“The Awakening” is a novel written by Kate Chopin and published in 1899. The novel has since become a seminal work in feminist literature and is seen as one of the earliest feminist novels in American history. The novel focuses on women’s issues with societal standards and the struggle with the idea of being a housewife and a mother. It was one of the first novels to ever even reference these issues let alone investigate them in depth. However, this focus created a mix of reviews from critics and readers of the era and the novel was censored many times.
The novel revolves around the protagonist Edna Pontellier, a married woman who is summering on an island off the coast of Louisiana in the late 1800’s. Edna becomes infatuated with the son of her resorts owner, Robert Lebrun. This infatuation, along with the friendship of several passionate, artistic women creates a sense of awakening in her about her status as a wife and a mother. Edna begins to get dissatisfied with her life and starts shirking her responsibilities as a housewife. This greatly angers her husband, Leonce who spends the novel trying to discover what is making his wife act differently and trying to “fix” her.
By the end of the novel, Edna has moved out of her husband’s house and had a brief affair with another man but she remains enamored with Robert who left in the middle of the summer to try and make his fortune in Mexico. Abruptly, Robert returns to New Orleans, where Edna is living and the two reconcile briefly before he leaves her with only a note saying that they cannot be together while she is still married. This causes Edna to reevaluate everything she has changed in her life and she eventually comes to the decision to return to the resort so that she may end her life by drowning herself in the ocean.
Grand Isle is a summer retreat for the wealthiest French Creoles of New Orleans. This is where Leonce Pontellier is spending his summer with his wife and children. In the beginning of the novel, he sits reading a newspaper on the front porch of the main guesthouse of the island. The guest house’s manager, Madame Lebrun has two pet birds who make a lot of noise that disturbs Leonce and causes him to go back into the cottage that he has rented. Down by the water his two young sons play under the watchful eye of their nanny. Leonce sees his wife, Edna coming back from the water with Madame Lebrun’s son, a handsome young man named Robert. Leonce scolds his wife for getting sunburned and invited Robert to play some billiards. Robert declines the offer and stays to talk to Enda as Robert walks away.
Edna and Robert talk for a long time. Robert tells her about his plans to travel to Mexico at the end of the summer to seek his fortune. She tells him about her childhood in Kentucky and her sister’s upcoming wedding. Later that evening when Leonce returns from playing billiards, he is in good spirits. He tries to talk to Edna about the gossip he heard in the club and is angered when she appears to not be listening. Leonce checks on their children and tells her that one of them, Raoul feels a little warm. She tells him that the boy is fine but Leonce insists that Edna tends to him and harangues her for what he feels is her “habitual neglect of the children”. Edna visits the children’s room in a perfunctory way and refuses to speak to her husband as she goes to bed. After Leonce falls asleep, Edna goes outside to sit on the porch and watch the sea as she weeps quietly. She is beginning to realize that she is unhappy with her life. Before this, she has always felt comforted by her love of her husband but this evening she felt oppressed by him. She mentions that it fills her “whole being”.
The next morning, Leonce gives Edna some money before he has to leave for a week-long business trip. While in New Orleans he sends Edna a box of Bon-Bons as a gift and all of the other women in the resort swoon over Leonce and admits that he is the best husband they have ever seen. Edna, pressured, admits that he is the best that she knows of. Leonce cannot explain to himself why he feels that Edna is inattentive to their sons. He merely feels that she does not idolize her children the way the “mother-women” of the resort do and she does not worship him, either. Edna has a friend named Adele Ratignolle who Leonce sees as a star example of a mother-woman. Leonce has had conversations with Adele about sewing, chocolate, and childbirth—the latter being much to his wife’s horror. Edna is not a Creole woman, but being married to a Cerole man has immersed her in their customs. However, she is still not fully comfortable with their candidness.
