Kate Chopin's "The Awakening": Like a Phoenix from the Ashes or a Cruel Fate?

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2013

19 Pages, Grade: 1.3


Table of Contents

I. Introduction

II. A Characterisation of Edna Pontellier

III. The Setting – Grand Isle and New Orleans

IV. Edna Pontellier – New Womanhood or True Womanhood?

V. Awakening through Art

VI. Awakening of Love or Passion?

VII. The Suicide

VIII. Conclusion

IX. Bibliography

I. Introduction

“Here is the story, its beginning a mature woman's awakening to physical love, its end her walking into the sea.” [1] The quest of individuality and the right to love whoever they want was a hard task for women in patriarchal world of the late 19 thcentury. There are works dated from that time which describe a woman's way from True Womanhood to New Womanhood, becoming independent, but ending up solely on her own. One who made a rather bold venture by also adding the aspects of adultery and suicide in 1889 was Kate Chopin with her novel The Awakening. There, she describes an awakening of a personality in all its facets at the example of the story's protagonist Edna Pontellier. This awakening takes place on the levels of art, religion, sexuality, spirituality and womanhood in all its senses. Accompanied by rich symbolism and several leitmotifs throughout the story, Edna encounters all kinds of characters, both supportive and non-supportive, leading her on her way to her very own form of individuality.

The main question of this paper is how the actual awakening takes place. Therefore, the first part will be concerned with the characterisation of Edna and an analysis of the setting, which evokes the changes in our protagonist's conception. Furthermore, the different paths which are open to her are also important, especially with focus on those characters posing as models for their respective role. Also, the final question whether the awakening itself was successful and in how far both, the adultery and her suicide are important factors for her self-discovery, is to be answered.

II. A Characterisation of Edna Pontellier

The novel is told from Edna Pontellier's point of view in a 3 rdperson figurative way. We read the story chronologically, with several flashbacks to Edna's childhood, but are dependant on her in ways of experience and emotion. Therefore, the protagonist is also the focalizer, but the narrator is omniscient. We are provided with deep insight into her personality, feelings and her memories, not only when she speaks of it, but directly from her mind. This is mostly the case, except for a few occasions: the introduction is made by Léonce Pontellier, Edna's husband, through whose eyes she is first introduced in on pages one and two [2]. From the point on that she arrives, her point of view takes over. There is a part on page 124 of Dr. Mandelet that shows how Edna's behaviour is perceived by the people around her. On page 168, at the very end, where Robert becomes the focalizer if only for one sentence: “Her seductive voice, together with his great love for her, had enthralled his senses, had deprived him of every impulse but the longing to hold and keep her.” This is the only time that we have and insight into his mind and learn how he actually feels for her. It serves to show the reader that the relationship between the two is not only one-sided. The short switches to other characters always fulfil the function of stressing certain facts to which the reader only had a vague overview. However, the protagonist is Edna and it is her emotions that accompany the reader throughout the novel:

Edna Pontellier, married to Léonce Pontellier and mother of Raoul and Etienne, is the 28-years old protagonist. She passed her youth in Kentucky where she grew up on a farm with a strict and religious father and her sisters Janet and Margaret (p. 50 and p. 61). At her adolescent age, she appears to be easily swooned by strong feelings and thus, falling in love with three very different men, namely “a dignified and sad-eyed cavalry officer”, “the young man in Mississippi who was engaged to a young lady” and the “great tragedian” (p. 62). Edna appears as someone led by emotions, although she never speaks of love, but only of passion even when the objects of her passion and infatuation do not pay attention to her at all: “[...] the realisation that she herself was nothing, nothing, nothing to the engaged young man was a bitter affliction for her.” (p. 62).

All this deeply opposes her marriage with Léonce, which she describes as “purely an accident” (p. 62). She is “pleased” and “his absolute devotion flattered her” (p. 62) into marrying him in first place. but all his pleasantries towards her have long become an everyday issue: “[...] her husband's kindness and [a] uniform devotion which had come to be tacit and self-understood” (p. 49). She is fond of him and fond of her feelings towards him, because “no trace of passion or excessive or fictitious warmth coloured her affection,[...]” (p. 63).

However, it is this lack of passion where Robert Lebrun fits in. Edna is easily flattered, which is why she was willing to marry Léonce in first place, and now Robert's habit of flirting with women has an effect on her which he did not anticipate. Robert is considered to be the main source of her awakening, it is his “light” (p. 46) that guides her at first to seek independence and freedom. This new feeling is often supported through her exclamations of joy when Robert takes her swimming, something considered unusual for someone who is used to being bound to her role as a woman and mother.

