Setting (Time, Place, Influence)
The Awakening is set in Grand Isle and New Orleans, Louisiana. More specifically, much of the book is set in the French Quarter of New Orleans, which is significant because that section was dominated by Creole culture. Edna feels particularly ill-at-ease in her husband's home, a home characterized by lush furnishings and located on swanky Esplanade Ave. The other setting, Grand Isle, captures the wildness of nature (as much as can be experienced by someone in Edna's social class) and spurs her awakening. Later, it serves as Edna's last refuge. -abl
In effectively understanding the audaciousness of Chopin’s storyline and the societal pressures exuded on, protagonist, Edna Pontellier, one must consider the time frame in which the novel was both written and set. In the late 19th century, a time when rigid adherence to the strictures of Victorian society was the rule, the commitment of infidelity, neglect toward children (especially for women), and, most definitely, suicide was unheard of. It is this decorum and communal innocence that underscores the unconventional tendencies of Edna Pontellier in her “awakening”.
Understanding the time period can also provoke a level of sympathy within the reader as he or she considers the differences in the role of women (19th cent vs. modern-day society) and recognizes Edna’s difficulty in achieving true emancipation. So bereft of any modicum of hope or freedom, it is this impossible struggle that ultimately prompts Edna to seek refuge and escape in the depths of the Mexican gulf. (RLovejoy)
Edna is on vacation at a resort called Grande Isle with several other creole families. They spend their time on the beach, at parties, and dining. There she meets Mlle Reisz and Robert. She spends her days with Robert and he awakens her, then realizing their love is real runs off to Mexico.
The Pontelliers return to New Orleans and Leonce leaves for New York on business. Edna pushes the boundaries of society as a newly awoken women. She passes her days with unescorted walks, drawing, lusting for Robert, and visiting Mlle Reisz. She eventually abandons her children to her mother and law, moves into a smaller house, and has an affair with Alcee. Her husband consults a doctor worried about her behavior. Leonce begs her to remember their reputation. Edna's friend Mme Ratignolle pleads Mrs. Pontellier to not forget her children.
Robert returns and she also has an affair with him. However he soon ends their relationship. Edna swims into the sea at Grand Isle and drowns. The novel ends with her death. (SarahB, feel free to add everybody)
Throughout Edna's time on Grande Isle, her life is contrasted with those of the people around her- their complete devotions to their children and families being the most noticeable. Initiating friendships with important characters such as Madame Ratignolle and Mademoiselle Reisz, Edna compares her life to what is expected of her, beginning her awakening. During her time on the island, she become infatuated with Robert Lebrun, spending as much time with him as possible. As they leave the island for the day to attend church, Robert realizes that he reciprocates Edna's love and comes to the decision to leave.
After their return to New Orleans, the Pontelliers attempt to resume their life in the city; however, Edna's awakening causes her to stray from the constraints of society and move away from her family and social duties. Making visits to Mademoiselle Reisz a constant fixture in her life, not caring about who she associates with, and immersing herself in art become important parts of her life. Socializing with a variety of people, her dinner party as she prepares to move houses symbolizes the excessive change in her life.
Through Mlle. Reisz, Edna has realized that Robert's love for her is real; therefore, once he returns to New Orleans she continues to pursue their love; however, after Robert expresses his mutual love for Edna, he realizes that their interaction is immoral and leaves her. As a result, Edna commits suicide, returning to Grande Isle when she dies. (CarolineKelly)
In her protagonist, Chopin presents a true character in conflict who throughout the novel becomes increasingly aware of her dissatisfaction with her life and begins a subtle subversion to the stifling expectations of society, her friends, and her family. Although Edna goes through a process of emotional, and at times spiritual, evolution, her indecision and her lack of a "soul that dares and defies" denies her ultimate fulfillment and salvation from the forces that harass her (86).
As the novel progresses, Edna becomes increasingly independent in spirit. To her husband's dismay, Edna shirks her social responsibilities. She takes part in independent activities, such as drawing, solitary walks, or pensive piano concerts with Mademoiselle Reisz. She also takes an extended absence from her children and moves out of her family's mansion into a smaller home. However, Edna struggles to reconcile her newfound independent spirit with the realities of her life. Unlike Mademoiselle Reisz, she lacks the courage to sever all ties with her current life to live independently, but she also lacks the blissful ignorance of Madame Ratignolle to live the circumscribed life of the upper class Southern wife.
In the novel, the ultimate expression of her rebellion against social pressure and pursuit of personal happiness is her infatuation with Robert Lebrun. Robert, controlled by a sense of social propriety, rejects Edna's advances and denies himself the object of his potent love for the sake of Edna's reputation and her family. Edna's failure to win Robert's hand indicates to her the impossibility of finding happiness in her life, prompting her suicide.
