The Awakening

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Setting (Time, Place, Influence)

The novel starts in 1899 in Grand Isle, which was a popular place to summer for wealthy Creoles from New Orleans, and the second half takes place in New Orleans, mainly in the Quartier Français. The budding feminist movement helped shape The Awakening, as Edna struggles throughout the novel with societal rules, conformity and her own independence. However, many of the ideas in the novel reflect the more conservative attitude towards women and individual freedom of the nineteenth century. (Bridget) Within the French Quarter of New Orleans, Edna's story takes place at select houses - her house, the "pigeon-house", Reisz's apartment, and Ratignolle's house. Edna describes her house as looking like a prison from the outside with iron bars over the door and windows, a high fence around the yard, and a locked gate to the street. The "pigeon-house", the house Edna moves to while her husband is away, is quite small and stands behind a locked gate with a small front porch with a front door that opens directly into the parlor. Riesz's apartment is described as cheerless, dingy, covered with dust, and featuring a rusty stove. Ratignolle's house is described as "very French" with a large salon spanning the width of the house in which they Ratignolles entertained friends frequently. (Haley)

Plot

Edna Pontellier, a young woman living in Louisiana, is growing increasingly dissatisfied with her married life. Her husband, Léonce, shows her little affection and treats her childishly, disregarding her own wants and needs in favor of his own. As their relationship grows strained, she begins an affair with the youthful Robert Lebrun, experiencing close romantic love for him and, as such, realizing that she lacks the same for her husband. As the surreptitious relationship unfolds, she grows more distant and discontented with her husband, and Robert comes to fear the social consequences of being with her. Consequently, he travels to Veracruz, Mexico on a pretense in order to escape their relationship quietly. Edna is bereaved, but ignorant of his real reason for leaving and somewhat comforted by the presence of her free-spirited, domineering artist friend Mademoiselle Reisz. However, as Robert stays away, she gradually comes to realize that he is actually avoiding her, as he fails to correspond with her and sends letters instead to Reisz and his family. Simultaneously, she pursues a casual, sexually-charged affair with the notorious womanizer Alceé Arobin, which depresses her due to its lack of true romantic feeling. When Robert returns, she cannot reignite the same love with which they viewed each other due to her lack of trust in him, and she grows more withdrawn and depressed. Her husband assigns a doctor to look into her psychological state, but he achieves virtually nothing. Eventually, unable to find love or satisfaction, she kills herself by drowning. (Wrigley)

Characters

Edna

Edna is the protagonist of the story, husband to Léonce and mother to his children; however, she is not the typical woman of the time. Instead of being a devoted wife and mother, she is unhappy with her life confined by the boundaries of society and the restrictions of being a woman. She loves Robert instead of her husband and has an affair with Arobin instead of Robert. Confused with what she wants and whom she wants and overwhelmed by all there is to take care of in her home, she sends her children away, downsizes to a smaller house, and takes up painting. At the conclusion of the novel, she returns to the beach and kills herself, unhappy with her life. The question is, is she crazy? Yes and no. At times she exhibits irrational behavior and is stuck in a fantasy hoping Robert will return and profess his love. On the other hand she could easily have been confused, overwhelmed, depressed, or even mentally ill. Suicide might have been an easy, selfish way out, but she did set it up as an accident as final respect to her husband and family. (Cat Carlson)
Another key part of Edna’s characterization is that fact that she says that she would never sacrifice herself for anyone. She clarifies saying that she would give up the unessential such as money or her life but she would never give up herself. This is a contested point between her and Madame Ratignolle, and displays a clear contrast between her and a typical woman of the Creole society of the time. It is this fact that could of allowed her to kill herself without feeling a responsibility to the children or her husband as it is brought back up in the closing scene when she thinks about Leonce and the children and says that while they were a part of her life, they did not posses her soul. (Emily H)
A powerful symbol for Edna seen throughout the book is that of the bird. Edna lives like the parrot seen in early in the book. She has all her needs provided for, she lives well, and serves as a source of entertainment. But her identity is purely a creation of others; just as the parrot, she replies back with mimicries and repetition to satisfy the demands of society. Edna tries desperately to break free of these social constraints and live as an independent woman, but she ultimately lacks the personal will power to overcome the weight of having the entirety of society against her. Chopin foreshadows (rather blatantly) this reality and Edna's accompanying suicide through Mademoiselle Reisz, who solemnly warns Edna that "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”. This bird, too weak to break free of its constraints, represents Edna, and she too dies when she is swamped by the tide of her expectations. (Clyde)