Back at the resort, the reader now gets an insight into Robert’s thoughts. He has been working at the resort since he was a child and each summer he chooses one woman to whom he devotes all of his attention and time as an attendant. One summer, Robert picked Adele for this and the two joke about it now as they recall how he stuck to her. Adele jokes that she worried her husband would be jealous of Robert. It is implied that there was never anything to be jealous about. However, everyone on the island notices that Robert attentions to Edna this summer are slightly different than his usual attentions to women. He is more playful and also deeper in his conversations. Robert leans his head on Edna’s arm while they are talking until she gently pushes him away. Robert decides to go for a swim and, though Edna initially declines she eventually agrees to join him.
Once they begin swimming, Edna forgets why she declined the offer in the first place. She did want to go with Robert to the beach and while she is swimming she feels that a strange light grows within her that shows the way to her dreams. She slowly begins to think of herself as an individual with agency in the real world and not just a “wife” or a “mother”. Since Edna was a child, she rarely discusses her inner thoughts and feelings with the world. She has always felt that she had two sides, one that conformed to the standards of society and another that wanted to rebel and question.
Edna’s developing friendship with Adele, and experience being surrounded by candid Creole women gradually begins to make her come out of her shell and act less reserved. Edna realizes that Adele may be the closest female relationship she has ever had. Her mother died when she was young and her two sisters were very cold and distant. The biggest relationships in her life have always been her absorbing, unrequited crushes on men. Before marrying Leonce, she had a string of infatuations. But Leonce was the first man to every really show any interest in her and she was pleased by this – and all the more pleased by the rebellion of marrying a Catholic. However, Edna’s main object in marriage was to tie herself down and end her unrealistic fantasies, giving herself an anchor to adhere to societies standards. This created an odd sense of satisfaction in her marriages lack of passion.
On the subject of Edna’s relationship with her children, she finds that she is uneven on her feelings and impulsive with her affection. She feels that she has “blindly assumed” the role of motherhood and that she is always relieved when her children are sent away to visit family. She expresses some of these sentiments to Adele and shocks herself with her honesty. However, after hearing this confession Adele begins to worry that her friend is going to take Robert’s romantic attentions more seriously than the other women normally do and warns him to leave her alone. Robert is insulted by this and tells Adele that he hopes Edna does take him seriously because he is serious. Adele reminds him that having a real affair with a married woman will ruin his reputation as a gentleman.
A few weeks later, Madame Lebrun throws a small party for the renters on the island. Robert asks an older woman, Mademoiselle Reisz to play the piano for Edna. Edna enjoys piano music as listening to it often gives her visions of different emotions. She often sees a naked man staring out at a departing bird in hopeless resignation and children playing with a dancing woman. But now as she listens to Reisz play, she does not just see images of emotions, she feels them intensely. By the end of the playing, she is in tears. Reisz pats her shoulder and tells her that she is the only audience a player needs.
But everyone has enjoyed the performance, and buoyed by this cheer, Robert suggests that they all go for a nighttime swim. As the group walks down to the beach, Edna wonders why Robert isn’t spending as much time with her as he used to. She notices that he isn’t around as often but that when he is he seems sweeter and more devoted than ever.
Edna is reluctant to get into the water because, despite many attempts at learning, she is still not a strong swimmer. All at once she begins to feel empowered and swims out into the water. She decides that she wants to swim out a bit from the crowd and feels an odd sense of control over her actions and her body. She swims out too far, however, and begins to worry that she won’t be able to make it back to the shore. When she does, she decides to go back to her rental for the night, although her husband and the others entreat her to stay.
Robert runs after Edna to walk her home and she wonders if he thought she was afraid to walk back alone. He tells her that he didn’t think that but can’t explain why he followed her. Edna tries to talk about the new emotions and feelings that she has had lately and Robert tries to tell her that he understands but neither expresses themselves well and they end up sitting in silence on the porch until her husband returns.
When Leonce returns, he tells Edna to go to bed but she resists and says she will stay outside a while longer. She realizes that she has always submitted to her husband’s requests without thought and now that she isn’t, her assertiveness is irritating to him. Edna wonders how she could have spent their marriage yielding to his demands as she did and feels stronger for not doing it. In defiance of her attitude, Leonce joins her on the porch and smokes cigars all night until just before sunrise. At that point, Edna’s tiredness defeats her and she tells her husband that she is going inside to bed. She asks if he is coming too and he tells her he wants to finish his cigar first.
