Book Review: The Awakening by Kate Chopin

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When “The Awakening” was first published in 1899, it caused a sensation due to its bold exploration of female marital infidelity. In a time when Victorian romantic fiction was the norm, Kate Chopin’s novel shocked readers by depicting a woman trapped in a suffocating marriage who seeks passionate love outside the confines of her domestic life.

Beyond its daring subject matter, the book is highly regarded today for its literary merits. Edmund Wilson praised it as a beautifully written work that fearlessly tackles infidelity, reminiscent of D. H. Lawrence’s later writings.

If you’re still unsure whether to give this book a chance, this review aims to provide you with all the information you need to make an informed decision about investing your time in it.

So, let’s dive in!

Plot Summary

A young married woman in the 1890s awakens to the value of herself and demands her independence.

Chapter 1

The novel opens on a Sunday in summer during the late 1800s, at a resort on Grand Isle, about 40 miles south of New Orleans, Louisiana. A slender, slightly stooped 40-year-old man is sitting outside, reading a day-old newspaper; he is Léonce Pontellier, a successful New Orleans broker, anxious to return to the city and to his work. 

The sounds of noisy caged birds, a badly played piano duet, and the cawings of his landlady, Madame Lebrun, rankle him. He rises and returns to his cottage, then sits at an outside table and watches as his wife makes her way up the beach toward him.

Léonce’s wife, Edna Pontellier, has been swimming and is returning with her swimming companion, young Robert Lebrun. When Edna reaches Léonce, his first words are reproachful: He says that she is “burnt beyond recognition.” Edna doesn’t take offense; she has been thoroughly enjoying the swimming and laughing with Robert. She raises her hands, and Léonce knows instinctively that she is waiting for him to drop her wedding rings into her palm so that she can slip them back on.

Edna asks Léonce if he’ll be back for dinner. His answer is a shrug of the shoulders. Their marriage clearly has become defined largely by nonverbal sign language. In contrast is the keen, smiling, and sparkling small talk that Edna has been sharing with Robert, something that pecks at Léonce’s sense of propriety. His wife, certainly a good wife, often seems more like a child than a New Orleans society matron of 28.

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Chapters 2–4 

Edna Pontellier has yellowish-brown eyes, beneath heavy, dark-brown eyebrows, slightly darker than her hair. She is more handsome than pretty. She is, Chopin says, “engaging,” and certainly Robert finds her so. As Robert talks about himself, Edna listens, fascinated by this young man who is characterized by exuberance and spontaneity—qualities that Léonce lacks. 

When they realize that Léonce isn’t returning for dinner, Edna goes to her room and Robert seeks out the Pontellier children to play with.

Léonce returns late, at 11 o’clock, and checks on his children. Both are sleeping but Raoul seems to have a fever. Léonce awakens his wife and reproaches her for neglecting the children. She checks on the child, then returns and refuses to answer Léonce’s accusatory questions. 

When he is asleep, she goes out on the porch, sits in a wicker rocker, and begins to weep. She doesn’t understand why she is crying, and her confusion over this overflowing emotion unsettles her more than Léonce’s unfair declamations.

The next morning, Léonce gives Edna half of his winnings from billiards, and boards a carriage that will take him to the steamer, on which he will travel to New Orleans. He is eager to be gone.

Chopin now introduces a new character, Adèle Ratignolle, a Creole (someone descended from the original French and Spanish people who settled in New Orleans). Adèle has become a close friend of Edna and is a “mother-woman.” 

In an era when Kentucky-bred women like Edna did not discuss pregnancy, Adèle delights in talking about “her condition.” This summer, Edna is the only non- Creole at the Lebruns’ resort. The rest of the women are Creoles, like Adèle.

Chapters 5–6 

One summer afternoon, Adèle sits sewing while Edna and Robert watch. Robert has “lived in [Edna’s] shadow” during the past month. He is now 26 and for years has spent his summers choosing one of the female guests to devote himself to. This summer, it is Edna. Edna is unaware of Robert’s recurring role as devoted attendant to sundry women over the years. 

