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Literature / The Awakening

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A 1899 novella by Kate Chopin about Edna Pontellier, a married Victorian mother who experiences an awakening of her sexuality and creativity while vacationing on an island with her husband.

This begins when she meets a young man named Robert and develops an affection for him that is well beyond any love she feels for her husband. As the vacation progresses she becomes more and more distant from her husband and children, doing things like sleeping in a hammock rather than in bed with him and spending all day painting. Even after the vacation ends, Edna is a changed woman and cannot let go of what she discovered. The revelations about herself and her marriage cause her to question Victorian gender roles and the life she feels like she has unquestioningly walked into.

While the novella did receive some favourable or even rapturous contemporary reviews, it alienated conservative critics at the time and developed a somewhat scandalous reputation. Chopin continued writing until her death some five years later, but sometimes had difficulty finding publishers, and much of her later work was not published until long after her death (bearing particular mention is her short story "The Storm", which is both one of earliest known examples of English-language erotica by a female author and even more subversive in its content than The Awakening). By The '60s and The '70s, her work underwent a re-evaluation courtesy of feminist critics and scholars, and the novella has since been canonised as a masterpiece of American literature and has been in print ever since.

It has sometimes been compared to Madame Bovary (Gustave Flaubert) and Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy).

Contains Examples Of:

  • Babies Make Everything Better: Believed by Adèle. Questioned heavily by Edna.
  • The Casanova:
    • Robert is a sort of example, in that he tends to fraternize with widows and single women, but he rarely goes beyond flirting.
    • Alcée Arobin has a scandalous reputation with women.
  • Courtly Love: What Robert and Edna have, although Edna does seem to desire a physical relationship with Robert.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Chopin's wider corpus of work suggests that Edna's lack of awareness of her surroundings is at least partially a consequence of her having been sheltered from the outside world. Servants and others are treated as background characters, but other works in Chopin's corpus tackle issues such as class, race, and miscegenation in manners that could be considered Fair for Their Day (particularly given that Chopin had been raised in a slave-owning Confederate household). Chopin's characteristic understatement means that readers unfamiliar with the wider context of her work may read Chopin herself as being indifferent to these characters, when the narrative's lack of focus on them is more likely meant as subtle commentary on how Edna's lack of education renders her imperceptive of her surroundings.
  • Did You Think I Can't Feel?
  • Driven to Suicide: Edna commits suicide by walking into the sea.
  • Foil: Adèle to Edna. Adèle and Mlle. Reisz are also this to each other.
  • G-Rated Sex: The sexual scenes are so G-rated students tend to completely miss them. The great irony of this is that when it was written the book was so raunchy it almost wasn't published. On a meta level, though, this trope is Zig-Zagged, since by Chopin's standards, the scenes are still fairly tame (see her own page for more discussion of this).
  • Gratuitous French: The dialogue and narrative are peppered with bits of French, fitting the novel's setting in New Orleans.
  • Hysterical Woman: Mr. Pontellier thinks Edna is this, but the psychiatrist he calls to examine her encourages him to leave her be.
  • It's All About Me: The perspective of the novel focuses heavily on the viewpoints and dissatisfaction of Edna Pontellier with her married life which led to her engaging in more than two love affairs out of sheer boredom with her marriage, ignoring her children to pursue artistic pursuits, and eventually ending her own life because she was unwilling to abandon her newfound hedonistic lifestyle. All in all, it makes her come off as considerably conceited despite the author trying to make her justifiably sympathetic. (On the other hand, Chopin may have deliberately intended Edna's self-centredness to reflect her being sheltered and uneducated - see Deliberate Values Dissonance above.)
  • Love Dodecahedron: A fairly mild case, though with tragic results. Edna is married to Mr. Pontellier, but she and Robert are in love, although she also has a lust-driven affair with Alcée as a sort of substitute while both Mr. Pontellier and Robert are away. Alcée is also flirty with other women, and Edna and Adèle have some Homoerotic Subtext early on in the story.
  • Moment Killer: Celestine walking in on Edna and Robert cuddling to tell Edna that Adèle is having her baby.
  • The Ophelia: Parallels can be drawn between Edna's drowning while swimming and the death of Ophelia.
  • Proper Lady: Adèle Ratignolle. Her submissiveness and devotion to her family and husband make her an ideal woman. Adèle is extremely sweet, feminine, and fragile. However, Adèle Ratignolle's open-minded Creole ways help Edna to unleash her self and her inner artist.
  • Rip Van Winkle: After Edna spends most of chapter XV sleeping, she and Robert quip about how it's been one hundred years and everyone else in the Grand Isle is long dead. She doesn't really sleep for a century, leaving it a Discussed Trope.
  • Sex as Rite-of-Passage: Edna's affair with Alcée is part of what finally makes her unwilling to continue the life she has.
  • Spoiled Brat: Victor Lebrun, Robert's little brother who wants Edna for himself, despite only being 19.
  • Suicide by Sea: The ending sees a character drown at sea. Edna swims far into the sea and lets herself be drowned. It's quite symbolic as learning to swim and bathing in the sea meant a lot for her and unleashed her desires and creativity.
  • Sympathetic Adulterer: Edna is the focus character and much attention is given to her boredom with Leonce and her connection with Robert.
  • True Blue Femininity: The Farival twins wear white and blue, said to be the "Virgin's Colors".