Over the next few days, Edna and Robert grow close again while she begins to grow more distant from her husband. At dinner one evening, Edna is informed that Robert is leaving for Mexico. Edna is shocked and hurt by this news as Robert did not tell her this although she spent the last few days with him. Edna leaves during dinner and returns to her rental alone. Robert appears at her door a little while later to tell her goodbye. She tells him she is disappointed and offended by him not telling her that he was leaving. Robert seems to be holding back from explaining the reason for his departure to her, fearing that he will reveal his true feelings. Edna asks Robert to write to her while he is away and he agrees before quickly leaving. Once alone, Edna realizes that her infatuation with Robert may have just been another unrequited crush.
Edna becomes sullen and misses Robert intensely after he leaves. She doesn’t bother trying to hide her level of sadness over his departure from anyone, even her husband. When she discovers that Leonce saw Robert briefly in New Orleans while on a business trip she interrogates him about the other man.
Just before the summer ends, Mademoiselle Reisz speaks to Edna about Robert and tells her that Robert’s mother, Madame Lebrun is more partial to her other son, a man named Victor than she is to Robert. As a result of this, the two brothers have a history of not getting along. This upsets Edna, although Reisz does not realize it.
After the summer is over, Edna, Leonce and their children return to their lavishly decorated home in New Orleans. Edna continues to act differently when she arrives home. She stops observing her weekly “reception day”, a day when she would normally stay nicely dressed and wait around the house to receive visitors. Instead of doing this she goes into town without giving the servants an excuse to give any visitors that might arrive. This angers Leonce as he fears that her snubbing any women in town might anger their husbands, with whom he does business. He leaves the house to have dinner out instead of with her. Distraught, Edna feels as though she has to destroy something. When she is unable to crush her wedding right under her foot she breaks a glass vase instead.
Edna visits Adele in town and realizes that she now pities her friend for her “blind contentment” with her life as a housewife. Edna decides that she wants to take drawing lessons and soon begins spending most of her time painting much to her husband’s chagrin. One day, Edna goes to visit Mademoiselle Reisz at her home in town but discovers that the woman has moved. In order to find her new address, she then visits Madame Lebrun and her son, Victor answers the door. Victor speaks to Edna for a while and she finds him entertaining and funny. However, Edna is saddened to hear that Robert has written his mother two times from Mexico since he has still not written her at all. Lebrun gives her Reisz’s new address and Edna leaves to track the woman down. After she is gone Lebrun comments on how different Edna seems.
Soon, Edna visits Reisz again. This time, the woman is pleased to tell her that she has received a letter from Robert and that he talks of Edna throughout it. Edna begs to read the letter but Reisz denies this request. However, Reisz does agree to play a piano piece for her and Edna weeps as she listens to her play Chopin.
Leonce takes his concern for Edna’s mental state to the family’s doctor. He tells her that he and his wife are no longer sleeping together and that she seems to be having some notions about women’s rights. The doctor asks Leonce if Edna is associating with any contemporary women’s clubs and when he confirms that she isn’t, the doctor begins asking about Edna’s family. Leonce admits that Edna comes from a mentally sound, respectable family but that her younger sister, Janet is a bit of a vixen. Janet is soon to be married, however. The doctor asks if Edna can attend the wedding and Leonce say that she has already confirmed that she does not intend to as she considers weddings to be “lamentable spectacles”. The doctor finally tells Leonce that this is most likely a passing whim that will run it’s course with Edna. However, the doctor privately wonders if Edna may have another man in her life. He promises to have dinner at Leonce and Edna’s home so that he can privately investigate Edna for himself.