Nearly all of Edna's relationships are based on mood swings. On page 63, she explains how she “[is] fond of her children in an uneven, impulsive way”, sometimes loving to have them around her all the time, sometimes even forgetting about them. It is similar to the relationship between her and Léonce: She is fond of him, but her affections towards him are based on her mood and vice versa. When she does not act like he expects her to, he acts spiteful, for example, on page 47-49. He comes back from the gambling at Klein's Hotel and wakes her up to tell her of his success at winning money, probably hoping for a sexual encounter. Edna refuses him and he, in turn, tells her off for being a bad mother by telling a lie, making her leave the bed and succumb to her tears when she sits alone on the porch.

Although Edna is rather reluctant when it comes to account of her own emotions, it is ironic that she says that the marriage to the great tragedian would have brought her the “acme of bliss” (p. 63). A tragedian can be expected to be emotionally outgoing which does not only oppose her own way of life, but also her husband's character. It shows that their marriage is based more on business than love [3]. He “was only thinking of his financial integrity” (p. 150), appears to be stoic and regards his wife as his possession and an object of prestige (p. 2). At first she acts as his “valuable piece of property” (p. 44), but refuses to do so more and more, the more she awakens to be an individual with her own ideals.

This is also expressed in her art, which at the beginning is merely “dabbling” (p. 54-55) and later on “grow in force and individuality” (p. 134) and is described as “talent” (p. 106). The “inward life” and “outward existence” (p.57) is a great issue for Edna who draws a strict line between both sides, from early childhood on (p.57). The more she learns to combine both, the inner life and the outer appearance, the more she moves out of the boundaries of socially accepted behaviour which finally lead to her tragic suicide.

III. The Setting – Grand Isle and New Orleans

At the beginning, we find Edna at Grand Isle where the New Orleans middle class families spend their summer, mainly the wives and their children: “The mother-women seemed to prevail the summer at Grand Isle. It was easy to know them, fluttering about with extended, protecting wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened their precious brood.” (p. 51). However, this image rather describes their overbearing manner in a ridiculous way. The husbands, on the other hand, stay in the city or go to the nearby Klein's Hotel to enjoy their free time with fellow males, as we can see at the example of Léonce Pontellier on page 45. It is a silent understanding between him and his wife that he would spend the evening elsewhere. They are at the resort run by family Lebrun, a widow and her two adult sons of Creole background. While the quadroon nurse takes care of her children, Edna likes to spend most of her time with Adèle Ratignolle and Robert Lebrun. Occupying herself with swimming trips with Robert or watching Mme Ratignolle do needlework is her preferred pastime.

The atmosphere is light, the Creole milieu and it's coquettish character with the “[...] entire absence of prudery[...]” (p. 52-53) puts Edna into a surrounding which she does not seem to be used to to this degree: “Mrs. Pontellier, thought she had married a Creole, was not thoroughly at home in the society of Creoles; never before had she been thrown so intimately among them[...]”(p. 52), even thought she has “a small infusion of French” (p. 47) herself. It is possible in such a society with it's “lofty chastity” (p. 53) to be awaken on the sensual level, which was up to then only known to the protagonist from fantasies with her teenage infatuations. Quickly did Edna accept the dull every day routine of her marriage, knowing that all the passionate fantasies would never be for her in real life, but as soon as Robert shows her that men she desires actually can and do show her affection, she gives in easily. Her marriage does not seem to be in danger for anyone, because Mr Pontellier regards her infatuation as a joke and acts according to the stereotype that “a Creole husband is never jealous” (p. 54). Therefore, he does not appear to be bothered as the Creole milieu suggests.

There are many background characters always accompanying the protagonist as background images. The stock consists of a young couple, called the lovers, who are a permanent display of Edna's emotional life in relation to Robert Lebrun. He flirted with her and Edna, who describes her marriage to Léonce Pontellier as “an accident” (p. 62) feels her emotions being triggered by Robert's flattery. Whenever there are social gatherings, such as the walk to church or the evening dinners, they would always appear in the background, always seeming a little bit closer than at the previous occasion. Another character is the lady in black, a devout Christian, who veils her face, wears black and mainly keeps to herself and her prayers. She symbolises the omnipresence of religion in Edna's life, being a member if the Presbyterian church at her home in Kentucky and stands for the shadow of her father's strict upbringing (p. 61-62). The fact that she never speaks or actively interacts with the people around her accounts for her being something beyond human, means posing as religion itself.


[1] Eble, p.79

[2] Chopin, p.43. From here on, the page number will be in brackets, sources for other quotes will be given in footnotes.

[3] Papke, p.74

Excerpt out of 19 pages


Kate Chopin's "The Awakening": Like a Phoenix from the Ashes or a Cruel Fate?
University of Paderborn  (Kulturwissenschaften)
The Big Easy - New Orleans
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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473 KB
kate chopin, the awakening, edna pontellier, new womanhood, true womanhood, fin de siècle, symbolism, amerikanistik, literaturwissenschaft
Quote paper
Sara Mellor (Author), 2013, Kate Chopin's "The Awakening": Like a Phoenix from the Ashes or a Cruel Fate?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/262850


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