The Awakening

Introduction of The Awakening

The Awakening is a masterpiece of Kate Chopin, who was the liberal writer of her time. The book was published in 1899. The story is set in New Orleans near the Louisianan coastal area. The storyline revolves around Edna Pontellier and her anti-orthodox views about life, motherhood, marriage, and relationships that go against the societal norms prevalent in American society before the 20th century. The novel is known as the founding story supporting femininity and anti-patriarchal views.

Summary of The Awakening

The storyline starts with Leonce Pontellier, the head of the Pontellier family married to Edna Pontellier, living in New Orleans. He belongs to the businessmen community of the town, coming from Louisianan heritage. With two sons, Etienne and Raoul, Edna Pontellier finds life very comfortable with her well-to-do husband. The story mostly takes place on Grand Isle on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico where she goes to meet her friend, Madame Lebrun, and her favorite Adele of the Ratignolle family.

When all of them meet, Adele comments on femininity in general and specifically advises Edna to pay attention to her house as a mother as well as a wife. However, she mostly stays in the company of Robert Lebrun, a charming young man, who flirts with her whenever he finds time. When Robert realizes that he might be falling further into love with Edna, he runs away to Mexico to stay away from her on the excuse of a business trip. Edna soon comes to terms with her new reality of living with and without Robert and paying attention to her family, though, with the inborn desire for further freedom.

The summer vacation soon ends, forcing the Pontellier’s to come back to the town to adopt the same routine of life. However, Edna sees her priorities subtly changing as she shuns people and slowly shuns her traditional duties as a mother and homemaker. Meanwhile, Leonce worries about her state and choice. He continues to take care of her. One day, he shares his predicament with a doctor and also bringing the doctor home to see if she has any mental health issues. The wise doctor advises Leonce that he should give her freedom to return to normalcy. During the dinner conversation he also realizes that she is having an affair but doesn’t share the details with Leonce.

When Leonce travels to New York for a business venture. Seeing mentally incapable of handling both her sons, Edna sends them to their grandparents. She enjoys staying alone to recuperate from her emotional drain. During that time, she further reflects upon the realities surrounding her. However, she does a bizarre thing by moving out to another building, from a big house to a small apartment, ‘pigeon hole’. She also starts a new romantic relationship with Alcee Arobin, who already has a bad repute for being an enticer. Despite having shown an inclination toward him, she feels awkward to adopt this role. Meanwhile, she visits Mademoiselle Reisz to enjoy her hermetic lifestyle and piano playing. Taking a cue from her life of liberty and independence, Edna immerses herself in love with music as well as Reisz. Reisz plays a role of a bridge or a mediator between Edna and Robert.

When Robert comes back, he could not help admitting his love for Edna despite staying away from her. He also comes to the point that his escape to Mexico was not a business trip but an effort to run away from this awkward situation. When Edna attends to Adele during her pregnancy and subsequent childbirth, Adele advises her to stay away from such relations that may cause disrespect to her name and family. When she returns home, Edna gets a message that Robert has left her forever on account of his sincere love and the agony of loving a married woman he has been going through. Finally, finding herself in a very tight spot, Edna enters the sea to explore its depths, without expressing her intentions to anyone. Here, readers are left to decide whether she goes far into the sea to commit suicide or just continues to explore to test her ability or express her freedom, far away from the norms of society.