In the next section, we meet Edna’s father, a former army colonel. Edna’s relationship with her father is similar to the relationship she has with her husband – she waits on him hand and foot and placidly agrees with everything he says. The Colonel and Edna have a disagreement about attending her sister’s wedding and Leonce stays out of it. Leonce decides to attend the wedding alone so that Janet will not feel insulted by her sister’s absence. This causes the Colonel to attack Leonce for what he believes to be a mishandling of his wife. He says that a man must use “coercion” and “authority” over their wife to get her to bend to their will.
Soon, Edna’s father leaves. The doctor comes by for dinner with the family but observes nothing odd about Edna’s behavior. Leonce travels to New York for Janet’s wedding and the children leave to go spend time with their grandmother. Edna has the house all to herself for the first time in a while and finds herself enjoying it. One day, Edna goes to the races and meets with a man named Alcee Arobin whom she had met previously while at the races with her father. Alcee and Edna got along nicely although he is a bit of a free spirit and sometimes makes her uncomfortable with his candidness. He and Edna have a dinner together where his bold topics of conversation make her nervous. However, she is not worried about being unfaithful to her husband but only to Robert. Days later, Alcee writes Edna a letter of apology for the way he acted at dinner and she forgives him.
Edna visits Mademoiselle Reisz and reads a new letter from Robert. She doesn’t tell Robert that Edna is reading his letters because she knows that he is trying to forget about her. Later that night, Alcee visits Edna and the two being talking. After a while, they kiss and Edna feels that it is the best kiss that she has ever had. However, after Alcee leaves, Edna cries over the guilt she feels for betraying her husband and Robert. She regrets kissing Alcee and realizes that she doesn’t love him.
Edna soon decides that she intends to move into a smaller house around the corner from her husband’s house. She writes to him to tell him of this but begins moving before he replies to her. Alcee visits while Edna is packing up everything that Leonce didn’t buy for her. Edna is focused on her work and does not pay much attention to Alcee.
Edna throws a dinner party for her friends in celebration of her new house and sparkles in a new dress as the hostess. Alcee stays late after everyone has left the party and the two kiss again. Leonce finally discovers that Edna has moved and writes back telling her that he disapproves. Leonce only worries that people will think that the reason for the move was financial difficulties. He arranges to have the big house shut down for renovations as a cover story. Edna visits her children at their grandmother’s house and enjoys their company for the first real time. Adele soon comes to visit Edna in her new house and warns her that she needs to worry about her reputation. Adele says that people in the town are gossiping about Edna and Alcee.
Edna goes to see Reisz for the woman’s advice but she is not home so Edna decides to wait in her apartment till she returns. There is a knock on the door and Edna is shocked to see Robert on the other side. He has been back in town for two days. Edna demands to know why he didn’t come to see her and Robert, embarrassed, tries to explain. She doesn’t feel that she sees the same look in his eyes that she saw before when she believed him to be in love with her. She asks him why he never wrote to her and he says that he didn’t think she would be interested.
Robert walks Edna home and she invites him for dinner. He hesitates to say yes but relents when Edna looks hurt. Inside the house, Robert tells her of his travels in Mexico and says that he thought only of her. She confirms that she only thought of him as well. After dinner, as Edna and Robert are in the parlor talking, Alcee drops by. Alcee seems to like Robert and speaks with him conversationally but Robert is only cold in return. Robert soon announces that he has to leave and Edna sends Alcee away as well so that she can be alone.
Edna realizes that she is worried that Robert feels in love with someone else while he was away. She tries to tell herself she’s being silly and that he will call again soon. However, days go by without any word from him. Edna waits for Robert and begins to grow despairing that he will ever contact her. She decides to go out with Alcee one evening and after ward the two kiss again.
