Re Awakening: Selected Contemporary Commentary

Susan J. Rosowski, "The Novel of Awakening"
    Genre (Fall 1979)

    Imagery describing Edna Pontellier's death is similar to that describing Emma Bovary's death. Both characters, experiencing the expanding consciousness basic to the growth of the child into the adult, come to the age-old realization of the conflict between the soul's yearning for the infinite pitted against the body's imprisonment in the finite. But the protagonist for this realization is traditionally male; he must learn to concentrate his energies in work that, by having broad social and ethical implications, will transcend his own mortality. Flaubert and Chopin, using women as their protagonists, add to thematic tension by including sexist roles which restrict the woman from the expansion necessary to deal with her realization. Alternatives are severely limited to feminine ones: the woman must choose between her inner life of romance and the outer world of reality. Either alternative leaves her passive: when she is true to her romantic dreams, she is the passive pawn of her own moods; when she attempts to follow the outer world, she is the passive pawn of men—of a husband or a lover. More important, the dreams in which she attempts to lose herself are limited: she regresses to childhood dreams of limitlessness or she loses herself in romantic dreams of passion.

Sandra M. Gilbert, "The Second Coming of Aphrodite"
    The Kenyon Review (Summer 1983)

    As a speculative explanation of these puzzles I want to argue that The Awakening is a female fiction that both draws upon and revises fin de siècle hedonism to propose a feminist and matriarchal myth of Aphrodite/Venus as an alternative to the masculinist and patriarchal myth of Jesus. In the novel's unfolding of this implicit myth, the dinner party scene is of crucial importance, for here, as she presides over a Swinburnian Last Supper, Edna Pontellier definitively (if only for a moment) "becomes" the powerful goddess of love and art into whose shape she was first "born" in the Gulf near Grand Isle and in whose image she will be suicidally borne back into the sea at the novel's end. Thus when Victor, the dark-haired young man who was ritually draped and garlanded at the climax of the feast, tells his friend Mariequita that "Venus rising from the foam could have presented no more entrancing a spectacle than Mrs. Pontellier, blazing with beauty and diamonds at the head of the board," he is speaking what is in some deep sense the truth about Kate Chopin's heroine.

Wendy Martin, "Introduction"
    New Essays on The Awakening (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988)

    In many respects, The Awakening is about death, not life. Edna Pontellier's struggle for selfhood is doomed because there is little possibility for self-determination for women in a society where legal and economic practice and social custom prohibit female autonomy. . . .
    . . . But Edna Pontellier does not have the emotional resources to transcend the conventions that regulate female behavior, conventions that she has, in fact, internalized. As we have seen, although Edna has freed herself from the domestic imperatives of her husband's house, she becomes ensnared by romantic love, which, masquerading as freedom, actually undercuts the possibility of autonomy. Her love for Robert consists of agonized longing and unrequited sexual need and seems to be a masochistic exercise in negative capability.

Emily Toth, "A New Biographical Approach"
    Approaches to Teaching Chopin's The Awakening, ed. Koloski (New York: MLA, 1988)

    My students like to know that Kate Chopin did not walk into the sea and that long after her death, she has been resurrected for us. They are also fascinated by the unconventional streak that seems to run through her entire life—including her refusal to remarry: obviously she preferred her freedom, her writing, and her solitude. Like Edna, she was "the regal woman, the one who rules, who looks on, who stands alone." She was her own woman."

