The Awakening

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Setting (Time, Place, Influence)

Takes place in late eighteen hundreds in the strict Catholic society of southern New Orleans. During this time in New Orleans women were the property of their husbands. Any of the wife’s belongings after marriage were the property of her husband, including money and clothes. Women were also not allowed to sign a legal contract without the consent of their husband. In this Catholic society divorce was also viewed as highly scandalous. During the 1890's however women were beginning the suffrage movements and were attending college in record numbers.MDF

Plot

The book begins by outlining the nature of Edna's life as a housewife in the Pontellier home, and provides details that hint at her dissatisfaction/failure to fit into her social role. As she spends more time with Robert and their relationship grows more real, she begins to desire a more liberal way of life, as evidenced by her learning to swim at such a late age, representative of her growing yearning for freedom. However, she is thrown from her path when Robert suddenly leaves for Mexico, and she begins to make increasingly rash decisions in order to appeal to her new desires. She pursues her artwork, stomps her wedding ring, refuses unconditionally to bend to the wills of her father and husband, buys a new house for herself, and fatefully becomes romantically involved with Alcée Arobin. After Robert returns from Mexico, Edna's life has become thrown into such turmoil as to cause it to crumble, and her separation from her former society causes her ties to her husband, Alcée, and even Robert (who says he loves her) to break, bringing her to ruin. Ultimately Edna faces her shattered world by making the final determination that she must end it, and she swims out into the sea until she drowns. GWL

Characters

Edna

The wife of Leonce, mother of Etienne and Raoul, and daughter of the Colonel. Unlike most of the characters, Edna is not a Creole, born in Kentucky from a Presbyterian family. Edna leads a very conventional life with her husband and children, but she feels trapped, a problem made worse by her loveless marriage. Where Leonce has very particular views about what women should do and how they should behave, Edna disagrees and soon begins to completely disregard his wishes. Their marriage fails because neither one understands the other: Leonce tries to be a good husband, never intentionally cruel, but he is not what she needs, and Edna resents his trying to control her actions. Her relationship with her children is likewise distant, occasionally showering them with affection but mostly forgetting them. 
Edna’s relationship with Robert Lebrun catalyzes her transformation from a traditional role to a nonconformist. After he leaves, Edna’s slow realization of her love for Robert and progression to independence evolve simultaneously. Gradually leaving her former friends, Edna begins to spend more time with other on the outskirts of society, particularly Mademoiselle Reisz. As she further departs from tradition, Edna buys her own house, supporting herself on income from her paintings and Leonce’s money. She continues to love Robert, indirectly keeping in touch with him by reading his letters to Mlle. Reisz. Near the end, Edna has an affair with Alcee Arobin, but her only regret is that it happened with someone other than Robert. Her feelings finally crystallize when he returns, but once he realizes the futility of their relationship, he leaves again. The last few pages record Edna’s suicide by drowning after despairing of Robert’s farewell note.
Edna might be considered immoral because of her infidelity and lack of regard for her children, but she could also be regarded as a hero for feminism because of her actions toward independence. (ECH)

Robert

Robert is somewhat immature in comparison to Edna. He is used to being flirtatious with married women, but Edna is the first one to actually take him as seriously as she does. He's at a very different stage in his life than Edna- she is married and settled, and he is just now going out to "find himself." This is one of the main reasons he is unable to commit to Edna the way she wants him to; he isn't prepared for the domestic life just yet. He leaves Edna at the end to avoid the consequences of their relationship, showing his irresponsibility- another indication at the difference in maturity levels between the two. Robert also serves as a contrast to Mr. Pontellier: he pays more attention to Edna and is more appreciative of her as an individual even though he cannot commit to her, and is not as concerned with reputation and tradition as Mr. Pontellier. (CCLL)

Mlle Reisz

Mlle Reisz is an example of an unconventional female. Because of her nonconformity she is considered disagreeable and unfashionable by most of the high society people. She is unfeminine, ungraceful, strong, and poor. However, her nonconformity attracts Edna to her. Throughout the book Mlle Reisz serves as Edna's confidant. She is logical and practical in her nonconformity because she is independent while Edna is not. Chopin uses Mlle Reisz as a contrast to Edna's impractical nonconformity (the pigeon house). Her extreme artistic ability on the piano suggests independence and artistry. To her, being an artist requires courage and doing something that no one else has done before. She serves as link between Edna and Robert while Robert is away. mgb