At present, she is gazing at Adèle, pregnant and Madonna-like in Edna’s revery. Robert breaks the mood by theatrically moaning in a mock-serious tone that Adèle, despite her tableau of flawless serenity, is a cold mistress. 

Adèle, with mock haughtiness, retorts that Robert was a terrible nuisance, always under her feet, “like a troublesome cat.” Robert continues, characterizing himself as a suffering suitor, spurned by his one true love. 

Edna is puzzled, relieved that he never assumes this tone nor this type of humor when they are alone together. She picks up her sketching materials and begins a portrait of Adèle, seeing her again as a “sensuous Madonna.” Robert leans against her intimately, and she pushes him gently away. Adèle suddenly complains of faintness, and Edna rushes to her, bathing her face with cologne while Robert cools her with a palm fan.

Recovered, Adèle walks toward her cottage, joined by two of her children. Robert impulsively implores Edna to go swimming with him. At first Edna declines, but she is soon persuaded.

Chapters 7–10 

One day, when Edna and Adèle are sitting on the beach together, Edna begins telling her about her childhood in Kentucky. She was enamored of a sad-eyed cavalry officer, of a young man engaged to someone else, and of an actor whom she had never met—she had only his picture, which she passionately kissed behind the cold glass of the frame. 

Edna’s marriage to Léonce was an accident. They met, he fell in love with her, and seemed absolutely devoted to her. Her father and sister Margaret were violently opposed to her marrying a Catholic; nonetheless, she did. Ever after, she has been Léonce’s devoted wife, in a world of privilege but devoid of romance and dreams.

The two women are interrupted by Robert and a troop of children, and Adèle asks him for his arm, complaining of stiffness and cramps in her legs. Leaning toward him, she implores him to “let Mrs. Pontellier alone.” 

Robert is incensed: his affection for Edna is genuine and he is not toying with her emotions. Adèle, however, insists that “she is not one of us. She might make the unfortunate blunder of taking you seriously.” Seeing that Robert is angered by her entreaty, Adèle apologizes.

One night, Madame Lebrun arranges an evening of entertainment. The children are allowed to stay up, piano recitals are performed, and couples begin waltzing. The children are then sent to bed, and ice cream and cake are passed around. Edna dances twice with Léonce, once with Robert, and once with Adèle’s husband. Afterward, she goes outside and sits on a low windowsill, gazing out at the sea. 

Robert follows and asks if she’d like to hear Mademoiselle Reisz play. She would, and Robert hastens to the old woman’s quarters to plead with her to attend the festivities and play for Edna. 

The first chords of Chopin that Mademoiselle Reisz strikes send a sharp tremor down Edna’s spine. Waves of emotion rouse themselves within her, diminishing her rationality. Afterward, Mademoiselle Reisz tells her, “You are the only one worth playing for.” 

Robert suggests that although it is late and there is only a moon to light the way, they should all go for a swim. Everyone enthusiastically agrees and they all set out for the beach—Edna and Léonce, as well. Edna has been taking swimming lessons all summer from Robert and has never quite mastered the skill, but when she enters the sea tonight, she suddenly finds herself swimming —far beyond the others. 

She grows daring and reckless, yearning to swim far out, “where no woman had swum before.” Edna is satisfied and fulfilled when she returns to shore, but Léonce is not impressed with her accomplishment.

Robert’s mother remarks to Léonce that Edna is “capricious.” Léonce agrees: “I know she is. Sometimes, not often.”

On the way back, Robert spins a tale about a spirit that inhabits the earth, every August 28, at the hour of midnight, when the moon is shining. On that night, it will claim one mortal worthy of his company and of sharing mystical emotions of the “semi-celestials.” 

Edna, says Robert, was chosen tonight by the spirit. When they reach the Pontellier cottage, Edna rests herself in a wide hammock. Robert brings her a white shawl and offers to stay with her until the others arrive. Edna tells him that he may do as he wishes. She is overcome with waves of new feelings and new possibilities.