In the end Edna's inability to reconcile her responsibilities to her husband and children with her furious passion for Robert and her own independence lead to her final downfall in which her suicide suggests ultimate capitulation on her part to the obdurate social forces that bar her from happiness. Through Edna's suicide, Chopin cautions against oppressive demands for conformity within in a purportedly free society and demonstrates their pernicious effects on the fate of the individual. (W. Almquist)
Edna meets Robert Lebrun at Grand Isle, and the two develop a powerful connection. Though he is known for superficially attaching himself to summer flings, his relationship with Edna is based on real love. Robert serves as the catalyst of Edna’s awakening by invoking the dormant passions within her and exposing her to dynamic love. Though he reciprocates her feelings, he soon runs away to Mexico because he know that he can never act on his love towards a married woman. Though he is gone for the stage of Edna’s awakening when she begins to assert her opinions, he returns to quixotically ask Leonce to liberate Edna, driven by lust. Not understanding Edna’s complete individual independence and ultimately constricted by the social norms of his society, he rejects to be with her. Robert’s final refusal to exist outside of established social conventions pushes Edna to realize the isolation of her awakening. (Aashna)
Mademoiselle Reisz is a gifted pianist who devotes her life completely to her passion of music. By doing so, she lives a sort of isolated life, with few friends, no husband, and no children. The Creoles find her rude, but appreciate her music nonetheless. Edna Pontellier often seeks advice from Reisz, who she sees as a honest friend, as she struggles to follow her passion. Reisz is also the only person who Edna can discuss her love for Robert with, without judgment. Chopin juxtaposes the independence of Reisz against the socially-acceptable domesticity of Adele Ratignolle. (Libby)
Mlle Reisz and Madame Pontellier befriend each other while spending the summer in Grand Isle. Mlle Reisz is a talented pianist and sparks Madame Pontellier’s interest in doing art. Mlle Reisz is a grown woman who is not married, making her interesting to Madame Pontellier. While Robert is in Mexico Mlle Reisz serves as a go between for Robert and Madame Pontellier, sharing letters Robert has written about Madame Pontellier, and encouraging Madame Pontellier to discuss her love for Robert. (MMcG)
While it is very easy to accuse Robert or Alcee to be the figure that started Edna's awakening it must be remembered that
Mme Ratignolle is portrayed as a perfect wife and loving mother of the late 19th century; her beautiful features and fragile health all spell femininity. She is a conformist of the status quo and relies on her husband while taking good care of her children. However, she seeks attention with her frail body and pretentious behavior by making gestures of illness as she “complained of faintness” and “leaned …upon his [Robert’s] arm” (23, 34). Moreover, she is a hollow woman who lacks personality and independence; she rarely leaves her house and when she does, there is always someone accompanying her. Also, because family is core of being, she has very little interests in the things that do not pertain to family life or entertaining family friends. Even her soiree musicale is not planned for her personal interests but for the sake of entertaining friends. Nevertheless, she chose her place in society and lives a happy life. (Tai)
Alcée Arobin is a man who is notorious among the New Orleans socialites for his womanizing and immoral habits. He is a complex and multi-layered character, however, and Chopin juxtaposes his exploitive actions with his gentlemanly and innocent facade. He charms Edna into cheating on her husband with him, and he ultimately helps "awaken" Edna to the "beauty and brutality" of the world around her. Alcée also satisfies Edna's sexual desires and provides her with a sort of temporary emotional sedative. (KWatts)
Léonce Pontellier is a Creole living in New Orleans with his wife and two children. His life focuses around his status and thus the outward appearance of his family. He showers his wife, Edna, with material affection, making her the envy of her friends, yet fails to see his wife for the woman she is beneath the surface. He is thus confused by Edna’s awakening, assuming she has gone crazy instead of recognizing the passion for life that has been lit within her. Léonce, adheres to the typical male Creole manner stated in the book, “the Creole husband is never jealous” (21), and so he thinks nothing of his wife’s relationship with Robert Lebrun, instead he keeps his eyes set on making sure his family appears successful, claiming that the family is doing renovations to the house when Edna moves out and publicly announcing that the Pontellier family plans to take an extensive European vacation. Though he cares for his wife he fails to view her as more than another one of his expensive material objects. (Molly)
The Colonel is Edna's father and visits in chapter 13. He fought for the Confederate army in the civil war and has a talent for creating his own cocktails. He and Edna's relationship is described as "companionable" (91). The Colonel believes women are inferior to men and a husband must "put his foot down good and hard" to manage his wife, and in fact Mr. Pontellier believes The Colonel "coerced his wife into her grave" (96). The Colonel gives a glimpse of what Edna's childhood was like in Kentucky as the daughter of an illiberal military father. He also illustrates how Edna's pursuit of independence may be a reaction to the subjugation her mother faced. (SarahB)
