The Awakening by Kate Chopin

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Edna Pontellier is a 29-year-old mother of two in late nineteenth century Louisiana. As befits a woman in her station, she has maids to clean, cooks to prepare her food, and a nanny to care for her young ones. As Kate Chopin’s novella The Awakening (published 1889) begins, she is spending her summer vacation at a lake, where she begins to see her husband’s treatment of her, her pointless “proper” behavior, and especially her own sexual identity in a new light. For the first time, she recognizes herself as more than the superficial image her era dictates her to be. As she develops a friendship with a young man, Robert, Edna becomes awakened to her own limitless possibilities for self-determination.

At once both a feminist tale and a sexual awakening story, The Awakening delves into the complex emotions of a woman searching for herself. Edna searches for ever-elusive happiness, and when society fails to meet her in her newly discovered self, she abandons the social mores and traditions for her self. Although The Awakening is short, I found it to be an intriguing look into society of the late nineteenth century American middle class, as well as a story that may unfortunately be all too resonant to women today.

Her story is not a happy one: her “awakened” selfish approach to life brings her only more uncertainty and unhappiness. And yet, given her place in a strict society (including her stifling husband), her choices were few. Many women today have more options. If their husbands are as rude and unpleasant to them as Mr. Pontellier was, they could leave him. If they were unhappy staying with their children, they could get a job without scandal. Society does not require such strict social play as was indicated was expected of Edna in the novel: call on friends between certain hours, return such calls promptly, leave a card at the front door, etc.

Yet, despite changes in the past 125 years, women are still expected to fulfill certain roles, and for some women, “awakening” to their individuality may cause them to feel unsatisfied in their “boring” roles. So Edna’s feelings, self-awareness, and life story may not be all that unfamiliar to us today. It certainly resonated with me, although I’m a happily married woman who could work if I wanted to but would rather stay home with my kids because that actually brings me lots of joy.

I don’t want to “spoil” the ending for readers unfamiliar with the story, but I will say that I was disappointed when it ended, suddenly. I felt like Edna needed to undergo yet another awakening in which she found peace and happiness. That, however, would be the “romantic” in me wanting things to end nicely for a woman I sympathized with, despite my strong feelings of disgust for her selfish choices. It’s interesting how a character in a novel can be both likeable and completely unlikeable at the same time: in Edna’s case, I wanted her to find happiness without selfishly disregarding the feelings and needs of others, especially her children. As much as I felt Edna needed her “awakening,” I felt her selfish choices eventually negated all the sympathy I had developed her for.

As I read, I got excited to discuss this with my Classics Book Club . . . and then I realized this was not our discussion book: I’m just reading it for fun. I’m sad now I can’t discuss it further. There is more packed in the less than 150 pages than I realize at first.

How did you feel about Edna? What other literary characters do you both like and dislike?

Reviewed on October 12, 2012

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • Great book! Have you read anything else by Kate Chopin? She’s got some other interesting short stories that deal with similar themes. I’ve read a handful of them and enjoyed them all (At the Cadian Ball, The Story of An Hour, The Storm, Desiree’s Baby).

  • It is one of favourite books ever and although I had never thought of the second awakening you mention, I think Edna’s end was her fate. Society could not respond to women awakening from their roles and realizing they wanted, they had the right to, something more than children and a house.

    • Elena » Although I do consider myself a feminist in some ways, on the other hand I struggle with the phrase “they wanted something more than a children and a house” because to me nothing could be more satisfying than having children and a house! I love staying home with my kids! I guess I wish Edna had found peace in her role by changing how she approached it. I don’t think it would have been easy, given her society at the time so maybe that is what you mean by her “fate.” If I wasn’t the primary caregiver of my child (i.e., if I had a nanny for them) and I had to play the social calling game, I’d be a bit frustrated too. So I don’t BLAME Edna or any women seeking for a new place, I just struggle to reconcile my own wants and desires to the “fate” as portrayed in this book…If that makes ANY sense at all. If only she could have found peace with her children and lovely house…

      • With “they wanted something more than a children and a house” I mean they wanted to have the right to choose.