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Chapters 11–14 

When Léonce returns from the beach, he is perturbed to find Edna lying in the hammock; “respectable” women should be in bed, he thinks. She tells him not to wait up. He orders her to come to bed. She refuses.

She means to stay in the hammock and, furthermore, she tells him not to talk to her in that tone of voice. Léonce pours himself some wine and sits on the porch, smoking cigars until almost dawn. Edna rouses herself and asks him if he’s coming to bed, and petulantly he answers that he’s not coming until he has finished his cigar.

Edna sleeps only a few fitful hours. Impulsively, she tells a young girl to go waken Robert and send him to her. She wants him to accompany her to Mass on a neighboring island. On the boat, Edna notices a saucy, barefoot Spanish girl, Mariequita, who flirts with Robert. Sailing across the bay, Edna again feels as though something has awakened inside her. 

Intuitively, Robert begins talking nonstop to her and suggests that they sail tomorrow for an island that houses an old fort. The day after, perhaps they can go to a series of villages built on stilts on an island not far away. Fancifully, Robert teases her that they’ll slip away in the night and go to an island where pirate gold is hidden. Edna is enchanted by his imagination: Yes, she’ll go.

During Mass, a lack of sleep overcomes Edna and she leaves the church. Robert follows and takes her to Madame Antoine’s cottage, where she is put to bed. She sleeps long and deep, and when she awakens, the afternoon shadow are lengthening. Striking up their earlier spark of fancy, Edna asks Robert how long she’s slept. A hundred years, he tells her—and he has guarded her all these years.

At home, Adèle complains that Edna’s son Etienne has been unruly. Edna takes him in her arms and rocks and coddles him into sleep. Léonce is at Klein’s talking to other brokers. Robert says goodnight to Edna, who exclaims that they have been together “the whole livelong day.” It is a startling revelation to her.

Robert teases her again with a snippet of fancy: he tells her that not only did they spend the entire day together, but they spent the hundred years while she was sleeping.

Chapters 15–16 

One evening, Edna, a little flushed, dressed magnificently in a snow-white gown, enters the dining room and is assailed by voices on all sides of her: Robert is leaving tonight for Mexico. Unbelievable! She looks at him, utterly bewildered; she was with him all morning and he never mentioned leaving. 

Robert looks at her, obviously uneasy and embarrassed. Robert tells her that for years he’s told everyone that he’s going to Mexico, and that this afternoon he had made up his mind to go. He mentions a man at Vera Cruz who will help him make his fortune in Mexico.

Edna goes to her room, where she changes into a housecoat and begins hanging up clothes that are scattered throughout the room. She receives word that Madame Lebrun would like her to join them before Robert leaves. Edna declines. 

Adèle tries to convince Edna to join them in wishing Robert well before he departs. Edna begs off, saying that she doesn’t want to dress again. Somewhat later, Robert arrives with a small suitcase in hand. Edna asks him how long he’ll be gone, and he whimsically says that maybe he’ll be gone forever. 

Not in the mood for games, Edna is frank, revealing that she’s become fond of seeing him every day. In an almost cold fashion, Robert says to her, “Good-bye, my dear Mrs. Pontellier…. I hope you won’t completely forget me.” Edna asks him to write, and he promises to do so.

For the next few days, Edna finds herself spending time with Robert’s mother, looking at photographs of Robert on the walls, asking questions about him. Madame Lebrun tells her that a letter arrived from Robert, and Edna is thrilled. The letter is brief, Edna is mentioned only in a postscript; Robert tells his mother that if Mrs. Pontellier wants the book back that he was reading to her, it is in his room.

The eccentric old pianist, Mademoiselle Reisz, visits Edna and inquires if Edna doesn’t miss her “young friend.” Edna fends off further questions with a comment about Robert’s mother probably missing him greatly—especially since Robert is her favorite son. 

Mademoiselle Reisz cackles maliciously and reveals to Edna that the spoiled, exotically handsome Victor is the favorite son, not Robert. Shortly afterward, she departs, leaving Edna with her address in New Orleans and extending a hope that Edna will visit her when she returns to the city.