The Colonel not only reveals a different side of Edna that we did not see before, but he also exposes the freedom that Edna has with Robert, in a Creole lifestyle. Even though she is still confined by social constructs, Leonce gives her more freedom than she would have if she married a man from her background. This further provokes the question: Is Edna asking for too much, and would she ever be happy or would she always feel the need to push the envelope? (awannamaker)
Etienne & Raoul
The children of Edna and Leonce, Etienne and Raoul, play little part in the plot but serve largely in the development of Edna. Edna claims that she “would give her life for [her] children; but [she] wouldn’t give [herself],” and ultimately, she follows through with that declaration (64). Although Edna flees from the responsibility of caring for Etienne and Raoul, it is apparent throughout the novel that she loves them both dearly and that their well-being and reputation impacted her suicide. (BMitt)
Mariequita is described as a Spanish girl with “pretty black eyes,” (56) whom Robert has had past relations with. She is initially introduced soon after Edna had begun to take control over her life and catch minute glimpses of freedom, and ultimately influences Edna to continue in her pursuit of independence. Edna is particularly intrigued by Mariequita’s “broad and course” feet with “sand and slime between her toes” which “she did not strive to hide” (56). Mariequita is both free to do as she pleases and bold enough to neglect the judgment of others, two characteristics Edna has been struggling towards achieving. Especially after understanding her relationship with Robert, Edna simultaneously feels jealousy and respect for Mariequita, who is a curious and refreshing symbol of the freedom and individuality of women in the novel. (ElizC)
While her role is relatively minor, it is Mariequita who provides the perspective of someone outside of the upper class society that binds Edna and her fellow vacationers on Grand Isle. Chopin uses Mariequita as the primary means of awakening Robert from his naive view on married women as completely safe and responsible. Mariequita is one of the only characters in the model that finds it even somewhat possible for a woman who is married and has kids to run off with another man, and she tells a story (45) about such an event that shows Robert the possibility that his flirtations with Edna could easily become more complicated than he intends and expects. (RLucas)
The Calvary Officer
The Calvary Officer is a minor character in the novel who, though he appears infrequently, holds a great significance to Edna. When she was a child "she had been passionately enamored of a dignified and sad-eyed cavalry officer who visited her father in Kentucky" (31). She talks about his napoleonic features but finally says that he had "melted imperceptibly out of her existence" (31). However he remained a part of her. He was the first man that she had loved and the last man she thought about as she drowned. As she lost her strength out in the ocean, Edna heard "the spurs of the cavalry officer [clang] as he walked across the porch" (190). His significance in her life is beyond what is apparent in the text. His image stuck with her until her last breath. (ELewis)
Themes/Meanings of the Work
Throughout the novel, the ocean is used as a symbol of Edna's yearning for freedom. Exersising her independence, Edna learns to swim while on the Grand Isle. When swimming, Edna attempts to push herself to the limits and states that she swam to "[reach]out for the unlimited in which to lose herself" (37). However, as is shown by her quick bout with the fear of drowning in one of her initial swims, Edna's obsession with gaining and living in freedom from the dogma of society often sours and yields negative effects. In the closing scene of the novel, Edna again encounters the ocean with the intentions of proving to herself, and perhaps to others, her own power. Accustomed to the dictatorial rules of society, Edna had begun to lean on Robert as constant which she could count on to help her feel a sense of independence. However, when she recognizes that even he does not understand her, she again feels isolated. Thus, Edna swims into the ocean, eventually resigning herself to drown, in an effort to gain some measure of control in her life. Aseda
As Chopin’s novel progresses, Edna Pontellier develops in a way that is unique to most characters in literature. Rather than maturing throughout the book, Edna rediscovers her childhood, resulting in a theme of immature selfishness. In her awakening, Edna is transported back to a time when she had no concerns or responsibilities, simply driven by desire and childish fancies. Her passionate relationship with Robert brings her back to the Kentucky meadow through which she ran as a girl, “idly, aimlessly, unthinking, and unguided” (Chopin 22). Like the saying goes, Edna does not appreciate what she has with Robert until he is forced to leave. Characteristic of a little kid, Edna then proceeds to fall apart when he departs for Mexico. Feeling like a neglected girl, Edna misses the “infatuation which she had felt incipiently as a child, as a girl in her earliest teens, and later as a young woman” (Chopin 61). Edna’s childishness culminates in the abandoning of her own children, for child-woman is simply incapable of caring for other children, so that she can free herself from the cruel world. It is in her suicide that Edna’s final act of selfishness, immaturity, and failure is committed. (Win)