Robert

- He is a character who wants love, he is always after some woman. He is like a little puppy dog for all the ladies of Grand Isle. In addition, he wants to be independent, and in order to achieve his independence he goes to Mexico where he thinks he will find riches.
- He is a very immature and indecisive character who represents almost child-like qualities. He contrasts beautifully with Leonce who is the exact opposite and treats Robert like a child.
- T-vo
- Robert has a history of “constituting himself the devoted attendant” to a different woman at Grand Isle every summer. Robert is openly and entertainingly affectionate for his new woman in a very overstated manner, so his relationships are never threatening to other men. Robert is instrumental in inspiring Edna to begin acting out. Robert’s unexpected feelings for Edna force him to choose between love and respecting tradition, society, and marriage; he chooses the latter, and by doing so, contributes to Edna’s suicide. (William Plumides)
-Robert is not viewed by Leonce as a threat despite his obvious chemistry with Edna. He is also a difficult character to understand or form a strong opinion of because though he engages in a questionable relationship with Edna, he nobly removes himself before it escalates too far. (Billy McClelland)
-Robert is a very ambiguous character. It is unclear what he desires, especially when it comes to Edna. In the beginning of the book it is very clear he enjoys and desires her companionship, but as they start getting closer and closer he removes himself from her and moves to Mexico. However, through the letters he writes to Mademoiselle Reisz it is clear he loves her, but when he actually sees and spends time with Edna he removes himself even further from her. His emblem is the letters. (Joth)

Mlle Reisz

Mlle Reisz is the ideal nonconformist due to her unwillingness to be defined by society and her assertiveness. She is not what women are supposed to be. Her playing of the piano is her way of being free and having that artist's temperament of not caring, and her music touches and set's Edna's spirit free. She is confident, mysterious, unpopular, disagreeable, homely, and not fashionable. Out of all the characters in the novel, it could be easily argued that Mlle Reisz understands Edna the best. Also, her individualism and independence most fascinates Edna. Kate Chopin paints this independent character's life as extremely difficult and isolated. This character is the complete opposite of Madame Ratignolle, for she is not superficial, fake, and concerned about society. (Lily K) Madame Reisz, a gifted pianist, lives her life to please herself and derives her worth wholly from within. She is her own woman and free from the restraints that society placed upon most women of the time. Edna, lured instead by desires of lust and love, declines to take this path set by Reisz and instead, despondent with her existence, takes her own life. (Clyde)

Mme Ratignolle

Madame Ratignolle is the ideal mom and wife as well as what Leonce wants Edna to be. She it the perfect "fusion" with her husband, giving an appearance of being the ideal, neat, pretty woman. She wants to be a good mom and keep everything in order as she sees fit, including Edna. She may be concealing jealousy of Edna and Robert, but she is scornful of it. Her life seems to be boring (ennui), and she must always be in control. Emblems include her children and hands. (Virginia K) Adele binds her identity utterly to her husband and lives only to please him and care for her children. She is musically talented, but derives no self-pleasure from her ability, performing only to fulfill the social expectation placed upon her. Adele cannot understand what more Edna desires out of life, and the concept of seeking a true identity is alien to her. (Clyde)

Alceé Arobin

Alcee Arobin is the fawning, devoted admirer of Edna Pontellier. Edna rejects Arobin romantically but uses him as a tool to fulfill her newfound sexual desires, all in hopes of forgetting about her true love, Robert Lebrun. His character is used to emphasize gender inequality and social double-standards (he is widely known for his affairs with married women but is still held in high regard) and also to illustrate, from a female perspective, the difference between love and lust. Overall, Arobin is just a sweet-talking playboy whom Edna, rightly so, manipulates to her own advantage. -madelinejones

The notorious womanizer of the New Orleans Creole community, seductive and charming Arobin enjoys making conquests of married women. Arobin satisfies the sexual desires of Edna while Leonce is away on business in New York. Edna does not allow Arobin to attain any possession or control over her and remains passionate towards Robert despite his disappearance to Mexico without any direct contact. Her sexual relationship with Arobin provides a lustful way to forget the responsibilities of her everyday existence. -Mary Katherine Lupo

Leonce Pontellier

-He basically just wants to be accepted by society & fit in. He forces his relationships with people (esp. Edna) to maintain his appearance & keep his social status. He seems to desire attention from his family, but is this just for his appearance or does he actually care for them? He doesnt really “love” his family, he just loves the idea of them. He is both the victim & the instigator of Edna’s rash decisions…we feel bad for him since his wife killed herself because she wasn't happy with the life he provided; however he could have paid a little more attention to the way she was acting and shown some greater concern for her wants and needs in life. (Emma)