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Chapters 17–19 

Back in New Orleans, both Léonce and Edna return to their old patterns. They dine at the same time, Léonce leaves for the office at the same time, and Edna, every Tuesday, is “at home”—that is, she dresses in a receiving gown and receives lady guests; in the evening, men (and occasionally, their wives) come to call. Their clockwork existence has been reset. 

Léonce is content. One Tuesday evening at dinner, however, Léonce notices that Edna isn’t dressed in one of her receiving gowns. She tells Léonce that she has chosen “not to receive” that day. Léonce is stunned and asks for an explanation. Edna gives him none; she is simply “out.” Léonce is severe with her. She has no choice; she must observe social conventions in this city. She can’t afford to be “out” on Tuesday. “People,” he says, “don’t do such things.” At odds with his capricious wife and despairing over the insipid, unseasoned soup, Léonce leaves to take dinner at his club. 

Flushed, Edna finishes dinner alone, then goes to her room. In dark frustration, she smashes a crystal vase and removes her wedding ring, dashes it on the carpet, and stamps on it.

The following morning, Léonce is in good spirits and invites Edna to meet him in the city and help pick out new library fixtures. When she declines the offer, Léonce kisses her good-bye and tells her that she’s not looking well. 

Edna rolls up some of her sketches and walks a short distance to Adèle’s apartment, where Adèle and her husband live above his drugstore. Adèle is delighted to see her friend. Edna tells her that she’s decided to take up painting; they study the sketches she’s brought, and Edna leaves several of them with Adèle after they finish dinner—a not altogether pleasant experience because Edna realizes what a close and understanding relationship Adèle shares with her husband.

When Edna abandons her at-home Tuesdays altogether, Léonce wonders if she isn’t a bit unbalanced. Because she spends so much time in the upstairs atelier, the children and the house are becoming neglected. He points out that Adèle is a better musician than Edna is a painter—yet Adèle doesn’t neglect either her house or her family. Edna is furious.

Days pass, and some of them are filled with emotions recollected as she remembers the flapping of sails, the glint of the moon on the water, and the hot southern wind. Other days are empty and unhappy.

Chapters 20–24 

During one of Edna’s despondent days, she decides to seek out the eccentric old pianist, Mademoiselle Reisz. Unfortunately, Mademoiselle has moved and no one seems to know where to. Edna hopes that perhaps Madame Lebrun might know, so she travels to the French Quarter, knocks, and Victor answers the door. 

He is as astonished to see Edna as she is to see him— he is now 19 years old, good-looking, and bursting with impetuosity. He sends a serving girl to fetch his mother and, in the meantime, entertains Edna with a tale about his previous night’s romantic adventure, a story which he never finishes because his mother arrives. 

While Edna is talking to Madame Lebrun, Victor reclines on a wicker lounge and winks at Edna. Edna is initially uncomfortable, but she forgets Victor’s teasing presence when Madame tells her that she’s received two letters from Robert. The news is meager; Robert’s financial status is no better than it was at home. Madame Lebrun then gives Edna the address for Mademoiselle Reisz.

Edna finds the old lady mending an antique button shoe. Mademoiselle Reisz intuits why Edna has come and tells her that she had a letter from Robert, but that it is really more about Edna than it is about Mademoiselle Reisz—yet she refuses to let Edna read the letter until Edna becomes strident. 

As Edna reads the letter, the old pianist begins playing sensuous, romantic music on her grand piano, and, as the shadows of evening fill the room, Edna reads and rereads Robert’s letter. Finally, she begins weeping and takes her leave.

Not long afterward, Léonce pays a visit to an old friend, Doctor Mandelet, asking for information and suggestions about Edna’s disturbing behavior. The doctor says simply that women are, by nature, moody and that Léonce should not pressure Edna to resume her at-home Tuesdays. 

Whatever has changed her will pass. He urges patience—and he agrees to come to the Pontellier home for dinner soon. After Léonce leaves, the doctor wonders if Edna could be infatuated with another man.

