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The Awakening is a novel is written by Kate Chopin.

Characters

  • Edna Pontellier - Edna is the protagonist of the novel, and the “awakening” to which the title refers is hers. The twenty-eight-year-old wife of a New Orleans businessman, Edna suddenly finds herself dissatisfied with her marriage and the limited, conservative lifestyle that it allows. She emerges from her semi-conscious state of devoted wife and mother to a state of total awareness, in which she discovers her own identity and acts on her desires for emotional and sexual satisfaction. Through a series of experiences, or “awakenings,” Edna becomes a shockingly independent woman, who lives apart from her husband and children and is responsible only to her own urges and passions. Tragically, Edna's awakenings isolate her from others and ultimately lead her to a state of total solitude.
  • Mademoiselle Reisz - Mademoiselle Reisz may be the most influential character in Edna's awakening. She is unmarried and childless, and she devotes her life to her passion: music. A talented pianist and somewhat of a recluse, she represents independence and freedom and serves as a sort of muse for Edna. When Edna begins actively to pursue personal independence, she seeks Mademoiselle Reisz's companionship. Mademoiselle warns Edna that she must be brave if she wishes to be an artist—that an artist must have a courageous and defiant soul. Mademoiselle Reisz is the only character in the novel who knows of the love between Robert and Edna, and she, thus, serves as a true confidante for Edna despite their considerably different personalities. Mademoiselle Reisz is also a foil for Edna's other close female friend, Adèle Ratignolle, who epitomizes the conventional and socially acceptable woman of the late nineteenth century.
  • Adèle Ratignolle - Edna's close friend, Adèle Ratignolle represents the Victorian feminine ideal. She idolizes her children and worships her husband, centering her life around caring for them and performing her domestic duties. While her lifestyle and attitude contrast with Edna's increasing independence, Adèle unwittingly helps facilitate her friend's transformation. Her free manner of discourse and expression, typical of Creole women of the time, acts as a catalyst for Edna's abandonment of her former reserved and introverted nature. Adele is also a foil for Mademoiselle Reisz, whose independent and unconventional lifestyle inspires Edna's transgressions.
  • Robert Lebrun - Robert Lebrun is the twenty-six-year-old single man with whom Edna falls in love. Dramatic and passionate, he has a history of becoming the devoted attendant to a different woman each summer at Grand Isle. Robert offers his affections comically and in an over-exaggerated manner, and thus is never taken seriously. As the friendship between Robert and Edna becomes more intimate and complex, however, he realizes that he has genuinely fallen in love with Edna. He is torn between his love for her and society's view that women are the possessions of their husbands.
  • Alcée Arobin - The seductive, charming, and forthright Alcée Arobin is the Don Juan of the New Orleans Creole community. Arobin enjoys making conquests out of married women, and he becomes Edna's lover while her husband is on a business trip to New York. Although Robert Lebrun is the man whom Edna truly loves, Arobin satisfies Edna's physical urges while Robert is in Mexico. Throughout their passionate affair, Edna retains authority and never allows Alcée to own or control her.
  • Léonce Pontellier - Léonce Pontellier, a forty-year-old, wealthy New Orleans businessman, is Edna's husband. Although he loves Edna and his sons, he spends little time with them because he is often away on business or with his friends. Very concerned with social appearances, Léonce wishes Edna to continue the practices expected of New Orleans women despite her obvious distaste for them. He treats Edna with love and kindness, but their relationship lacks passion and excitement, and he knows very little of his wife's true feelings and emotions.
  • Doctor Mandelet - Doctor Mandelet is Léonce and Edna's family physician. He is a fairly enlightened man, who silently recognizes Edna's dissatisfaction with the restrictions placed on her by social conventions. When Léonce consults with him about Edna's unconventional behavior, the doctor suspects that Edna is in love with another man, although he keeps his suspicions to himself because he recognizes that there is little Léonce can do if Edna is indeed in love with someone else and that any further constraints imposed on her will only intensify her revolt. Doctor Mandelet offers Edna his help and understanding and is worried about the possible consequences of her defiance and independence.
  • The Colonel - The Colonel, a former Confederate officer in the Civil War, is Edna's father. He is a strict Protestant and believes that husbands should manage their wives with authority and coercion. While Edna's relationship with her father is not affectionate, she is surprised by how well she gets along with her father when they are together.
  • Victor Lebrun - Victor Lebrun is Robert's wayward younger brother. He spends his time chasing women and refuses to settle down into a profession.
  • Madame Lebrun - Madame Lebrun is the widowed mother of Victor and Robert. She owns and manages the cottages on Grand Isle where the novel's characters spend their summer vacations.
  • The Lady in Black - The lady in black is a vacationer at the Lebrun cottages on Grand Isle. She embodies the patient, resigned solitude that convention expects of a woman whose husband has died, but her solitude does not speak to any sort of independence or strength. Rather, it owes to a self-effacing withdrawal from life and passion out of utter respect for her husband's death.
  • The Two Lovers - The two lovers are vacationers at the Lebrun cottages on Grand Isle. They also depict what Edna wishes her and Robert could be like.
  • The Farival Twins - The Farival twins are fourteen-year-old girls who vacation at Grand Isle with their family and who frequently entertain their fellow guests by playing the piano. They represent the destiny of adolescent Victorian girls: chaste motherhood. Having been dedicated to the Virgin Mary at birth, they wear her colors at all times. Moreover, they embody society's expectations of the way women should use art—as a way of making themselves more delightful to others, rather than as a means of self-expression.
  • Mrs. Highcamp - A tall, worldly woman in her forties, Mrs. Highcamp spends time with many of the fashionable single men of New Orleans under the pretext of finding a husband for her daughter. Alcée Arobin is one of these young men, and the two call on Edna to attend the races and to accompany them to dinner—meetings that catalyze the affair between Edna and Arobin.
  • Janet and Margaret Pontellier - Janet is Edna's younger sister. Edna was never close to her and she refuses to attend her wedding. Margaret is Edna and Janet's older sister. After their mother died, Margaret took over the role of mother figure for her younger sisters.
  • Mariequita - A young, pretty Spanish girl, Mariequita is a mischievous flirt who lives on Grand Isle. She seems to fancy both Robert and Victor Lebrun and, along with Adèle, is the picture of the self-demeaning coquetry that Edna avoids.
  • Madame Antoine - When Edna feels faint at the Sunday service on the island of Chênière Caminada, she and Robert go to Madame Antoine's for the day. A friendly inhabitant of the island, Madame Antoine takes them in and cares for Edna, to whom she tells stories of her life.
  • Mr. and Mrs. Merriman, Miss Mayblunt, & Mr. Gouvernail - Some of the guests present at the dinner party Edna holds to celebrate her move to the “pigeon house.”
  • Etienne & Raoul Pontellier - Etienne and Raoul are Edna and Léonce's two sons. They are four and five years old, respectively.

