The Awakening by Kate Chopin: An analysis

The awakening by Kate Chopin cover

Following is an analysis by Sarah Wyman of The Awakening by Kate Chopin, an 1899 novella telling the story of a young mother who undergoes a dramatic period of change as she “awakens” to the restrictions of her traditional societal role and to her full potential as a woman.

Many times, we find Edna Pontellier awake in situations that signify more metaphorical awakenings to new knowledge and sensual experience.

Consequently, Chopin’s work came under immediate attack when published and was banned from bookstores and libraries. The author died virtually forgotten, yet The Awakening has been rediscovered and holds a secure and prominent position as a watershed text in U.S. literature and feminist studies.

 

The restrictions of marriage and motherhood

Edna’s first depicted episode of awakening, literally, comes at the expense of a good night’s sleep, and leaves her crying and frustrated but unable to articulate the source of her emotional response to a callous, if affectionate, husband.

From this powerless starting point, Edna will experience a series of discoveries about her world and her self that inspire her to experiment and explore, but leave her ultimately defeated. Vacationing at Grand Isle on the Gulf of Mexico, she undergoes life-changing transformations.

Marriage and motherhood constitute unsupportable restrictions for Edna. Léonce, her well-respected, businessman husband, clearly objectifies Edna when she returns from a sunny beach day: “You are burnt beyond recognition,” [Léonce] added, looking at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property. He turns Edna into a thing or a commodity through his perception of her and his desire to control her actions.

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The awakening by Kate Chopin
Willa Cather’s review of The Awakening

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Acting rebellious, Edna defies social convention in various ways. Back in New Orleans, she stops holding her Tuesday evening “at-homes;” she stomps on her wedding ring; and she moves out of her house into a smaller space of her own. She refuses to attend a family wedding and remembers her own as an “accident,” a revolt against her father and sister’s wishes.

Simultaneously, she witnesses the growth of her own spiritual life: “There was with her a feeling of having descended in the social scale, with a corresponding sense of having risen in the spiritual.” None of these minor outrages, even the collapse of her marriage, were Léonce to let her go, would necessarily have precipitated her suicide.

The dilemma of how to mother her children appropriately, with the risk of subjecting them to the public shame she brings upon herself, seems to be the decisive factor.

 

A feminist framework

Chopin problematizes traditional roles and expectations for men and women by illustrating the dilemmas that arise when one troubles the waters by behaving in non-conformist ways. Hélène Cixous’ famous critique of the western binary system of gender definition (and conceptualizations that issue from it) provides an interesting framework with which to look at the novel.

The French feminist illustrates basic, two-part description of “patriarchal binary thought” with these contrasts:

  • Activity / Passivity
  • Sun / Moon
  • Culture / Nature
  • Head / Emotions
  • Intelligible / Sensitive
  • Logos / Pathos

On which side (left/right) would you place “male” and on which side “female,” according to typical definitions in our culture? The list continues… add your own.

  • Thinking / Feeling
  • Demanding / Suggesting
  • Directing / Manipulating
  • Teaching / Nurturing
  • Action / Passion
  • Mind / Nature
  • War / Love
  • Freedom / Security
  • Defining / Describing
  • Pointing / Indicating
  • Linear / Associative
  • Strong / Reliable
  • Muscley / Shapely
  • Sweat / Perspire
  • Triumph / Succeed
  • Command / Comply

Of course, such simple dichotomies (or 2-part systems of thought) are “reductive” or “essentializing” (in the words of many critics). These terms simplify complicated characteristics, fitting generalized features into neat boxes. There are gray areas between any polar opposites, and no one belongs, fully, to either of these artificial categories.

Contemporary critics and theorists tend to think more in terms of a “continuum of gender and sexuality” or a vast range of possibilities between so-called male and female characteristics. This newer theory originates, in part, with Judith Butler’s work during the 1980s, particularly Gender Trouble.

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The Awakening by Kate Chopin

Quotes from The Awakening by Kate Chopin

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Considering Edna Pontellier and Adèle Ratignolle

Think about Edna when we first meet her, and as she develops through the course of the novel. How does she fit traditional gender roles for women, and how does she branch away from such expectations? This question constitutes a major theme of the novel.

We can look at Edna specifically in her role as a mother. SUNY-New Paltz graduate student Marissa Caston made an important connection between The Awakening and Cixous’ thoughts on mothering with this compelling, if dated quote from “The Laugh of the Medusa”:

In women there is always more or less of the mother who makes everything all right, who nourishes, and who stand up against separation; a force that will not be cut off but will knock the wind out of the codes.