Edna’s father arrives in New Orleans to select a wedding gift for his daughter Janet and to buy wedding clothes for himself. It is not a wholly successful visit.

Initially, the old Kentucky colonel is a diversion for Edna, but his overbearing nature and his “toddies” become irksome. Doctor Mandelet listens carefully to Edna during dinner, and after the colonel and Léonce both tell stories, and Edna begins her story, he is convinced of what he suspected earlier: 

Edna spins a romantic tale about two lovers who sail off in a dugout canoe, through the glistening moonlight, and are never seen again. As Doctor Mandelet leaves, he hopes that Edna’s infatuation is not with the rakish Alcée Arobin, who prides himself on the number of women whom he’s seduced.

After her father has left for Kentucky, and Léonce has left for New York, and the children have been taken by their grandmother, Edna is alone in the house.

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Chapters 25–32 

Edna counters despondency by going again and again to the races with the fashionable and perpetually smiling Alcée Arobin. Regulars at the Jockey Club strain to hear Edna’s track predictions. 

Because she grew up in Kentucky, Edna feels at home in the stable-and-paddock atmosphere. Usually Mrs. Highcamp accompanies Edna and Alcée, but one day when Alcée arrives to pick up Edna, he is alone. 

Afterward, he dines with Edna and presses her for a closer relationship; she refuses and he kisses her hand. During the days that follow, Edna sees him every day; he stirs the animalism within her.

Seeking out Mademoiselle Reisz, Edna tells her that she’s going to buy a little four-room house around the corner from the big house that she shares with Léonce; she needs a house of her own. 

She needs the feeling of freedom and independence. Of course, she hasn’t told Léonce. Mademoiselle hands Edna two recent letters from Robert. His news overwhelms her: he is coming home. Edna confesses that she is in love with Robert—and she doesn’t know what she’ll do when he comes back.

That evening, Alcée notices that Edna is unusually restless. She relates a strange conversation that she had earlier with Mademoiselle Reisz; the eccentric old pianist felt Edna’s shoulder blades, remarking that Edna’s “wings” should be strong: “The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings.” 

Alcée kisses her, and Edna clasps his head, holding his lips to hers. After Alcée leaves, Edna cries a little. She’s aware that although Alcée can inflame her sexually, she’s not in love with him. They had sex—no more, no less—and it bears no comparison to the overwhelming love she has for Robert Lebrun.

Edna holds a “grand” dinner at the big house, but it is scarcely grand; there are only 10 people at the table. Conversation is spirited; wine flows freely and, at one point, the sensuously dark, good-looking Victor Lebrun begins softly singing, and Edna cannot bear to hear the familiar words of a song so dear to her.

She presses her hand against his mouth, and the pressure of his lips inflames her. Within minutes, the party disbands and the guests are gone.

Alcée walks Edna around the corner to the “pigeon house,” as she has dubbed it; inside, she discovers that Alcée has filled it with vases of fresh flowers. She pleads fatigue, saying that she feels as though something within her has “snapped.” Alcée listens, caressing her hair seductively.

Chapters 33–39 

Because Edna has visited Mademoiselle frequently, the eccentric old pianist has shown her where the key to the apartment is hidden.

Today, when Mademoiselle doesn’t answer Edna’s knock, Edna lets herself in. Waiting, she remembers Adèle’s plea: when the “hour of trial”—her term for childbirth—arrives, Edna must come to her. The afternoon grows late, and Edna hears a knock at the door: it is Robert Lebrun, back from Mexico. 

Edna is stunned, ill at ease. Robert tells her that he arrived in New Orleans a day earlier. The conversation is strained—about Robert’s lack of success in Mexico, and Edna’s moving to the small house. Then Edna sharply admonishes him: “You promised to write.” Robert makes an excuse, and Edna reaches for her hat, telling him that what he says “isn’t the truth.” Robert tells her that he’ll walk her home.

At the “pigeon house,” Edna invites him to stay for dinner and goes to speak to the cook. Meanwhile, Robert looks through Edna’s sketches and discovers a photograph of Alcée Arobin. Edna explains that she was using it to help her sketch Arobin’s head. 

Dinner finished, Robert rolls a cigarette with tobacco from a richly embroidered tobacco pouch, which, he explains, was given to him by a woman in Vera Cruz. Edna is instantly jealous. Arobin arrives and, when the conversation becomes sharply sarcastic, Robert leaves. Edna tells Arobin that he can’t stay for the night. He kisses her hand and vows that he loves her.

The morning mail contains several letters. Léonce tells Edna that he’ll be back in March; Arobin hopes that she slept well and he assures her of his devotion; the children rave about the bonbons she sent them, and they are excited about the 10 newborn, tiny white pigs. Edna warmly answers the letters from Léonce and the children. She hopes that Robert will come to her later in the day. Edna is deeply disappointed when he doesn’t. Yet Arobin does arrive.

One morning, Edna goes to the suburbs to spend a quiet time in a small, leafy garden, outside a modest little restaurant. She is reading when Robert pushes open the tall gate and enters. 

Again, Edna presses him to tell her why he didn’t write and why he stays away from her. She tells him that she feels neglected and hurt. Robert pleads with her not to ask him for the truth. After coffee, he accompanies Edna back to the “pigeon house.” 

Robert is sitting deep in one of Edna’s chairs, in shadow, his eyes closed, when she returns from bathing her face. Impulsively, she kisses him. He takes Edna in his arms and kisses her tenderly. “Now you know,” he tells her, “what I have been fighting against.” 

To be in love with a married woman has been a living hell that he could not endure —so he left for Mexico. He is obsessed with the wild dream of someday making Edna his wife. Edna’s response is fiery: She is not one of Léonce’s possessions. She gives herself to whomever she chooses.

At that moment, one of Adèle’s servants arrives, telling Edna that Adèle has gone into labor. Edna explains to Robert that she must go. Adèle’s pains are not serious, and, as Edna readies herself to leave, Adèle presses Edna’s cheek, entreating her to “think of the children! Remember them!” 

Home again, Edna is painfully disappointed to find that Robert is not waiting for her in the parlor.

On Grand Isle, Victor Lebrun is repairing one of the resort’s galleries; Mariequita is sitting nearby, urging him to tell her again about Edna’s dinner party. They are both astonished when Edna suddenly appears. Victor offers her his room, and Edna inquires about dinner, hoping she can have fish. She then says that she feels like a swim.

On the beach, she is uncomfortable in her prickly swimming suit, so she steps out of it. Naked, exhilarated, she walks into the sea, feeling newly born. Using long, sweeping strokes, she swims on and on until she is far from shore—too far to turn back. 

Her arms and legs are weary. She thinks of Léonce and the children. She remembers Robert’s note: “Good-bye—because I love you.” Her strength is gone. She remembers when she was a child, walking through an immense meadow, hearing the hum of bees and smelling the musky odor of pink flowers.

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Key Characters

Edna Pontellier: Handsome 28-year-old wife of well-to-do New Orleans broker Léonce Pontellier.

Leconce Pontellier: A successful, extremely conservative New Orleans broker who “owns things”; like many men of his era—the 1890s—he considers his wife to be part of his “property.”

Robert Lebrun: A striking young man whose hobby is making female guests at his mother’s summer resort feel attractive and well cared for.

Adele Ratignolle: A beautiful Creole woman; naturally maternal. Young, like Edna; becomes a close friend of Edna’s at Grand Isle. Has never imagined any sort of life for herself other than that of mother and wife.

Alcee Arobin: Something of a dandy; has a reputation for being one of New Orleans’s irresistible Don Juans. Considers Edna to be a challenge and vows to add her to his list of conquests.

Mademoiselle Reisz: Offers Edna an alternative role model for women in the 1890s. She is not a socially corseted wife like Edna, nor a doting mother like Adèle; instead, she’s an artist, a musician, and, being bohemian, she can be as outspoken and as forthright as the men of her time.

Victor Lebrun: Robert’s brother. His dark, exotic good looks tempt Edna.

Mariequita: A barefoot, spirited, and attractive flirt who enjoys being provocative with both Robert and his brother Victor. This kindles a feverish rivalry between them.

Themes and Ideas

1. Sense Of Self 

The key reason why this novel created such a furor among critics in 1899 is that the heroine, Edna Pontellier, a model wife at the beginning of the novel, slowly “awakens” to the possibility that she can be more than a wife and mother. 

These are merely roles. She and her husband have no authentic communication. She is merely his wife and spends her days doing what New Orleans society expects her to do and what her husband tells her to do—otherwise, she has no vital inner life that she can claim as her own. 

She is a possession of Mr. Pontellier. Everyone calls her Mrs. Pontellier. Eventually, being Mrs. Pontellier is not enough for Edna—it is neither satisfying nor fulfilling. She wants and needs more. She wants a life of her own, a sense of her own self—in an era when women weren’t considered intelligent or mature enough to vote.

2. Awakenings

Edna Pontellier undergoes a series of “awakenings,” gaining insights and experiencing epiphanies that reveal to her that her life is not genuine, that she is not an individual—vital and self-contained—that she is nothing more than an extension of her husband. 

Edna’s first stirrings of awakening occur at night in Chapter 3, after Léonce upbraids her for neglecting the children. Sitting alone on the porch, Edna begins to cry—uncontrollably. 

She can’t stop the tears and doesn’t understand why. Léonce has chided her before, but she has never succumbed to such copious emotion. She’s never felt the need to. Léonce spoils her with an abundance of material luxuries. 

He is the perfect husband—and yet, she is sobbing. It is Edna’s first inkling that something is wrong in her marriage—and in herself. She needs more than material baubles.

Later, when Robert Lebrun coaxes her to go swimming, she realizes that she decided to go; she did not do what she thought was best, or proper. She herself made a decision, and she realizes, furthermore, that she likes the sensual feel of the sea caressing her body. Edna experiences another awakening when she listens to some piano music of Chopin’s that Mademoiselle Reisz plays.

Emotionally, she is awakening to a new world of her own sensuality. Afterwards, while bathing in the sea with the other resort guests, Edna awakens to the realization that she can swim. Later, in a hammock outside their quarters, Edna claims her own voice: she refuses Léonce’s command that she comes to bed.

Edna articulates her newfound sense of awakening when she tells Adèle that she “would give [up her] money. I would give my life for my children, but I wouldn’t give myself.” The word myself is electric. Edna has awakened and has discovered the sense of herself, of the “myself” within her. Ironically, Léonce has not awakened to the change within his wife. To him, Edna is still a “valuable piece of property.”

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Symbols

1. Birds 

The caged birds on the first page of Chapter 1 are key symbols. Although she doesn’t realize it yet, Edna is Léonce’s “caged bird.” Significantly, one of the caged birds is a parrot. At present, Edna “parrots” the words and actions expected of her by her husband and proper New Orleans society. 

The other caged bird is a mockingbird, a species that has no song of its own; instead, it mocks the songs of other birds. Edna is a combination of both the parrot and the mockingbird. While visiting Mademoiselle Reisz, Edna feels the old pianist’s hand on her shoulder blades and hears, “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.” 

Before Edna enters the sea, where she will strongly swim out to her death, a bird with a broken wing is beating the air above, fluttering down toward the sea.

2. The Lovers/ The Woman in Black 

These background characters represent love and death, and they appear again and again during the chapters that are set on Grand Isle. 

The lovers represent the promise of earthly passion and love; the woman in black represents the negation of earthly passion and love, their loss, and the renunciation of earthly love, focusing instead on the possibility of a holy love beyond death.

Praise

1. A Bold Exploration of Female Sexuality

In a time when discussions of female sexuality were considered scandalous, Kate Chopin fearlessly delves into this forbidden territory in “The Awakening.” The character of Edna Pontellier becomes a vessel for Chopin’s exploration of a woman’s desires and her struggle against societal expectations.