Plot

The Awakening opens in the late 1800s in Grand Isle, a summer holiday resort popular with the wealthy inhabitants of nearby New Orleans. Edna Pontellier is vacationing with her husband, Léonce, and their two sons at the cottages of Madame Lebrun, which house affluent Creoles from the French Quarter. Léonce is kind and loving but preoccupied with his work. His frequent business-related absences mar his domestic life with Edna. Consequently, Edna spends most of her time with her friend Adèle Ratignolle, a married Creole who epitomizes womanly elegance and charm. Through her relationship with Adèle, Edna learns a great deal about freedom of expression. Because Creole women were expected and assumed to be chaste, they could behave in a forthright and unreserved manner. Exposure to such openness liberates Edna from her previously prudish behavior and repressed emotions and desires.

Edna's relationship with Adèle begins Edna's process of “awakening” and self-discovery, which constitutes the focus of the book. The process accelerates as Edna comes to know Robert Lebrun, the elder, single son of Madame Lebrun. Robert is known among the Grand Isle vacationers as a man who chooses one woman each year—often a married woman—to whom he then plays “attendant” all summer long. This summer, he devotes himself to Edna, and the two spend their days together lounging and talking by the shore. Adèle Ratignolle often accompanies them.

At first, the relationship between Robert and Edna is innocent. They mostly bathe in the sea or engage in idle talk. As the summer progresses, however, Edna and Robert grow closer, and Robert's affections and attention inspire in Edna several internal revelations. She feels more alive than ever before, and she starts to paint again as she did in her youth. She also learns to swim and becomes aware of her independence and sexuality. Edna and Robert never openly discuss their love for one another, but the time they spend alone together kindles memories in Edna of the dreams and desires of her youth. She becomes inexplicably depressed at night with her husband and profoundly joyful during her moments of freedom, whether alone or with Robert. Recognizing how intense the relationship between him and Edna has become, Robert honorably removes himself from Grand Isle to avoid consummating his forbidden love. Edna returns to New Orleans a changed woman.

Back in New Orleans, Edna actively pursues her painting and ignores all of her social responsibilities. Worried about the changing attitude and increasing disobedience of his wife, Léonce seeks the guidance of the family physician, Doctor Mandelet. A wise and enlightened man, Doctor Mandelet suspects that Edna's transformation is the result of an affair, but he hides his suspicions from Léonce. Instead, Doctor Mandelet suggests that Léonce let Edna's defiance run its course, since attempts to control her would only fuel her rebellion. Léonce heeds the doctor's advice, allowing Edna to remain home alone while he is away on business. With her husband gone and her children away as well, Edna wholly rejects her former lifestyle. She moves into a home of her own and declares herself independent—the possession of no one. Her love for Robert still intense, Edna pursues an affair with the town seducer, Alcée Arobin, who is able to satisfy her sexual needs. Never emotionally attached to Arobin, Edna maintains control throughout their affair, satisfying her animalistic urges but retaining her freedom from male domination.

At this point, the self-sufficient and unconventional old pianist Mademoiselle Reisz adopts Edna as a sort of protégé, warning Edna of the sacrifices required of an artist. Edna is moved by Mademoiselle Reisz's piano playing and visits her often. She is also eager to read the letters from abroad that Robert sends the woman. A woman who devotes her life entirely to her art, Mademoiselle serves as an inspiration and model to Edna, who continues her process of awakening and independence. Mademoiselle Reisz is the only person who knows of Robert and Edna's secret love for one another and she encourages Edna to admit to, and act upon, her feelings.

Unable to stay away, Robert returns to New Orleans, finally expressing openly his feelings for Edna. He admits his love but reminds her that they cannot possibly be together, since she is the wife of another man. Edna explains to him her newly established independence, denying the rights of her husband over her and explaining how she and Robert can live together happily, ignoring everything extraneous to their relationship. But despite his love for Edna, Robert feels unable to enter into the adulterous affair.

When Adèle undergoes a difficult and dangerous childbirth, Edna leaves Robert's arms to go to her friend. She pleads with him to wait for her return. From the time she spends with Edna, Adèle senses that Edna is becoming increasingly distant, and she understands that Edna's relationship with Robert has intensified. She reminds Edna to think of her children and advocates the socially acceptable lifestyle Edna abandoned so long ago. Doctor Mandelet, while walking Edna home from Adèle's, urges her to come see him because he is worried about the outcome of her passionate but confused actions. Already reeling under the weight of Adèle's admonition, Edna begins to perceive herself as having acted selfishly.

Edna returns to her house to find Robert gone, a note of farewell left in his place. Robert's inability to escape the ties of society now prompts Edna's most devastating awakening. Haunted by thoughts of her children and realizing that she would have eventually found even Robert unable to fulfill her desires and dreams, Edna feels an overwhelming sense of solitude. Alone in a world in which she has found no feeling of belonging, she can find only one answer to the inescapable and heartbreaking limitations of society. She returns to Grand Isle, the site of her first moments of emotional, sexual, and intellectual awareness, and, in a final escape, gives herself to the sea. As she swims through the soft, embracing water, she thinks about her freedom from her husband and children, as well as Robert's failure to understand her, Doctor Mandelet's words of wisdom, and Mademoiselle Reisz's courage. The text leaves open the question of whether the suicide constitutes a cowardly surrender or a liberating triumph.

Symbolism

Birds

In The Awakening, caged birds serve as reminders of Edna's entrapment and also of the entrapment of Victorian women in general. Madame Lebrun's parrot and mockingbird represent Edna and Madame Reisz, respectively. Like the birds, the women's movements are limited (by society), and they are unable to communicate with the world around them. The novel's “winged” women may only use their wings to protect and shield, never to fly.

Edna's attempts to escape her husband, children, and society manifest this arrested flight, as her efforts only land her in another cage: the pigeon house. While Edna views her new home as a sign of her independence, the pigeon house represents her inability to remove herself from her former life, as her move takes her just “two steps away.” Mademoiselle Reisz instructs Edna that she must have strong wings in order to survive the difficulties she will face if she plans to act on her love for Robert. She warns: “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.”

Critics who argue that Edna's suicide marks defeat, both individually and for women, point out the similar wording of the novel's final example of bird imagery: “A bird with a broken wing was beating the air above, reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water.” If, however, the bird is not a symbol of Edna herself, but rather of Victorian womanhood in general, then its fall represents the fall of convention achieved by Edna's suicide.

The Sea

The sea in The Awakening symbolizes freedom and escape. It is a vast expanse that Edna can brave only when she is solitary and only after she has discovered her own strength. When in the water, Edna is reminded of the depth of the universe and of her own position as a human being within that depth. The sensuous sound of the surf constantly beckons and seduces Edna throughout the novel. Water's associations with cleansing and baptism make it a symbol of rebirth. The sea, thus, also serves as a reminder of the fact that Edna's awakening is a rebirth of sorts. Appropriately, Edna ends her life in the sea: a space of infinite potential becomes a blank and enveloping void that carries both a promise and a threat. In its sublime vastness, the sea represents the strength, glory, and lonely horror of independence.

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