Major Themes in The Awakening

  1. Identity: Identity is the major theme of the novel in that Edna’s search for self about her role in society leads her to feel disappointed at her existence. Although she has a good husband who takes care of her and that she has no financial problem, she faces an identity crisis about her recognition in the family beyond her role as the mother of the two sons of Leonce. Her taste for the music of Mademoiselle Ratignolle and friendship with Lady Leburn do not compensate for the loss of recognition and identity. Therefore, she leaves for the depths of the gulf to seek her identity and loses herself.
  2. Social Class: The novel shows the social class and its impacts through the characters of Edna Pontellier as well as Madam Leburn, and Mademoiselle. Alcee, too, demonstrates these differences amply; for he proves an opportunist where Robert feels qualms about his flirtatious role. Edna, on the other hand, wins sympathy as well as the love of all including the Leburn family.
  3. Women and Femininity: Women and the place of femininity in the household and out of the house is another theme that emerges in the novel continuously. This theme is mostly displayed by the outgoing characters of Madam Leburn, Madamoiselle Reisz, and Adele Ratignolle including Edna, who does not feel hesitant in flirting with a young man despite being the mother of two young boys. Finding herself misfit, Edna finally starts living alone, and when the weight of femininity becomes too cumbersome for her, she finally gives way and commits suicide.
  4. Marriage: The theme of marriage not only weighs heavily in the novel but also in the life of Edna Pontellier. Despite being a married woman and mother of two, she is attracted to Robin and giving way to Alcee Arobin to play with her emotions. Leonce provides material things to Edna which is not always enough in marriage. Hence, the couple starts to distance themselves and the love between them ceases to exist. Edna breaks the social norms by avoiding her marital duties.
  5. Freedom: Edna and several other characters look for freedom from the strict social norms, from financial constraints, or from themselves. Edna experiences this freedom on Grand Isle when she vacations there with her husband and sons. Robert feels this freedom when he flirts with Edna but immediately reverts to his cocoon of social norms. Edna also feels that Mademoiselle Reisz and Lady Lebrun have full freedom, while Alcee thinks that he should be free to flirt with anyone he wants.
  6. Social Expectations: Social expectation is another theme that makes Edna think that women are expected to be good wives or good mothers, and nothing else. In fact, this is her husband’s freehand that provides her time for thinking on these lines, while Madam Lebrun advises her to pay attention to her household that is expected of her by society.
  7. Human Desire: Edna shows her desire about accepting her sexuality and taking chances against society and family to fulfill her wishes. While she flirts with Alcee, Robert genuinely falls in love with Edna and leaves. This breaks her heart at the end of the story. Her decision to live separately from her husband and then the decision to go out into the sea is her desire. She finds herself free to pursue them.
  8. Sexuality: The dominance of sexuality on human individuality could be observed from Edna’s outgoing behavior, for she does not pay attention to any of the social norms and goes too far with Alcee Arobin and Robert Lebrun, engaged in conflict with her household, her mental status, and her social surroundings.
  9. Individualism: Almost all the female characters and some male ones show their individualism in the strict environment of the American South. If Robert Lebrun is free to express his love for a married lady, so are Alcee and Edna.

Major Characters in The Awakening

  1. Edna Pontellier: Edna Pontellier is the protagonist and the main character around whom the whole story revolves. She is married to Leonce Pontellier, a successful businessman. Edna is also a housewife at the beginning of the story and has two sons. A deeply committed husband with good financial as well as social standing, and above all her own outgoing persona make Edna suffer from some unknown psychological issues which force Leonce to seek medical assistance from the doctor. He also continues tolerating her eccentricity of living alone, or going out to the sea, or sending her kids to Leonce’s parents. Having flirted with Robert and Alcee, she sees herself flying toward the pigeon-house as breaking the social taboos. Finally, she goes far out in the sea never to return.
  2. Leonce Pontellier: Leonce is the head of the Pontellier family, a rich businessman, father of two sons from his wife, Edna Pontellier. Except for turning his attention to her emotional void, Leonce is a very caring and loving husband, who does not let the family scourge on others. He also knows the mental eccentricities of his wife, the reason that he turns to Dr. Mandelet to pull her out of the depression. Most of the time, however, he stays absent from his home for business tasks and visits the family when it is required. That is, perhaps, the reason that Edna is attracted towards other men and yearns to enjoy her freedom and independence.
  3. Robert Lebrun: Robert Lebrun is a significant character with a good heart. He meets Edna and encourages her to embrace her freedom. For him, Edna renounces her domestic responsibilities, leading her to experience deep anxiety and develop a love affair with Alcee in Robert’s absence. However, interestingly, Robert runs away to Mexico for business when he realizes that he genuinely loves Edna. After meeting one last time, he loves her a note, that he has to leave because he loves her. Robert feels guilty for loving a married woman and being responsible for her failing marriage. His departure might have become the reason for Edna’s decision to go far out in the gulf.
  4. Adele Ratignolle: Adele is the head of the Ratignolle family, which is on good terms with the Pontellier’s. Having five children and a good husband, the Ratignolle family plays its social role within the given norms, the reason that Adele does not disclose any of the love affairs of Edna, nor advises her otherwise. Her careful dealing appears in her final words to Edna after she decides not to participate in her farewell.
  5. Mademoiselle Reisz: A very outgoing character, Mademoiselle Reisz is a music connoisseur, whose mastery lies in mesmerizing even the most outgoing character, Edna Pontellier, so much so that she desires to have her freedom and individuality. She has profound impacts on such characters due to her artistic maestro-type of personality.
  6. Alcee Arobin: Alcee is an example of the charming young men of the town of New Orleans, who have the mastery in seducing even married ladies. He meets Edna when Robert leaves for Mexico on the business excuse and proves his opportunistic nature by forcing her to move to the pigeon-house. An addictive womanizer, Alcee is an expert in exploiting situations to his advantage for which he also displays a little bit of wit and insolence.
  7. Mandelet: The role of Dr. Mandelet is very important as he suggests Leonce let Edna roam freely without hindering her faculties. However, he also understands that Edna is having an affair during their conversation and she is feeling suffocated by social norms.
  8. The Colonel: He is Edna’s father and her role model. The Colonel had instilled his own traits in her. His behavior toward his daughters has made them headstrong and unconventional to easily fit into the existing social setup.
  9. Victor Lebrun: Although Victor is younger than Robert in the Lebrun family, he follows his brother in flirtatious habits. Edna finds something similar to Robert in him but not a full replacement.
  10. Mariequita: A minor character, Mariequita appears only when she has a slight relation with Robert and disappears after some flirtatious episodes, for she does not possessive seductiveness that could capture any of those young men.