Throughout her novel Kate Chopin implements numerous birds to represent primarily Edna, but also Creole women at large and their struggle for freedom within harsh social confines. The story begins with Madame Lebrun’s caged parrot shrieking at Léonce in an unrecognizable language, signifying Edna’s tacit emotions against her husband throughout her state of imprisonment. As Edna gradually plies off the chains of social obliteration, Mademoiselle Reisz issues a frank warning, noting that, “The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings” (112). While Edna strives for financial independence from Léonce by moving into the “pigeon house,” as the name indicates, she has yet to fully extend her wings. It becomes apparent that this incomplete development of wings and the contrast between Edna’s illusion of soaring beyond social confines and her reality of dipping precariously in and out of societal influence lands her right back into her misunderstood cage of neglect. As she desires flight, Edna gazes out at, “A bird with a broken wing beating the air above, reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down to the water,” (156) and she too realizes the fracture in her wings. (gaustin)
As Kate Chopin’s romantic novel progresses, the subtle motif of artistry comes about to demonstrate Edna’s newfound individuality. Shortly after Robert Lebrun’s departure to Mexico on an alleged business trip, Edna finds herself repudiating maternal roles and seeking self-expression through art. Though she never develops into a successful artist, Edna’s attempt at becoming autonomous leaves Léonce blind to the fact that, “[Edna] was becoming herself, and daily casting aside the fictitious self” which society had molded her into (77). Additionally, Mademoiselle Reisz seemed to observe Edna’s passions for art as an ultimate test of individuality. Interestingly enough, Edna never becomes an accomplished artist. (Tmott)
A consistent motif in the novel is music and the protagonist’s reaction to it. Everytime Edna hears Mademoiselle Reisz play the piano, she weeps, perhaps an indication of Edna’s passion and emotional depth—the same passion and emotional depth that ultimately resulting in her suicide. The first time this occurs in the novel, “the very passions themselves were aroused within her soul, swaying it, lashing it, as the waves daily beat upon her splendid body” (35). On page 122, upon Victor’s rendition of the song, Edna reacts by crying out and spilling her glass, because she is affected by both the song and the feelings of Robert it creates. Music also serves to represent Robert, particularly in Edna’s mind. She associates him with a song beginning “sit tu savais.” When Chopin notes that Edna is singing this ditty, we know that she is thinking of Robert (though she is thinking of Robert for most of the novel…)(CBerk)
Robert repeatedly rolls his own cigarettes during the summer at Grand Isle because he cannot afford his own cigars. In fact, he cherishes a cigar that Mr. Pontellier gives him, saving it for his afterdinner smoke. Robert’s inability to provide himself with cigars portrays him as a dependent and immature boy who lacks direction. However, upon his return from Mexico, Robert has bought himself a whole box of cigars, demonstrating that he can now provide for his own comfort and is mindful of his self-image. Robert’s fundamental shift from cigarettes to cigars shows that he has matured from a boy to an independent man when he returns from Mexico even though he is there for less than a year. His conflict with his love for Edna drives him to Mexico, but he comes back equipped with a new maturity that enables him to face his passion and defeat it. (Hadley)
Throughout the novel Edna Pontellier is constantly moving, not only is her mind constantly changing so is her location. During novel the reader is introduced to the three different homes familiar to Mrs. Pontellier: her house in Grand Isle, the one on Esplanade Street in New Orleans, and the house she rents after her awakening. In each house she maintains different moods; those houses in turn seem to personify her mentality and with each move to a different house Edna preserves a different personality. Her house at Grand Isle opens Edna up to new possibilities, “that summer at Grand Isle she began to loosen a little the mantle of reserve that had always enveloped her”(Chopin 26). While Edna’s vacation house is symbolized as a step forward her old house she returns to is considered to be a step back. Though her personality has changed, the mood of her old house has stayed the same. Her house on Esplanade Street is described as being, “…painted dazzling white…the yard which was kept scrupulously neat, were flowers and plants of every description which flourishes in South Louisiana”(83), though it is described as a well manicured house, to Edna, it’s un-favorability derives from its homogeny. When the house’s mood doesn’t agree with her own she rents a smaller house where she believes she will be happier, “I (Edna) know I shall like it, like the feeling of freedom and independence” (133). Each one of the “moods” of these houses therefore personify who Edna was, who she gradually becomes, and individualist she wants to be. (EBush)