Leone is characterized as what would be a good husband in that day, he is generally pretty nice, he brings back candy for his family when he goes off, but in our view today, we see the ways in which he restricts her and the fact that there isn't any real emotional connection between him and Edna. By creating him as a good husband in the day, Chopin makes Edna not really rebel against Leonce himself, but rather the institution which he represents, marriage. (Adam Watts)

The Colonel

The Colonel served during the Civil War for the Confederate army but more importantly is the father to Edna. While the two never bonded incredibly, when together Chopin describes them as “companionable”. He considers himself with an air of superiority, as he believes he “bequeathed to all his daughters the germs of a masterful capability”. Edna’s sudden transformation from a listless woman into one of drive and passion began during the Colonel’s stay. It was during that time that Edna had for the first time, actually bonded with her father, as they shared in her artistry, and even went to the horse races. This sudden connection between father and daughter is significant despite Edna’s gratification upon his departure; the acquaintance she had made with him sparked her further independence and radicalism. -Jackson Monnin

Doctor Mandelet

Doctor Mandelet- As a doctor often sought out by the Pontelliers for consultation, Doctor Mandelet helps diagnose Edna Pontellier at the request of Leonce. Leonce sees the result of Edna's changing attitude toward him as affecting the housekeeping. When he is trying to reach a diagnosis, he even suggests that maybe Edna is associating with a group of "pseudo-intellectual women-superspiritual superior beings" or just experiencing normal symptoms of being a woman. His diagnosis, although he doesn't mention it to Leonce, is that Edna is sleeping with somebody. He even sighs, hoping it isn't that man slut Alcee. Instead of telling the truth, he advices Leonce to just let time pass to see if she gets better. After the doctor attends dinner one night at the Pontellier's, he sees Edna as better than ever, prettier, wiser, and freer. -Carrie Mittl

Etienne & Raoul

These are the sons of Edna and Leonce. The few times there are described, they are depicted as sturdy and tough. Because Edna is for the most part indifferent towards them, they have been forced to nurse themselves or to rely on the quadroon nurse(p.16). There is no strong relationship between the children and either of their parents. Leonce has a superficial relationship with them as he bribes them and promises to bring back bon bons and candy each time he goes away. However, Chopin uses the word "fond" to describe how Edna feels about her children. Chopin never says she loves them, although it does say she is "fond of them."
-HD

Mariequita

Mariequita is a Spanish girl with a love interest in Victor Lebrun. She does not like Edna and there is tension between them on the boat with Robert and Victor. Later, Mademoiselle Reisz describes her as "a sly one, and a bad one." -HD

Perhaps most important about Mariequita is the fact that she, along with Adéle, open Edna's eyes to the woman she could be without the restraints of the company she keeps and the society she lives in. Mariequita is flirtatious, and given to pursuing men. Further, she is a straight-shooter not interested in beating around the bush. Edna, in noticing these character traits, acknowledges that there is a large part of her that would like to live that way. She finds the Spanish Mariequita beautiful, and this characterization is probably indicative of both the woman's physical beauty and her lifestyle's allure. -Jay Kane

The Calvary Officer

When Edna was very young, she fell deeply in love with a “dignified and sad-eyed” cavalry officer who visited her father. She was infatuated with the officer, but he “melted imperceptibly out of her existence,” similar to the way in which Robert went from being such an integral part of her life to a distant memory when he departed for Mexico. Edna’s experience with the cavalry officer demonstrates how, even at an early age, she greatly desires what she cannot have. –Caroline Cary

Themes/Meanings of the Work

An overarching theme of the novel is independence. Within this, Chopin deals with the cult of domesticity, society's confinements, individuality, and self-discovery. From there, she talks about temptation (resisting/ succumbing, exemplified by Edna's choice in cheating on her husband and leaving her family), love (of her marriage, of her affairs, of her family, and of her friends- what is really love?), responsibility (to her family, to herself, and to society), marriage (society's version vs. how it "should be"), and suicide (its implication and its motivation). She raises questions about all of these themes and through them challenges the reader to find a meaning based on his or her belief in them. (Kelly)

One major theme of the novel is the subjectivity of morality and how this links into Chopin's message about society's morality and the individual's morality. Chopin demonstrates with Leonce, for example, the difference between his intention as a good husband and his actions in reality. This contrast serves to show how society's opinion or moral judgement of Leonce may praise him as a good husband but his actions in reality demonstrate an individual who holds a flawed, material view of his wife and family. This subjectivity of morality could also be applied to other characters such as Robert, a young man who flirts with other married women but also backs off when things become too serious (aka running off to Mexico). The subjectivity of morality plays a major role in revealing Chopin's deeper message about Edna's struggle to present her own morality despite society's definition. It also challenges the reader to reassess morality as it applies to other major topics in the book such as sexuality, freedom, and marriage. (Nova Quaoser)