        I consider myself a feminist because I believe in women’s right to choose and not be punished for their choices. Life is a struggle for happiness and if you’re happy working 10 hours a day you should be allowed to and, if you’re happy staying at home with your kids because the idea of a nanny horrifies you, you should be allowed to (and obviously anything in-between these two options).

  • This is one of my favorite books ever. I first read it back when my children were very young, and when I hadn’t been a stay at home mom very long. I stayed home with my kids out of necessity rather than choice after we moved to Texas, because I couldn’t get a job that would even cover the costs of daycare for three of them. I don’t mind the job so much now, because they’re all in school full time and getting much older, but it was very hard for me for a long time, and there were times when I almost did run away just for my own sanity. I never felt like Edna’s husband stiffled her – in fact, I felt a lot of sympathy for him, because he gave her a lot more leeway than I would have expected in the time period. He didn’t mistreat her. But I felt she was more trapped by her role as mother than wife, and at the end, when it says “the children rose up before her like antagonists” (to the best of my memory), I felt that go through my heart, because I felt the exact same way – trapped, and yearning to escape. I read the ending as a defiant choice of independence, not as a tragedy.

    A few years later, I read the book again, in a different place mentally, and got completely different things out of it. I had less patience for Edna the second time through, and the whole book didn’t have me in tears from page 2. I still liked it, but it wasn’t as powerful as right in that moment when I felt just like her, and when I needed to read her story to help me keep going just a little longer.

    • Amanda » I remember you writing about this book before so I thought of you when I picked it up. 🙂

      I guess my main problem with Edna’s husband is that he was completely inconsiderate of her. He came in the middle of the night and started talking to her, waking her up. She was tired but he made her go sit with the children. He didn’t listen to her or treat her as anything other than a tool to care for the children. I just got no sense of “love” or “caring” from him at all, which I would NOT have put up with. My husband does expect me to cook and care for the children since I’m not working and he is but if he started in with this “I expect you to…” attitude like Edna’s husband seemed to have, I would make sure he knew it was not ok with me.

      It’s interesting how different books affect us as different times. I can see reading this differently when I was suddenly a stay-at-home mom when Raisin was newborn…I maybe would have found more pity for Edna. I guess I’ve reach a point of satisfaction in being with my kids that I know I didn’t fully have at the beginning too. I wonder how I’d have read it then.

      At the same time, I struggle with depression myself and I have constantly come back to the fact that Edna’s ultimate decision (trying to avoid spoilers…) was not independence and defiance: it was selfish, inconsiderate of the family she loved. The repercussions of *her decision* will haunt her children and family. As I said in another response, I find it hard to completely relate as I know her society was different from mine so I can’t totally judge her as wrong and who knows what really was going on. But I just wish she had found a way to overcome her selfishness and found peace because I like happy endings…

  • I thought it was a really beautiful book, but more for the way it was written than for the points Chopin was making, or the likeability of the characters. If you haven’t done so, I recommend you seek out her short stories collected in Portraits – I loved them.

    • Simon T » I have enjoyed a number of Chopin’s stories. I liked the writing in this too. But I loved the concision of her stories. She tells a great tale in very short space.

  • This was the first (an only, so far) Chopin I’ve read. I sympathized with Edna because she didn’t have choices, although what she had was what I wanted at the time. I was a working mother by necessity (my ex-husband had “bad habits”) and I had no choice but to stay with him at that time.

    Anyway, it’s all about choices, isn’t it? Edna didn’t like not having any and, instead of making the best of it and working for change, she…well, I won’t give the ending away either. 😉 If every woman in her position did what she did, there never would be any change. Honestly, I was aghast at how the story ended – how selfish of her!

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