One day Edna bumps into Robert in town. He seems uneasy and embarrassed by agrees to have lunch with her. She tells him that she is disappointed that he never contacted her and that she isn’t afraid to tell him this, although he may think it’s “unwomanly”. He accuses her of being cruel and Edna changes the subject back to something light to avoid confrontation. The two go back to Edna’s house after dark and end up kissing. Robert confesses that he only went to Mexico to avoid his love for her but he only thought of her while he was there. He wonders if she could be his wife and if Leonce would “set her free”. Edna announces that she isn’t one of Leonce’s possessions and she can give herself to whomever she wants. Robert is shocked and perhaps even uneasy with this declaration. Just then, a servant interrupts to tell Edna that Adele is in labor and wants to see her. Edna tells Robert that she loves only him and to wait for her to return before she leaves.
During Adele’s delivery, it becomes obvious that Edna is still traumatized from the births of her own two children. She begins to have disturbing flashbacks to her own labor and leaves as quickly as she can once the baby is born. The doctor who spoke with Leonce is also Adele’s doctor and he walks Edna back to her house after the birth, asking her if she plans to go on another vacation with her husband. Edna announces that she doesn’t and she does not intend to be forced into anything anymore. She says that no one can oblige her to do anything anymore except for her children. This worries the doctor and he tells her before parting that if she ever wants to come see him for help he would be there for her. Edna is confused by this as she does not feel that she needs help. When she gets back home, Edna finds that Robert has left and he wrote her a short note that says he loves her but he cannot stay.
Edna stretches out on her sofa and lies awake, deep in thought all night. The next day, Edna returns to the island early to have some respite to think. Victor is surprised to see her. She makes plans to have lunch with him soon and then walks down to the water, ignoring his claim that it is too cold for swimming. The night before she thought of Robert and how he would eventually disappear from her thoughts. She thought of her husband and her indifference toward him and she thought of her children and how they were the only thing truly binding her to this earth. Once she’s on the beach, Edna removes her swimsuit and stands naked in the open air for the first time in her life. She swims out without looking back and realizes that Robert never understood her. She wonders if the doctor would have but realizes that it is too late now. She swims until exhaustion overtakes her and then she surrenders to the sea.
Edna Pontellier – the main character of the story. A 29-year-old woman living in New Orleans in the late 1800’s. Edna realizes that she has become dissatisfied with her life as a wife and a mother and begins a journey of self-discovery. “The Awakening” has been touted as one of the earliest feminist novels because of the argument Edna provides about being a woman who is allowed to be an individual and have her own opinions and agency.
Edna is a respectable woman from a respectable family who not only has the idea to acknowledge her sexual desires but has the courage to actually act on them. She has the strength to break through the role that society has created for her as a wife and mother and discover who she really wants to be. Chopin specifically wrote Edna’s character to provide a feminist message and it is important to view her through this lens when reading the book. However, it is also important to note that while Edna’s open rebellion is never presented as shameful it is also never really presented as heroic. Edna act’s childishly and selfishly throughout the novel in her attitude toward her husband and, especially her children. She wishes to have an adulterous affair and live without any real-world consequences and doesn’t take into account anyone else’s feelings except her own. She does not seem to realize when Robert is pushing her away until it is too late because she is so focused on herself.
Edna’s need for independence often makes her act selfishly. But the novel never specifically portrays Edna’s defiance as wrong. From this perspective, it is possible to view Edna’s suicide at the end of the novel from either the lens that she gave up and gave into the idea that she would never be able to escape her identity in society or the lens that she killed herself in one last act of defiance.
Robert Lebrun – Edna’s main love interest. A younger man who works at the resort at which Edna and her family stay for the summer. Robert plays a very important role in Edna’s awakening even though he is away for most of it. It is his flirtations at the beginning of the novel that have a large part in inspiring Edna to begin coming out of her housewife shell.
Robert is a hard character to understand at times. He enjoys flirting with the women at the resort and every summer he picks one woman to lavish his attention on especially. However, he never intends to actually court them and does not forget the rules of society that limit his actions. When he feels that things are getting too serious with Edna, he leaves Mexico abruptly and attempts to forget about her while seeking his fortune.
Unlike the outgoing Creole women who enjoy the attention they get from Robert but never take him seriously, Edna is internally desperate enough to be swept away by Robert attention. For his part, Robert freely admits several times in the book that he is truly in love with Edna and wishes that he could be with her. He admits that he wishes her husband would divorce her so that they could be together. But he is unwilling to date a married woman and thus, he leaves at the end of the novel with only a note telling Edna goodbye.