E. Laurie George, "Women's Language in The Awakening"
    Approaches to Teaching Chopin's The Awakening, ed. Koloski (New York: MLA, 1988)

    With these concepts clarified, students readily detect the male characters' phallogocentric language. They see how Léonce Pontellier objectifies his wife, equating her with the many material possessions that he, with his primarily financial values, worships. They also see how his insisting that Edna respect and conduct herself according to his values, as Adèle Ratignolle centers her life on her husband, steadily alienates her from him, leaving the Pontelliers by the novel's midsection without "anything to say to each other." Moreover, students realize that the other two men in Edna's sexual and spiritual awakening, Alcée Arobin and Robert Lebrun, eventually prove themselves as phallogocentric as Léonce: Alcée, who would sexually enslave Edna, implores her not to "bother" thinking about her character since he can "tell her . . . what manner of woman" she is; and Robert, who tells Edna his dream of Léonce's setting her free so that he might claim her himself, abandons her when she chides him for his presumptions. In short, students have little trouble recognizing the basic parts all three men play in forcing Edna to her marginal and finally suicidal position at the novel's end.

Barbara C. Ewell, "The Awakening in a Course on Women in Literature"
    Approaches to Teaching Chopin's The Awakening, ed. Koloski (New York: MLA, 1988)

    . . . the novel offers a paradigmatic tale of a woman's abortive struggle toward selfhood in an oppressive, uncomprehending society. . . .
    The pertinence of Edna's dilemma—how to be an individual in a society that insists she play specific roles—is certainly a key to its fascination since it uniquely engages both younger students (who are much involved in articulating their selves) and older students (who are well aware of the compromising forces of social reality). But in presenting the terms of that dilemma, Chopin exposes a number of specifically female concerns, issues that are inevitably the focus of women's studies: the nature of female sexuality, the conventional opposition of romance and passion, the moral isolation of women in patriarchal systems, the role of female friendship, the importance of the body and the physical world to self-realization, the ambivalence toward children and childbearing.

    Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    The Awakening is a novel by Kate Chopin, published in 1899. The novel examines the smothering effects of late 19th-century social structures upon a woman whose simple desire is to fulfill her own potential and live her own life.


Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Solitude as the Consequence of Independence
For Edna Pontellier, the protagonist of The Awakening, independence and solitude are almost inseparable. The expectations of tradition coupled with the limitations of law gave women of the late 1800s very few opportunities for individual expression, not to mention independence. Expected to perform their domestic duties and care for the health and happiness of their families, Victorian women were prevented from seeking the satisfaction of their own wants and needs. During her gradual awakening, Edna discovers her own identity and acknowledges her emotional and sexual desires.
Initially, Edna experiences her independence as no more than an emotion. When she swims for the first time, she discovers her own strength, and through her pursuit of her painting she is reminded of the pleasure of individual creation. Yet when Edna begins to verbalize her feelings of independence, she soon meets resistance from the constraints—most notably, her husband—that weigh on her active life. And when she makes the decision to abandon her former lifestyle, Edna realizes that independent ideas cannot always translate into a simultaneously self-sufficient and socially acceptable existence.


The Awakening was published in 1899, and it immediately created a controversy. Contemporaries of Kate Chopin (1851-1904) were shocked by her depiction of a woman with active sexual desires, who dares to leave her husband and have an affair. Instead of condemning her protagonist, Chopin maintains a neutral, non-judgmental tone throughout and appears to even condone her character's unconventional actions. Kate Chopin was socially ostracised after the publication of her novel, which was almost forgotten until the second half of the twentieth century. The Awakening has been reclaimed by late twentieth-century theorists who see Edna Pontellier as the prototypical feminist. A woman before her time, Edna questions the institution of marriage, (at one point she describes a wedding as 'one of the most lamentable spectacles on earth'), has sexual desires of her own, and becomes completely independent of her husband.


Teaching suggestions: The Awakening offers an excellent opportunity to discuss the history of women's rights, the feminist movement, gender inequalities, book banning (some libraries, including that in Chopin's hometown of St. Louis, found the book too "suggestive" to stock), suicide, and passion as it relates to the arts.

    Chopin's the Awakening (Cliffs Notes) — Study Notes

In CliffsNotes on The Awakening you experience one woman’ s desire to find and live fully within her true self. Her devotion to that purpose causes friction with her friends and family, and also conflicts with the dominant values of her time.