Writing Style of The Awakening

Kate Chopin wrote the novel, The Awakening, in a beautiful but simple prose style. The description of people, things, and places, sometimes, seems as if she had a brush to paint everything on a wide canvas. She used expressions to point out oddities as well as the hopefulness of her characters. The narrator turned to naturalism when the author pays too much attention to the behavioral traits of her characters and their impacts on social reality or vice versa.

Analysis of Literary Devices in The Awakening

  1. Action: The main action of the novel comprises the story of Edna Pontellier, her vacationing with her husband, Leonce, and two sons on the coastal area of the Gulf of Mexico in New Orleans. The rising action occurs when she falls in love with Robert Lebrun, and after some flirtatious moments, he escapes to Mexico. However, the falling action occurs when she feels estranged and leaves her home for the pigeon-house and ultimately tries to compensate for the loss of Robert with Alcee or Victor.
  2. Allegory: The Awakening shows the use of allegory in its story as it seems the story of Edna Pontellier is the story of her unconventional life and of the awakening of the identity of a young woman and her sense of good and bad, which ultimately takes her life.
  3. Antagonist: Although initially, it seems that both males, Leonce and Robert Lebrun, are antagonists, the story reveals it is not the male per se antagonists; rather, it is the society as a whole that does not accept the non-conformists like that of Edna.
  4. Allusion: There are various examples of allusions given in the novel. For example,
    i. Two young girls, the Farival twins, were playing a duet from “Zampa” upon the piano. (Chapter-I)
    ii. Venus rising from the foam could have presented no more entrancing a spectacle than Mrs. Pontellier, blazing with beauty and diamonds at the head of the board, while the other women were all of them youthful houris, possessed of incomparable charms. (Chapter-XXXIX)
    The first example shows alluding to Zampa, while the second is alluding to Venus.
  5. Conflict: The are two types of conflicts in the novel. The first one is the external conflict that starts between Edna and her husband, Leonce. The other conflict is the mental and internal conflict that goes in the mind of Edna as Dr. Mandelet suggests to Leonce. There is another conflict that goes between Edna and Robert and then between Edna and Alcee. In both cases, it is external as well as internal conflict.
  6. Characters: The Awakening presents both static as well as dynamic characters. Edna, the main character, is also a dynamic character. However, others such as her husband, Robert Lebrun, Alcee, and even Lady Lebrun are static characters as they do not go through any change during the story.
  7. Climax: The climatic takes place when Edna finally breaks with her husband and leaves his home to live in the pigeon-house separately, leaving her both kids with their grandparents. The second climax is her relationship with Alcee and its fruition as well as her final love episode with Robert Lebrun.
  8. Foreshadowing: There are many foreshadows in the novel. For example,
    i. A green and yellow parrot, which hung in a cage outside the door, kept
    repeating over and over: “Allez vous-en! Allez vous-en! Sapristi! That’s all right!’ (Chapter-I)
    ii. He thought it very discouraging that his wife, who was the sole object of his existence, evinced so little interest in things which concerned him, and valued so little his conversation. (Chapter-III)
    iii. There was no sound abroad except the hooting of an old owl in the top of a water-oak, and the everlasting voice of the sea, that was not uplifted at that soft hour. It broke like a mournful lullaby upon the night. (Chapter-III)
    All of these sentences point out that something ominous is going to happen with Edna and also show her personality as being caged in the social norms.
  9. Imagery: Imagery is used to perceive things involving five senses. For example,
    i. In coloring he was not unlike his companion. A clean-shaved face made the resemblance more pronounced than it would otherwise have been. There rested no shadow of care upon his open countenance. His eyes gathered in and reflected the light and languor of the summer day. (Chapter-II)