Motifs/Symbols

BonBons: In the beginning of the story when all of the characters are still on vacation at the Grand Isle, Léonce would always bring back BonBons for his kids when he came home from work. This symbolized his superficial relationship with his kids and wife that to everyone merely looking on, seemed to be perfect and almost idealistic as if he was the perfect husband when in reality he did not pay much genuine attention to his family. It shows that Léonce is a very surface and object-oriented character mainly concerned with other people’s perceptions of him. (Abbe)

The Wedding Ring: The wedding ring appears on multiple occasions throughout the story and symbolizes Edna's forced conformity society as an obedient wife. At the beginning of the story, Edna tries to avoid her subservient role by taking off the wedding ring when she is on the beach with Robert, which symbolizes her short lived freedom. However, she must put the ring back on when she sees her husband again, showing her inability to permanently escape her role in society. Also, she tries to stomp on the wedding ring, "striving to crush it" (87) but the ring is undamaged, which shows her realization that she will never be able to get out of the bonds of her marriage. (Ken)

Cigarettes: Cigarettes symbolize the perceived immaturity of both Arobin and Robert from the rest of the men in the Creole society. While Léonce smokes cigars, which represents maturity, wealth and status, the other two men in Edna’s life smoke cigarettes further encapsulating just how different the men themselves and their morals are from the more “seasoned” men in the community. These men were seen as cheap when it came to values and respect, and cigarettes were also cheaper than cigars during that time too. Edna is moving away from the elitist lifestyle she knew with Léonce (cigars) to the carefree ruthless lifestyle with her two lovers Robert and Arobin (cigarettes). (KAT)

(Horse Races): The horse races that Edna attends with Alcée symbolize her inclination to disassociate herself with the traditional Creole lifestyle. Within society during this particular time period, horse races were seen as a lower class event. Alcée and Edna’s relationship affirms Edna’s detachment from society’s material, emotional, and physical limitations. Therefore, Edna’s attendance to the races demonstrate her ability to live a more authentic lifestyle and to shed the layers that have externally defined her. MCC

True artists: True art is a symbol throughout the book for nonconformity and sincerity of expression. Mlle. Reisz is a pianist and a true artist, a nonconformist brave enough to withstand the disapproval of others towards her lifestyle and art. Edna is an aspiring artist, but from her end and Mlle. Reisz's words, it can be concluded that Edna did not have the courage to truly embrace the artist/nonconformist lifestyle. Fake artists include Mme. Ratignolle and the Farival twins, both of whom dabble in the arts for the approval of others and do not truly feel their arts. (IC)

Significance of Opening Scene

The parrot at the beginning of the novel signifies Edna, for she is trapped in society just as the birds are trapped in the cage. By opening the story with the birds saying, “Get out! Get out! Damn it!” it foreshadows Edna’s need for release, where she finally cannot handle being trapped any longer, and she commits suicide. Also, “the language which nobody understood” reflects Edna’s inability to share her feelings throughout the work. (Caroline P) Additionally, this symbolizes her realization of how oppressive the Creole culture with which she was not previously acquainted is. The parrot may also symbolize her instincts, which are telling her to get out of her relationship with Leonce. Symbolically, they are also caged, just like the parrot. Leonce's reaction to the parrot's noise is one of disgust, and it is mentioned that "he does not need to remain in the parrot's company" if the parrot ceased to be amusing, paralleling
the rather detached way in which Leonce views Edna. (Matthew Sparks)

Significance of Closing Scene

Edna’s suicide suggests that society ultimately defeats her desire to break free of its limitations. Earlier in the novel when she first learns to swim, Edna feels a desire to swim farther than any woman ever had. This ends up being the cause for her death because she swims too far out and breaks through too many of society’s standards for women at the time. She becomes like the disabled bird she sees above her, struggling in the wind until it falls into the ocean. (Sparling)
When looked at through the lens of society suppressing individuality, Edna's suicide is a depressing outlook unless one considers the fact that society exists to place constraints on people in order to function better together as a whole. In today's society, we can see that the restrictions placed on Edna were unfair; however, to her society, Edna was a radical and potentially dangerous anomaly in their functioning system. The struggle of the individual to remain an individual in society, which by nature is constantly suppressing individuality, is a common theme in literature. Edna's story, and especially the end scene, serves to show that when change is too radical and occurs too quickly, the individual is often swept away by the tide of the much larger majority. (Rach)

Other Stuff-

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