Through Edna’s journey, Chopin challenges traditional gender roles and raises questions about the repression of female sexuality. It takes courage to tackle such a controversial subject, and Chopin’s candid portrayal of Edna’s sexual awakening is both captivating and thought-provoking.

2. A Multifaceted Protagonist

Edna Pontellier is a complex and compelling character who undergoes a profound transformation throughout the novel. Initially conforming to the societal norms of her time, Edna gradually realizes her dissatisfaction with her predetermined role as a wife and mother.

As she awakens to her own desires and yearnings, Edna becomes a symbol of liberation and independence. Her internal struggle resonates with readers, inviting us to question the constraints imposed on women and the search for personal identity. Chopin’s skillful portrayal of Edna’s journey leaves a lasting impact and serves as a reminder of the importance of self-discovery and individuality.

3. A Powerful Social Commentary

“The Awakening” serves as a poignant social commentary on the roles of men and women in marriage and parenting. Kate Chopin’s unflinching honesty in addressing the complexities of relationships challenges the norms of her time and still holds relevance today.

Through Edna’s experiences, Chopin exposes the limitations and expectations placed on women, urging society to reevaluate these dynamics. The novel prompts us to reflect on the importance of genuine connections, the pursuit of personal fulfillment, and the consequences of suppressing one’s true self.

Chopin’s boldness in confronting these issues is commendable and invites readers to critically examine their own lives and relationships.

Criticism

1. Uneven Writing and Experimental Style

While Kate Chopin’s attempt to break away from the traditional norms of prose-writing is commendable, the execution falls short in “The Awakening.” The writing style is uneven, with stronger moments in the dialogue rather than the descriptive text.

The experimental nature of the novel, although intriguing at times, can be confusing and detracts from the overall reading experience. While some readers may appreciate Chopin’s departure from realism, it may not resonate with everyone, making it a divisive aspect of the book.

2. An Insufferable Protagonist

Edna Pontellier, the main character of the novel, can be difficult to empathize with or root for. Some readers find her character insufferable and self-absorbed. Her disregard for others and her constant desire to prioritize her own needs above all else can be frustrating to follow. While the intention may have been to portray the cognitive dissonance of Victorian American society, it can make it challenging to connect with and invest in Edna’s story.

3. Lack of Depth in Supporting Characters

Aside from Edna, many of the supporting characters in “The Awakening” feel one-dimensional and fail to leave a lasting impression. Their sole purpose seems to be to serve as foils or catalysts for Edna’s journey, lacking depth and development of their own. This can make it difficult for readers to engage with the story on a deeper emotional level and may leave them craving more complexity and nuance in the supporting cast.

Conclusion

In the end, Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening” stands as a testament to her strength, independence, and keen understanding of women’s issues, despite not identifying as a feminist or being actively involved in suffragist groups. As a woman who defied conventions by going out alone in New Orleans and championing her own choices, Chopin embodied a spirit that challenged societal norms.

Though the novel faced scathing criticism upon its release, with reviewers condemning its content and labeling it morbid, Chopin humorously responded to her male critics, acknowledging the unexpected outcome of her characters’ actions. She embraced the controversy, recognizing the power her writing had to provoke thought and evoke strong reactions.

Over time, the tide turned, and “The Awakening” emerged as a masterpiece of American fiction. Today, it is celebrated as a required reading in educational institutions across the nation. The United States finally awakened to the genius and artistry of Kate Chopin, recognizing her contribution to literature and the exploration of women’s experiences.

About The Author

Kate O’Flaherty Chopin (1851–1904) was born in St. Louis, Missouri. At the age of four, she lost her father and was raised by a determined mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, all of whom were exceptional storytellers.

At 17, Kate married Oscar Chopin and they embarked on a honeymoon in Europe before settling in New Orleans. Over time, they had six children, and when the cotton market crashed, the family moved to a small town in Cajun country, where Oscar managed a general store.

During this period, Chopin began her writing career, publishing sketches, short stories, and eventually her second novel, The Awakening. The novel stirred up significant literary attention and controversy.

Buy The Book: The Awakening

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