Mme Ratignolle

She is one of the main characters throughout the novel. She serves as a good foil to Edna Pontellier and is described as a “mother-women,” a term given to “women who idolized their children, worshipped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege …[to] grow wings as ministering angels (16). She is protective of Edna, as exemplified when she tells Robert to stop flirting with Edna for fear that Edna may actually take him seriously. In many instances, Ratignolle can be described as a foreshadower who advices Edna on different problems that later come to truth – Edna never follows this advice. Even though Ratignolle is described with a sense of awe, it has sarcastic undertone showing how Edna doesn’t understand Ratignolle’s maternal behavior. She is the model of good Creole behavior… for example she can't walk with a man's assistance (34) and she is described as "dainty, matronly, and feminine" which contrasts to the description of Edna who is described as burnt or having rough hands. (27) (MKB)

Alcee Arobin

Arobin is a man in the city with a reputation for having affairs with married women. He serves as a contrast to Robert and Mr. Pontellier to show a different kind of relationship. He has an affair with Edna, that he pursues, but he never feels any real connection to her and she never feels any real connection to him. His relationship with Edna allows Edna to realize that she is in love with Robert, and throughout their relationship Edna continuously feels bad for "cheating on" Robert and not her husband. Arobin is used to show a passionate relationship, to contrast one with love and one with no connection. JAE

Leonce Pontellier

Leonce Pontellier is the Edna’s husband. He is much older than Edna, and he is often away from his family. Leonce is a rather boring person. His love for Edna is strictly formal and surface level; there is no passion involved. He is not evil, but acts a stereotypical rich, Creole man of the time would. He believes that Edna is his property. However, this was an acceptable view for the time. He wants to try to fix the problems Edna is having, but fails. He put an extreme amount of effort in to trying to cover up things that Edna does. For example when Edna moves out of the main house into the pigeon house, he puts the big house under construction so that no one will think anything of it. -mgb
Leonce Pontellier is the very definition of a Creole man of his day. He is fairly wealthy, and is married to an attractive young woman who is obviously a great deal younger than he is (as was custom.) For his era and culture, he is actually a great husband. He is kind, gentle, and relatively understanding of Edna. To Leonce, his own greatest asset is his public persona. Like all Creole men, it is of the utmost importance to have a clean and clear image. One that can be trusted. This is why Leonce makes the decisions that he does; he is trying to protect his image. For the sake of his reputation, he cannot let people think that Edna is overly empowered in their relationship. Also, he would fear word getting out about Edna sneaking around behind his back, because it would make him look weak. This is also why he plans the construction to cover up Edna's moving out. It's all because he doesn't want to be viewed as a weak individual. Leonce goes to great lengths to keep his reputation intact, because that's the most important thing a creole man had. -(JRP)

The Colonel

Edna's dad. He goes with her to gamble at the race track. Edna takes care of him in a way that she does not take care of her husband, and she does not mind it. He is extremely proud and thinks that he has passed on the best of traits to his daughters. He is similar in tastes to Edna, but they do not have a close relationship. -JAE

Etienne & Raoul

The two children of Leonce and Enda, Etiennie is the younger and Raoul the older. They are used mainly to show Edna’s awkwardness in a mothering role. -MJB
While these two boys are loved by their parents, Edna and Leonce often do a poor job of showing Etienne and Raoul the affection that they feel. Edna is clearly an inadequate mother, and she put little effort into being a mother for these two boys. Also, Their father Leonce is often gone, so presents aside, he really isn't a very big part of their lives. -(JRP)

Mariequita

A flirtatious young Spanish girl who is shown to have a past relationship with both Robert and Victor. She is one of several to reproach Robert for flirting She is one of several to reproach Robert for flirting with Edna and later mistakenly believes that Victor and Edna are lovers. First appears on the Wharf in chapter 12. -MJB

The Calvary Officer

He was a man who visited Edna's father in Kentucky when she was younger. She seemed to have a somewhat infatuation with him, as she could not "remove her eyes from his face" and noticed small details about him like the black lock of hair on his forehead (37). Eventually, though, this calvary officer disappeared from her life. He was the first of several in Edna's younger years for whom she had secretly grown fond, and each of their disappearances made Edna gradually realize that she had to settle in her role as a proper southern woman and love Leonce, even if only on a surface level. (KEM)