A recurring symbol that spreads throughout Kate Chopin’s novel is nature and specifically the persisting effect that nature has on Edna’s emotions and actions. Fighting through a loveless marriage, and a deeply troubled social life, it is evident that Edna discovers bliss through nature as truly depicted in the closing scene of the novel. Nature, the birds, and the ocean are all clear demonstrations of how nature peacefully separates Edna’s body and soul as well as distances her from all of the societal pressures that seem to be pushing her towards suicide. Interestingly, Edna and Chopin never blatantly point out the relief that Edna gets from relishing the nature around her but Chopin does say, “There were days she was very happy without knowing why. She was happy to be alive and breathing, when her whole being seemed to be one with the sunlight, the color, the odors, the luxuriant warmth of some perfect Southern day.” (78) (ZI)
Significance of Opening Scene
Mr. Pontellier, vexed at the cacophony created by the parrot and the mocking-bird, quits his reading spot, which symbolizes his ignorance towards Edna’s current social standing. Wearing eye-glasses conveys Leonce's spiritual blindness as he bases his life on attaining material possessions as he even gazes upon Edna as “a valuable piece of personal property” similar to Tom’s treatment of his trophy, Daisy, in The Great Gatsby (3). The parrot locked in the cage acts as a microcosm for Edna’s world in which she struggles because she has broken free of society’s constraints. Robert Lebrun, when he comes back from Mexico, proclaims the thought of Edna as his wife “demented,” while keeping in mind what is and is not socially acceptable (146). While Edna has broken from these constraints mentally, she realizes escaping reality is impossible and therefore remains encaged until she liberates her soul through suicide. Mr. Pontellier resents the sound of the mocking-bird because of his lack of originality, like the mocking-bird that only repeats that which others say. Leonce, the classic father figure of the time, expresses no amount of individuality, staying firm in his role. He prides himself on “quitting their (the birds’) society when they ceased to be entertaining,” relying on others to entertain himself, rather than listening to nature’s melody to engage in spiritual inquiry as Edna often does when the ocean beckons to her (1). (CChiaroni)
Significance of Closing Scene
Like the rest of the novel, the ultimate significance of Edna’s suicide is left up to the reader’s interpretation. On one hand, the suicide can be viewed as Edna’s great failure. Lacking the courage to act out against society’s pressures, she commits the superlative act of submission to societal mores. On the other, it can be viewed as a compromise between her responsibilities as a mother and her own individuality. Because she refuses to sacrifice “herself” and return to a loveless marriage, but also unwilling to taint her children’s’ futures by living alone, her death represents a sacrifice to reconcile her own integrity and her children’s prosperity. (lhedrick)
Discussions of morality aside (as the true “morality” of suicide is probably only ever truly clear to those bereft souls in the fleeting seconds immediately before they meet their self-inflicted ends), the situation Edna finds herself in at the end of the book is uncomfortably human. As is the nature of criticism, it is far easier to argue for and against Edna’s actions across a circle of desks than to experience what Edna has and to ultimately make the “right” decision. Whether she acts out of cowardice or self-sacrifice, the self-acknowledged inevitability of Edna’s misery is frighteningly rational:
“There was no one thing in the world that she desired. There was no human being whom she wanted near her except Robert; and she even realized that the day would come when he, too, and the thought of him would melt out of her existence, leaving her alone. The children appeared before her like antagonists who had overcome her; who had overpowered and sought to drag her into the soul's slavery for the rest of her days” (300).
Chopin, though she reminds us of Edna’s weakness (and failure perhaps?) with the blatant and almost painfully contrived image of a wounded bird gyring to its death, shows us Edna in a state of mortality that few of us would want to exist in. While I would personally argue that life draws its sacredness from its frail finality and its demand of perseverance in the face of inexorable destruction, Edna’s internal dilemma at the closing scene is one that, without having been experienced, cannot be wholly “solved” by any of us. Chopin leaves us with a sickness in our stomachs, a realization that our convictions, though meaningful, are ultimately inadequate because of our inability to walk a mile in the proverbial shoes of Edna’s existence. The fact that two plausible interpretations of Edna’s suicide exist (as Luke points out) only emphasizes Chopin’s belief in the impossibility of perfect emotional conveyance. The price of individually nuanced passions is that any soul completely wrecked by perfervid passions must suffer in solitude, as does Edna. After all, Edna says of Robert, “He did not know; he did not understand. He would never understand” (302). And perhaps the closing scene is Chopin’s chilling reminder that we, the onlookers, will never truly understand. (pbowman)
2:10 "brace yourselves"
"This is a hobo suit, darling…"
"Edna Mode….and guest"