'The Awakening' Review

The Awakening
The Awakening. Bedford/St. Martin

Published in 1899, The Awakening remains an important title in feminist literature. Kate Chopin's work is a book I will revisit again and again--each time with a different perspective. I first read the story of Edna Pontellier when I was 21 years old.

At the time I was swept up by her independence and freedom. Reading her story again at 28, I was the same age as Edna is in the novel. But she is a young wife and mother, and I wonder at her lack of responsibility. I can't help but sympathize with her need to escape the confines society placed upon her.

The Author

Kate Chopin, the author of The Awakening, had strong, independent women as role models in her youth so it is not surprising that these same attributes would blossom, not only in her personal life but in her characters' lives as well. Chopin was 39 years old when she began to write fiction, her earlier life being consumed with education, marriage, and children.

The Awakening was her second and final novel. Without the backing of the feminist movement, which had barely begun in certain areas of the country, the sexual and scandalous events in the novel were cause for the majority of readers to ban it from the shelves of great literature. It was not until the mid-1900’s that the book was promoted in a new light to a more accepting audience.

The Plot

The plot follows Edna, her husband Léonce, and their two sons as they vacation in Grand Isle, a resort for well-to-do New Orleans residents. From her friendship with Adèle Ratignolle, Edna begins to release some of her views on how women should act. She discovers new-found freedom and liberation in this as she begins to shed the layers of duty that society deemed appropriate.

She connects with Robert Lebrun, a son of the resort owner. They walk and relax on the beach, which makes Edna's feel more alive. She had only known a dull existence before. Through her moments with Robert, she realizes that she is miserable with her husband.

When she returns to New Orleans, Edna abandons her former life and moves out of the house while her husband is away on business. She also begins an affair with another man, even though her heart still longs for Robert. When Robert returns to New Orleans later, they openly confess their love for one another, but Robert, still bound by societal rules, does not want to begin an affair; Edna is still a married woman even though she refuses to acknowledge her husband's place in the situation.

Adèle tries to keep Edna accountable to her husband and children, but this only produces feelings of despair as Edna wonders if she has been selfish. She returns from Adèle’s house after attending to her friend during a traumatic birthing process and finds that Robert is gone when she gets back.

He leaves a note: “I love you. Good-bye because I love you."

The next day Edna returns to Grand Isle, although summer has not yet arrived. She ponders how Robert would never fully understand her and is disgruntled that her husband and children should try to control her. She goes to the shore alone and stands naked in front of the vast sea, then swims further and further away from the beach, away from Robert and her family, away from her life.

What does it mean?

"The awakening" refers to many different stirrings of consciousness. It is the awakening of the mind and the heart; it is also the awakening of the physical self. Edna re-creates her life because of this awakening, but ultimately comes to terms with the reality that no one will completely understand her. In the end, Edna finds the world unable to contain her desires, so she chooses to leave it behind.

Edna's story depicts a ​young woman, who finds herself. But, then, she's not able to live with the consequences of her new yearnings. Chopin's work can inspire awakening in oneself while putting potential outcomes of deflated dreams into their proper perspective.