Themes/Meanings of the Work

One possible meaning of the Awakening is that love and passion can sometimes be messy and difficult. This is supported by Chopin in the contrast between Edna and Leonce’s marriage and the Ratignolle’s marriage. The Pontellier’s marriage is bumpy, displaying that not all marriages are smooth and stay great forever. Chopin also shows the two options that one can choose when presented with this situation: Edna’s route, or what Madame Ratignolle would do. Edna’s expresses the feeling of contempt that divorce by a woman was looked upon in the time of the book. Regarding Robert, just when Edna professes her love, or makes it clear how she feels about him, he runs away to Mexico. The sweeping point here is that there is not straight path in love. (CAW)

One common theme in The Awakening is that some decisions are hard to escape/back out of. Edna, like the bird in the cage, feels trapped, but she fails to realize that after a certain point there is no backing out of the life you have created for yourself. Madamoiselle Reisz has not trapped herself the way that Edna has, and because of this Edna envies her freedom.
Another meaning/message that resonates throughout the novel is that sometimes the happiness of an individual takes precedence over the happiness of other (in Edna's case, her family). This is a difficult meaning to swallow, but Chopin clearly wanted to emphasize that it is not a black and white issue, as much of her story gets caught in the gray area, in between soul searching and neglect. (HVK)

Motifs/Symbols

One of the main motifs in The Awakening is the sea motif. There are multiple interpretations for what the sea symbolizes but as we discussed in class a key argument is that Chopin uses the sea consistently throughout the book as a symbol of freedom for Edna. When Edna finds herself unable to fit in to the Creole society and a suffocating marriage on the shores of the Grand Isle, Chopin describes the scene when Edna takes a dip in the sea while her peers remained on the shore only to return to her husband explaining that he would never let her drown (p.37). This scene signifies the controlling nature of her husband and Edna’s limitations in fully reaching freedom of individuality. The sea motif appears again at the end of the novel when Edna drowns in the sea. Though this could be taken with a negative connotation of her suicidal action, it can also be interpreted as her finally reaching that freedom that she had so desperately been striving for the entire book. (MCB)

A symbol in The Awakening are the birds that are introduced on the first page and seen throughout the novel. The birds on the first page are in a cage and shrieking unpleasantly, cursing at Mr. Pontellier and telling him to go away. This could easily represent Edna's feelings towards Léonce, and the cage could represent how Edna's marriage to Léonce makes her feel. She feels trapped and ignored or unheard from. Madame Reisz also makes a comment about how a bird that is going to soar has to have strong wings, which could signify Edna's desires to leave society influences behind and go out on her own. And once again, the symbol of birds are used when Edna approaches the water for her final swim, and she sees a bird with a broken wing. This broken, dying bird represents the part of her soul that could not express itself; hence, it broke her down until she could no longer live with herself. (ACH)

Significance of Opening Scene

The opening scene of the awakening serves to introduce Léonce, Edna’s husband, and the setting. In order to portray the mood of the setting, Chopin uses a parrot to act as a stressor to Léonce. Mr. Pontellier is agitated in the utmost by a bird that chooses to speak his mind in a harsh and abrupt way. Mr. Pontellier’s reaction of “disgust” is significant because he demonstrates the stifling animosity towards change or disruptions to routine that pushes Edna to act of her own accord. Because Mr. Pontellier must have his way immediately, the reader can see that Edna would quickly grow weary of blending into the monotonous routine of Créole life. The reader is primarily introduced to the Créole setting in this scene by the French dialect employed by the parrot. (MGB)

Significance of Closing Scene

In the closing scene, Edna walks down to the water where she will ultimately commit suicide. But before her death, Chopin includes details that use motifs and symbolism to bring her themes on nonconformity to a close. First, Chopin points out a bird “with a broken wing” struggling to fly above the water and eventually crashes into the sea. This bird, a symbol of nonconformity and freedom, foreshadows Edna’s plunge into the sea. The birds broken wing emphasizes her failure to succeed as a nonconformist. After the vision of the bird, Edna puts on her bathing suit preparing to go into the water. However, as one finally act against society, she takes it off and “stand[s] naked under the sky” as if to say she will not leave the world as people would expect. (pg. 189). Overall, Chopin uses motifs and symbolism in the final scene to suggest that, even though Edna did not succeed in defying society, she was persistent until the very end. (MRS)

Fun Stuff-

There was nothing left to fill out, so here goes:

I have a biography for Kate Chopin - http://www.vcu.edu/engweb/webtexts/hour/katebio.html

I also had pictures but I cannot seem to make them show up on this website… so sorry about that. (ACH)

There was nothing left (at least nothing I could think to say), so here is a website with information on Creole culture:

http://www.everyculture.com/multi/Bu-Dr/Creoles.html#b

Also:

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Kate Chopin herself! (HVK)