    ii. The whole place was immaculately clean, and the big, four-posted bed, snow-white, invited one to repose. It stood in a small side room which looked out across a narrow grass plot toward the shed, where there was a disabled boat lying keel upward.  (Chapter-XIII)
    iii. The place was too modest to attract the attention of people of fashion and so quiet as to have escaped the notice of those in search of pleasure and dissipation. Edna had discovered it accidentally one day when the high-board gate stood ajar. She caught sight of a little green table, blotched with the checkered sunlight that filtered through the quivering leaves overhead. (Chapter-XXXVI)
    iv. The water of the Gulf stretched out before her, gleaming with the million lights of the sun. The voice of the sea is seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander in abysses of solitude. All along the white beach, up and down, there was no living thing in sight. (Chapter-XXXIX).
    These examples give above show very good images of color, sound, sight, and smell.
  10. Metaphor: The Awakening shows the use of various metaphors. For example,
    i. The charm of Edna Pontellier’s physique stole insensibly upon you. (Chapter-VII)
    ii. The sun was high up and beginning to bite. (Chapter-XII)
    iii. The little stove was roaring; it was red-hot, and the chocolate in the tin
    sizzled and sputtered. (Chapter-XXVI)
    iv. The mandolin players had long since stolen away. A profound stillness had
    fallen upon the broad, beautiful street. (Chapter-XXXI)
    v. vision–a transcendently seductive vision of a Mexican girl arose before her. (XXXV)
  11. Mood: The novel shows an inquisitive mood at the beginning that seems bubbling with joy but soon it appears that something serious and somber is going to happen on account of the movements in the Gulf region and quirky attitude of Edna. The novel then becomes ironic again when Edna starts her love affair with Alcee and then with Victor after the escape of Robert. The end is, however, tragic, as she loses herself in the vastness of the sea.
  12. Motif: Most important motifs of the novel are music, children, birds, and the sea.
  13. Narrator: The novel is narrated by a third-person narrator, the author Kate Chopin.
  14. Personification: Personification means attributing human acts and emotions to non-living objects. For example,
    i. It seems to be a provision of Nature; a decoy to secure mothers for the race. (Chapter-XXXVIII)
    ii. She looked into the distance, and the old terror flamed up for an instant, then
    sank again. (Chapter-XXXIX)
    iii. Despondency had come upon her there in the wakeful night, and had never lifted. (XXXIX)
    All of these examples show different emotions, passions, and things personified as if they have a life of their own.
  15. Protagonist: Edna is the protagonist of the novel. She is introduced in the novel from the very start, makes the storyline move forward, and captures the interest of the readers until the last page.
  16. Paradox: The Awakening shows the use of paradox in its title in that it shows the awakening of reality for Edna but she commits suicide.
  17. Theme: A theme is a central idea that the novelist or the writer wants to stress upon. The novel shows the titular thematic strand of the awakening of a woman, and other themes such as family love, conjugal love, identity, status, gender, and various other strands.
  18. Setting: The setting of the novel shows different areas of New Orleans, New York, and the coastal area of the Gulf of Mexico.
  19. Simile: The novel shows good use of various similes. For example,
    i. “Let me see,” she went on, throwing back her head and narrowing her fine eyes till they shone like two vivid points of light. (Chapter-VII)
    ii. The white light of the moon had fallen upon the world like the mystery and the softness of sleep. (Chapter-X)
    iii. Edna began to feel like one who awakens gradually out of a dream, a delicious, grotesque, impossible dream, to feel again the realities pressing into
    her soul. (Chapter-XII)
    iv. The shadows lengthened and crept out like stealthy, grotesque monsters across
    the grass. (Chapter-XIV)
    The first simile compares the eyes of Edna with two points of light, the second the light with sleep, the third Edna to a dreaming person, and the fourth shadows with grotesque monsters.