The Awakening was written by Kate Chopin and published in 1899. It is set in nineteenth-century New Orleans, Louisiana. Kate Chopin, also the author of the short story "The Story of an Hour," was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1851. Chopin drew from personal experience to write The Awakening; at the age of 20 she married, by the time she was 29 she had already given birth to six children, and she eventually became submerged in the Creole culture of New Orleans. The novel, which centered around Edna Pontellier and her inability to accept the motherly and wifely duties she was expected to have, was a social commentary on the role of women in an oppressive society. The Awakening became a staple in the world of literary feminism.

Discussion Questions

1. What is important about the title?

The title describes the central event and conflict of the novel. Edna Pontellier underwent an awakening one night in the ocean during her stay on Grand Isle, and from that moment on was possessed by the desire to live free of expectations and societal norms and just for her self. Her awakening marked her transition from blind compliance and devotion to a wildness and enlightened selfishness.

2. What are the conflicts in The Awakening? What types of conflict (physical, moral, intellectual, or emotional) did you notice in the text?

There is internal emotional and moral conflict within both Edna and Robert as the former struggles with her sense of newfound and unrealistic freedom and Robert struggles with his feelings for her. There is external conflict between Edna and her husband and Madame Ratignolle, the latter two of which represent the paternal and maternal aspects of society, as Edna’s desire to break loose grows and bursts out into the open.

3. How does Kate Chopin reveal character in The Awakening?

Kate Chopin reveals character through dialogue between the characters, selection of detail, and descriptions of the character’s appearance, thoughts, and actions.

4. What are some themes in the story? How do they relate to the plot and characters?

Contradiction, art, and family roles are all themes found in The Awakening. Edna experiences contradicting feelings for her family and the world she lives in, shunning them one moment, displaying affection for or seeking approval from them in another. Art plays a major role in the novel, representing a channel through which Edna and other characters such as Mademoiselle Reisz can completely express themselves, something they can’t do in the real world without being shunned by someone. The ideas surrounding family roles, especially the role of a woman, play an even bigger role than art in the novel. Edna is constantly reminded by such characters as Adele of her duties as a mother and a wife.

5. What are some symbols in The Awakening? How do they relate to the plot and characters?

The ocean and Mademoiselle Reisz are both symbols in the novel. The ocean is this vast, endless space, its waves completely free and without bounds, conditions that are ideal to the protagonist who desperately wants freedom. It is in an ocean that Edna experiences her awakening. Mademoiselle Reisz represents the other side of womanhood in Creole society, the side that is looked down on for its lack of what is perceived to be the only responsibilities woman should have (as a nurturer and more specifically a wife and mother). Ms. Reisz also represents what Edna could have went on to become if she had not died.

6. Is Edna Pontellier consistent in her actions? Is she a fully developed character?

Edna is not at all consistent. Her emotions flutter in and out of depression and pure happiness, and her actions change from cold to affectionate quickly, a fact mentioned by characters such as Arobin. She feels indifferent towards her husband and children one moment, and weeks later misses them and feels nearly incomplete in their absence. Then soon after, she snaps back to her fantasy-laced reality as an awakened woman. Despite this inconsistency, I believe she is a fully developed character. She is multidimensional and just as changeable as any other person may be.

7. Do you find the characters likable? Are the characters persons you would want to meet?

Robert may be one of the most likable characters in the entire novel, up until the very end that is. Although his departure was understandable, I feel as though he could have tried to preserve whatever relationship he and Edna may have had even more. Edna was also likable, but that likeability diminished the more capricious and dependent on Robert she became. Madame Ratignolle was probably the least likable character. The only person I’d actually be interested in meeting would be Robert.

8. Does the story end the way you expected? How? Why?

Before I even began reading the novel I already knew how it ended, so her death was no surprise. Either death or growing old to become the next Mademoiselle Reisz were her options, and it’s understandable why she chose the first option. To choose the latter would mean a life of loneliness.

9. What is the central/primary purpose of the story? Is the purpose important or meaningful?

The Awakening serves as a staple in the world of feminism, a social commentary on the unrealistic idea that a woman is supposed to remain in the house and not open her front door to explore the real world, and a look into the consequences of such a world. The purpose of Kate Chopin’s masterpiece was just as important then as it is now, though the less applicable to our current society, at least in the U.S.

10. How essential is the setting to the story? Could the story have taken place anywhere else?

I believe the story could have taken place in Kentucky, in New York, or anywhere else in the United States and the same point would have been made. However, placing the novel against a Southern Creole backdrop in which there were clear, definite boundaries which women were not permitted to cross, made the story easier to tell.

11. What is the role of women in the text? How are mothers represented? What about single/independent women?

Women were to serve as the nurturers, caregivers, up keepers of the household and family. Mothers were shown as angels, given the utmost respect and looked at with the most admiration. Even Edna saw Madame Ratignolle, the epitome of the ideal Creole woman, in this light. Single and independent women such as Mademoiselle Reisz were looked at with scorn and a slight hint of disgust.

12. Would you recommend this novel to a friend?

I definitely would.