrapment of Victorian women in general. Madame Lebrun’s parrot and mockingbird represent Edna and Madame Reisz, respectively. Like the birds, the women’s movements are limited (by society), and they are unable to communicate with the world around them. The novel’s “winged” women may only use their wings to protect and shield, never to fly. Edna’s attempts to escape her husband, children, and society manifest this arrested flight, as her efforts only land her in another cage: the pigeon house. While Edna views her new home as a sign of her independence, the pigeon house represents her inability to remove herself from her former life, as her move takes her just “two steps away.” Mademoiselle Reisz instructs Edna that she must have strong wings in order to survive the difficulties she will face if she plans to act on her love for Robert. She warns: “The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth.”
Edna’s suicide marks defeat, both individually and for women, point out the similar wording of the novel’s final example of bird imagery: “A bird with a broken wing was beating the air above, reeling, fluttering, and circling disabled down, down to the water.” If, however, the bird is not a symbol of Edna herself, but rather of Victorian womanhood in general, then its fall represents the fall of convention achieved by Edna’s suicide. The sea in The Awakening symbolizes freedom and escape. It is a vast expanse that Edna can brave only when she is solitary and only after she has discovered her own strength. When in the water, Edna is reminded of the depth of the universe and of her own position as a human being within that depth. The sensuous sound of the surf constantly beckons and seduces Edna throughout the novel. Water’s associations with cleansing and baptism make it a symbol of rebirth. The sea, thus, also serves as a reminder of the fact that Edna’s awakening is a rebirth of sorts. Appropriately, Edna ends her life in the sea: a space of infinite potential becomes a blank and enveloping void that carries both a promise and a threat. In its sublime vastness, the sea represents the strength, glory, and lonely horror of independence.
To close, I do not believe that the book preaches, but I do believe that the book reveal to the audience to not conform to Sexuality, for example Kate Chopin is one of the first female writers to address female issues, primarily sexuality. Chopin declares that women are capable of overt sexuality in which they explore and enjoy their sexuality. Chopin shows that her women are capable of loving more than one man at a time. Kate Chopin’s novel seethes with feminist ideology and the roles of women during a time when either issue was rarely discussed. While Edna’s death is a tragic loss and somewhat discredits the theme of the book, the actions Chopin’s protagonist takes to obtain her own individuality are immaculate illustrations of what The Awakening conveys. Chopin positions Edna to fly well beyond the boundaries of accepted culture even though societal pressures tell her to act like a lethargic housecat. Edna learns through her experiences as a sexual, self-sufficient woman that she does not have to depend on men to be her own person. By breaking out of her caged life, Edna feels she no longer is tethered to the earth. She can finally control her life and ultimately determines her fate as a liberated, sexual, and independent woman.
Works Cited Chopin, Kate. The Awakening, 1899. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1993.