Obviously, Edna is not a traditional “mother-woman” like her foil character Adèle Ratignolle. A foil character is one basically similar to the protagonist, yet differing in certain ways that serve to illuminate the protagonist more brightly or clearly (as in a tin-foil reflection).

For example, Adèle is the quintessential mother-woman, an “angel in the house,” beautiful, earthy, usually pregnant, utterly ensconced in her domestic role as mother and nurturer. She does not question her position, nor complain of her duties.

In contrast to Adèle, Edna’s divergence from expected actions and behaviors becomes all the more striking. Their conversation on mothering is a key to the novel. Edna explains, “I would give my life for my children: but I wouldn’t give myself.” Perhaps she implies that a selfless or unfulfilled mother is no mother at all. One could interpret this statement multiple ways.

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The awakening by Kate Chopin cover

Full text of The Awakening by Kate Chopin (1899)
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A rich array of characters

In a somewhat mechanical manner, various characters demonstrate or activate particular aspects of Edna’s awakening. The pianist Mademoiselle (Miss) Reisz models the independent woman as artist, utterly unconcerned with personal appearance or public scrutiny. She encourages Edna to sketch, to cultivate her own creativity.

The novel does not put forth a woman who can be both an artist and a mother. Mademoiselle Reisz may even appear less “feminine” because she does not depend on a man, has no children, and takes no heed of social mores.

Two men factor as lovers in Edna’s sexual awakening. Robert Lebrun sees Edna as a person and provides a more equal meeting of the minds than her marriage can.

Edna credits Robert with awakening her that summer at Grand Isle. He seems to love her generously, yet his desires are tinged with a possessiveness Edna cannot abide. She rejects outright the possibility of marriage, saying, “I am no longer one of Mr. Pontellier’s possessions to dispose of or not. I give myself where I choose.

If he were here to say, ‘Here, Robert, take her and be happy; she is yours,’ I should laugh at you both.”

At this point, Edna has been sexually involved with Alcee Arobin, the town Casanova, who “detected her latent sensuality” and with whom she has a purely carnal, adulterous relationship. In contrast, she loves Robert and finds great comfort in him. Nevertheless, she no longer trusts in any sort of permanence in any relationship.

Ultimately, only Dr. Mandalet, well acquainted with human affairs of the heart, seems to understand Edna and may possibly have led her to some alternate solution than suicide. She explains to him at the story’s end, “perhaps it is better to wake up after all, even to suffer, rather than to remain a dupe to illusions all one’s life.”

The kind doctor encourages her to confide in him saying, “I know I would understand, and I tell you there are not many who would – not many, my dear.” If only she had given this male ally a chance, and shared her dilemma with him.

 

Questions of ethnicity

The novel treats questions of ethnicity in interesting ways. Edna’s new, maverick way of life aside, she feels an outsider in both her Grand Isle and New Orleans communities because she is a Protestant rather than a Catholic Creole like her husband and acquaintances.

Via the omniscient narrator, Chopin condemns racist attitudes in her portrayal of Adèle’s deeply prejudiced view of Mexicans and African-Americans, particularly the degrading image of the young girl operating the foot pedal of the sewing machine for Madame LeBrun. As a rule in the text, skin color is assumed to be white and only specified otherwise in terms of difference.

 

Stylistic features and motifs

As an interesting stylistic feature, the novel incorporates episodes written in the Darwinian Naturalist vein, particularly those involving attention to the female, sexual drive. At various moments, Edna is pictured in an animalistic way, as a sharp-toothed creature of instinct. After waking at Madame Antoine’s house, she blooms sensually and tears at the bread with her teeth.

When Robert leaves and she begins to understand her passion for him, she similarly bites her handkerchief. She sticks her pointed nails into Arobin’s palm, and she reminds him of “some beautiful, sleek animal waking up in the sun” (emphasis mine).

The motifs of swimming, of birds, of the lyric line si tu savais (if you only knew) all seem to converge in the final scene of the novel. Edna wades out into the sea where she experienced her first sensual awakening and, later, her powerful achievement of learning to swim.

Birth and death converge as she immerses herself in water, the feminine element, par excellence. A few critics including Sandra Gilbert, argue that Edna does not commit suicide. What do you think?

— Contributed by Sarah Wyman, Associate Professor of English, SUNY-New Paltz

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More about The Awakening by Kate Chopin

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