The Awakening by Kate Chopin was considered very shocking when it was first published because of the “sexual awakening” of the main character, Edna Pontellier, and her unconventional behavior. Chopin moved to New Orleans after her marriage and lived there for twelve years until the death of her husband. She returned to St. Louis where she began writing. She used her knowledge of Louisiana and Creole culture to create wonderful descriptions of local color, and she incorporated French phrases used by the Creoles.
The Awakening begins at Grade Isle, a vacation spot of wealthy Creoles from New Orleans. Edna is there with her two sons and her husband Leonce who comes and goes because of business. Edna is not Creole, but her husband is. She has never felt like she fits in with their lifestyle. Edna has always done what is expected of a woman, including marrying a man she did not love. He regards her as a possession rather than an individual.
While on vacation, Edna falls in love with Robert Lebrun. She often goes to the beach with him. She begins to realize for the first time, at age 28, that she is an individual. Edna feels like one who awakens gradually from a dream to the reality of life. After this discovery, Edna changes. She disregards her husband’s wishes and often ignores her children. She learns to swim which also makes her begin to feel more independent. Edna befriends two women, Mademoiselle Reisz, a pianist, and Madame Ratignolle, a motherly lady. Distressed when Robert leaves for Mexico, Edna often visits Mademoiseel Reisz to whom Robert often writes.
Edna continues to disregard the customs of society. Her husband becomes very upset and insists that they must observe les convenances if they want to keep up with society. He tries to get her to attend her sister’s wedding, but she refuses.
Leonce goes to New York on business, but Edna refuses to go with him. The children are with their grandparents so Edna enjoys her time alone. She starts an affair with Alcee Arobin. He introduces her to the importance of sex which she did not enjoy with her husband. She closes up her house and moves to a smaller one. Upset, her husband puts a notice in the newspaper which says that their house is being remodeled. He tries to hide Edna’s strange behavior from his friends. Edna, however, loves her new pigeon-house. “Every step she took toward relieving herself of obligations added to her strength and expansion as an individual.”
One day Robert returns. Edna runs into him at Mademoiselle Reisz’s home. Edna is upset to find he had been in the city for two days and had not contacted her. Even though she was having an affair, she is still in love with Robert. The two meet again a few days later, and Robert walks her home. She kisses him, and he returns her passion. He confesses that he went to Mexico because he was in love with her. He knew there was no hope for them because she was married. They are interrupted by a message for Edna to go to the bedside of Madame Ratignolle who is ill. She asks Robert to wait for her. When she returns, he is gone. His note reads, “I love you. Good-bye, because I love you.” Edna is so distressed that she returns to Grand Isle where she goes swimming in the cold sea. Purposely she swims out too far and drowns herself.
This is an appropriate book for high school students to read. Girls will enjoy it more than boys. It is a beautifully written book which can be used in English as well as social studies classes. The novel will support discussion of the changing role of women and the importance of the Women’s Movement in the early 1900’s. Students can also discuss Edna’s feelings and her suicide.