Leonce Pontellier – Edna’s husband. Leonce can arguably be viewed as the antagonist of the novel, although his perspective tells a much different story. Leonce is an old-fashioned, Victorian-era man who believes that his wife should be a servant to her husband and children. He admires the woman at the resort who worship their children and husband (the “mother-women” as he calls them) although he does not respect them as equals. Leonce does not fundamentally believe that a woman should have her own individuality after she is married and thinks that his wife’s wish to live her own life is a medical sickness. Leonce does not believe he is a bad husband or man, much to the contrary. From his perspective, he is trying to help his ailing wife and being as patient as he can.
Adele Ratignolle – Edna’s best friend. Adele is the perfect picture of what Leonce believes Edna should be. She is a devoted mother and an obedient wife. Though Adele is a candid, open-minded woman, she never goes so far as to be outspoken or to speak against her husband in any way. Adele spends her days caring for her children and household and is content and happy with her life. Although she does not have the same ideas as Edna, her open communication inspires Edna to remember a time in her youth when she was allowed to say what she felt. This causes Edna to realize that she has been suppressing her own desires for many years. Adele is a somewhat simple character and a static one. She does not change or grow from the beginning of the book to the end.
Mademoiselle Reisz – another guest at the resort during the summer. Reisz is often called upon to entertain the guests with her piano playing. Reisz is otherwise often very reserved and distant with the guests and this causes her to be unpopular among them. She admits to Edna that she considers her the only one who is truly touched by her music. Edna envies Reisz independent lifestyle even though the woman is seen as being cold and unfriendly by most. Reisz is particularly fond of the arts and expresses joy when she discovers that Edna intends to take drawing classes. Reisz is almost a kind of muse for Edna, who wishes to adopt the woman’s life-style. In the end, something Reisz said to her about being an artist is one of the last things that travels through Edna’s mind before she dies.
Kate Chopin Biography
Kate Chopin was born Katherine O’Flaherty on February 8th, 1850 in St. Louis, Missouri. The daughter of Irish and French immigrants, Kate was one of five children although all of her siblings died young. In 1855, when she was just five years old, Kate’s father died. After this, she became very close with the women in her family including her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. She was an avid reader as a child and delighted in reading fairy tales and poetry as well as novels and religious allegories.
In 1870 when Kate was 20 years old, she married Oscar Chopin and moved to New Orleans. Chopin gave birth to six children in the 1870’s. Unfortunately, her husband’s cotton brokerage business failed and that family was forced to move to Cloutierville, Lousiana. While there, they managed several plantations and a general store and became valued community members. Kate especially became close with many women from the Creole culture of the area.
In 1882, Oscar, Kate’s husband died and left her massively in debt. She was forced to sell the general store and plantation and moved back to St. Louis with her children to live with her mother. Shortly after this, Kate’s mother died and Kate feels into a deep depression. A family friend and Kate’s obstetrician, Dr. Fredrick Kolbenheyer suggested that she start writing in order to not only bring in income but as a form of therapy. In the 1890’s, when she was in her forties, Kate began writing short stories and articles. She was first published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She saw moderate success publishing in similar literary magazines of the time, although she was mostly seen as a local comedy author and her true literary prowess was overlooked.
The second novel she wrote, ‘The Awakening’ was published in 1899 and received much negative press for its support of the women’s rights movement, although some newspapers also reviewed it favorably. Kate’s work is considered far ahead of its time from a feminist standpoint and much of it was, therefore not embraced by the world. After 12 years of attempting to be a serious author Kate became discouraged by the lack of support and returned to short story writing. She never received enough money from writing to sustain her family and had to rely on other investments.
While Kate was attending the St. Louis World’s Fair on August 20th, 1904, Kate suffered a brain hemorrhage and died only two days later at the age of 54. She is buried in Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis.