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“The Awakening” by Kate Chopin Essay

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Updated: Oct 29th, 2021

Descriptions

Edna Pontellier is the protagonist of the story. She is a relatively young woman with a husband and two young children and the person who ‘awakens’ referenced in the title.

Leonce Pontellier is Edna’s husband. He is seen to be middle-aged and immensely satisfied with living the ‘status quo’ by having all the right appearances. He adheres to the patriarchal view in that everything, including Edna, belonged to him (as in possession) and existed solely for his pleasure.

Pontellier’s sons, Raoul and Etienne, seem to exist merely because they are supposed to exist. Edna loves them sometimes, like an affectionate aunt, and Leonce even forgets them sometimes. They are looked after by a nurse who seems equally apathetic.

Robert Lebrun is the mid-20s son of Madame Lebrun, the proprietress of the vacation property where he meets Edna, and the two fall in love.

Alcee Arobin is the young man Edna meets back home in New Orleans who keeps much closer company with her than is ‘proper’ and would be her lover if she’d allow it. Edna realizes, though, that she doesn’t have any real feelings for him.

Adele Ratignolle is the other young mother that vacations at the Lebruns’. She is the perfect Victorian example of what Edna is expected to be, but Edna is incapable of keeping up the act, which is all her marriage and family really are to her.

Mademoiselle Reisz is an artist who also vacations on the island at the Lebrun. She has opted for a single life of artistry rather than losing her identity to marriage and family. She warns Edna that a woman must be very strong to follow that path and worries that Edna will not be strong enough.

Doctor Mandelet is the old family doctor that attends both the Pontellier family and the Ratignolles. Leonce consults him about Edna and he realizes that Edna has discovered a sense of her own identity and the love of another. He also tries to help Edna by telling her to come to talk with him, that he would understand, but she doesn’t think of this until she is tired out from swimming.

Conflicts

Edna vs. Leonce: Edna thinks of herself as a person, Leonce considers her a piece of his property. Edna struggles to be free of him to be truly herself through the entire story but is never able to accomplish this as she cannot experience love as she wants because of his prior claim, which destroys her spirit.

Edna vs. her children: Edna sees herself as chained by her children in bonds of love on one side and irritation on the other. They are symbols of her ties to Leonce and drags upon her desire to discover her own identity. This conflict is also not resolved because she cannot determine whether to follow her heart one way or another.

Edna vs. Robert: Neither character envisioned true emotion blossoming in their relationship, but once it was recognized, Edna began her awakening. While she is willing to overlook her previous ties, Robert is not. The conflict is resolved when Robert decides to leave her. This destroys her as she realizes she is fully possessed by Leonce.

Edna vs. Alcee: Alcee would like their relationship to go to the next level of intimacy. His continued admiration keeps Edna’s spirits up but his persistence forces her to evaluate her feelings and, finding them lacking, cannot accept his advances further.

Edna vs. her father: Edna’s father is not a character in the story, but is instead a character in her memory that played a significant role in her definition and current life because he was a strict Protestant. To a high degree, it is described how his reaction to the idea of her marrying a Catholic played a role in her decision to marry Leonce.

Edna vs. Adele: Adele is the perfect Victorian wife and mother. She is absolutely and completely devoted to her children and husband to the point that she would have no definition without them. While Edna is expected to be the same, she realizes she is not.

Edna vs. Reisz: Reisz is well aware of who she is and takes pleasure in being just who she wants to be. She is condemned by society on many counts because of her ‘rude’ manner, but she is also highly respected because of her talent and self-sufficiency. While Edna can attain a degree of self-sufficiency, she cannot live a life like Reisz’s because she cannot escape the bonds of her earlier life.

Themes

The idea that Edna is considered Leonce’s property is introduced early when Leonce comes home late from Klein’s hotel, probably somewhat drunk, and gets annoyed when Edna, who was fast asleep, doesn’t answer him with dutiful and eager attention. He also seems to treat her like a broken tool the first time she decides not to receive visitors on a Tuesday in Chapter 17.

The story illustrates how the Creoles enjoy a more sensual existence in the form of playful and harmless flirting, but, because of their religious convictions, there is never any chance that this flirtation will cross the bounds of family. However, Edna’s life has always been very withdrawn and exclusive, so when she is introduced to this world, she is captivated and begins to realize what she’s been missing. Because she is unable to share these feelings with either her husband or Robert, her awakening remains incomplete and unfulfilled.

Edna has lived in the shell of social expectations as a deadened soul and rebels against the dual life of women, but the belief in “that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions” only seems to apply to her. Adele is intelligent as shown when she points out Edna’s difference from Robert, but she is also fully expressing her own identity in her ability to mother while Reisz is also fully aware of who and what she is and does not feel the duality of spirit that Edna complains of.

Edna is not a successful character because she is not able to resolve her conflicts. I believe Chopin intentionally made Edna’s death ambiguous as to whether or not she died intentionally. Regardless of whether it was suicide or an accident, Edna died because she couldn’t be free to follow her own passions. The inclusion of childhood memories and recent events in her final thoughts suggests that this was the pattern of her life from which she was attempting to be free.

Edna is a sympathetic character. Chopin makes it easy to understand how Edna might feel by including such thoughtless behavior as Leonce’s expectations after waking her up from a sound sleep. Her detachment seems reasonable given her circumstances and her reaction to her senses is perhaps predictable.

The infatuations of Edna’s youth all seem to share the common denominator of tragedy. The first man was ‘sad-eyed’, she would always be ‘nothing, nothing, nothing to the second and the third was a ‘tragedian’ and even more remotely out of reach. They reveal Edna’s infatuation with the impossible, her resonance with the ‘caged bird’, and her tendency to the dramatic.

Edna’s desire for both union and freedom in the way in which she expressed it does not seem possible even today. This is not necessarily because a woman must necessarily give up her identity in order to be a ‘proper’ wife and mother, but because anytime two people live together, regardless of the relationship from something as casual as roommates to something as intimate as partners, there has to be some give and take on both sides. A woman can be a wife and a mother and corporate executive in today’s world, but she will probably not be the absolute best wife and mother and corporate executive at all times. A woman may also choose to devote herself entirely to one vocation – wife, mother, career, etc. – and thus become the best, but at the expense of all the rest. The same can be said of men who once devoted all of their time to business only to discover they had no relationship with either the children or the wife at home and thus were living the same sort of empty life Edna wakes from.

Edna’s first awakening comes as she realizes she has a sensual side that she’d never dreamed of that, once touched, seemed to fill some of the emptiness she felt inside her. This leads her to realize she wants the freedom to be a ‘real’ human being rather than the possession of her husband. Her second awakening comes as she finally realizes that regardless of what she wants, she remains the property of her husband as the greatest desire of her heart, on the verge of being fulfilled, is removed as a result of this fact. No matter what she does or how autonomous she makes herself, her efforts will all be wasted because, in the end, she will still be Mrs. Pontillier, Leonce’s wife, rather than herself.

The idea that motherhood necessarily brings with it all suppression of a mother’s previous or future identity in duty to the family repulses Edna about her children. This is her withdrawal from them and her antagonism toward them. However, as children, there are several scenes in the story where Edna is seen to ‘mother’ them – such as when Etienne won’t go to bed and she rocks him to sleep. Although she is not completely free like Reisz and not completely motherly like Adele, Edna recognizes in both of these women that they are fulfilled in their roles and forms a bond with them to try to discover their secret.

In the final analysis, Edna doesn’t have many choices. As a married woman in the early 1900s, she might not have even had the legal right to rent property without her husband’s permission, or at least not for long. She would have either had to break things off with Leonce completely and destroy her children or go back to Leonce and hope he would continue to be the same ‘loving’ husband he had always been, now more aware of her previous and probably additional constraints. Robert’s refusal of her emphasizes that even if she managed to break off with Leonce, she would forever be ruled by his influence rules out her first option, and her newly awakened senses rule out the second option. The only option left is death.

When Dr. Mandelet talks about youth being given up to illusions, I think he is talking about the difference between procreation and passion. As a younger girl, Edna married Leonce to both irritate and escape from her father, believing Leonce to be somehow different. After marriage and the disappointments this may bring, motherhood becomes the only means by which a woman might acceptably express her individuality in some form. Passion, on the other hand, is an inner uncontrollable feeling, something sensual and deep that doesn’t abide by the laws of the land or the cultural influences of a given society.

Edna’s failures to develop her full potential are greatly evident by the end of the book as she was neither the best mother nor the greatest artist, free or constrained, fully awakened or completely asleep. Adele remains constrained within the confines of motherhood. Although this is where she is happy, she is nevertheless bounded by her responsibilities to her children. Reisz, in attempting to assert her right to be and do whatever she wishes, is prevented from expressing her own desires to their fullest. While she has already been ostracized from society, the object of her desire remains inextricably linked within that same society that would condemn the expression.

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