December 20, 2018
The short story “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin is about a woman who suddenly has
an epiphany about her life; the issue is that the story is set during the late 19th century when
women had no say and they simply had to live the life that was presented to them. However, this
story goes against every social norm that was expected of women. The main character, Edna
Pontellier, is depicted as the exact opposite of how a woman would typically be portrayed in
novels during the time. Which is a quiet and quaint woman who knew her place as a mother and
a housewife. Women were always expected to be maternal and to want to have children.
However, this is no the case for Mrs Pontellier, who seems to have no interest in the typical
lifestyle. The main theme throughout the short story is sudden awakening that Edna, Mrs.
Pontellier, experiences. It always seems to happen when she is on the beach or in the water.
Water being the common symbol for rebirth and purity. This sudden awakening leads her to
drastically change her life by leaving her husband and kids for her lover. The issue is that her
lover does not reciprocate the desire she feels and leaves her. This is when Edna decides to take
her life into her own hands and emerces herself into the sea, never to be seen again. Since water
was a big theme throughout the story, Edna turning towards the sea in the end represents the
rebirth of Edna as a woman. Although this may seem very heroic, as the tortured feminine soul
regains her identity, many believe that this was selfish of Edna, leaving her children behind and
committing suicide. Although that is one way of looking at it, another way to view it is that this
was the only escape for her. As mentioned, woman did not have any say in their lives, they
simply had to listen to their parents and then their husbands. By committing suicide, Edna took
the reins on her life and decided what would be best for her, even if that meant leaving
everything behind. However, one can easily make an argument for either outlook on the ending,
when the real concern is whether it really matters if it was selfish or not. The novel does more
than just tell the story of a young woman finding herself. It validates that women have their own
identities in a world that argues against it.
The novel The Awakening was extremely ahead of its time being written in the late 19th
century. Even for the 21st century a woman reclaiming her identity is and has always been
considered taboo. This ought to make one wonder why would Kate Chopin choose to write about
such a controversial topic. Chopin often wrote stories charming stories about Louisiana and the
folks that resided there. Along with being a widow she was also the mother of six children.
According to the article “Kate Chopin on Divine Love and Suicide: Two Rediscovered Articles”
by Emily Toth, Chopin was “Like many nineteenth-century women writers, Chopin presented
herself as a dilettante rather than as a professional: she claimed in an essay that she wrote any old
time, unless more inspired by "the intricacies of a pattern" or "the temptation to try a new
furniture polish on an old table leg." She said that she did not know where her ideas came from,
and that she did not write "everything that comes into my head." She also emphasized that she
did not revise and polish her work, preferring the "integrity of crudities to artificialities” (116).
Chopin had written many stories and novels from Bayou Folk to “The Story of an Hour”, but
“The Awakening” seems different and if that information were to be true through and through,
she wouldn’t revise this story just like the others. Even her son recalled, “... that his mother
"wrote very fast, and on completion, seldom had to make more than a few slight corrections…
(Toth, 116)". However, when it comes to “The Awakening”, “... the Post-Dispatch interviews
show that Chopin did indeed revise: she definitely revised part of The Awakening for
publication. And while she was writing The Awakening, she was not just pondering her
furniture. She was thinking deeply about her story, and about women, love, and suicide” (Toth,
116). Chopin endured a tremendous amount of criticism for focusing on women along with
identity and suicide. Upon writing this novel she was asked her take on the suicides of multiple
school girls that were essentially well off. These girls weren’t worked to the bone or poor, they
just happened to all decide to commit suicide. What is remarkable is the response Chopin gave
when questioned about her take on the suicides; “Only Chopin questioned the validity of the
question. Identified as "Leader of a literary set in St. Louis society and author of many stories of
Creole life," Chopin said: Leadership in society is a business. It is a good thing for women who
have no other occupation to engage in it and endeavor to keep up with the social whirl. There is
nothing about it that I can see that would tend to produce an unhealthy condition of mind. On the
contrary, it prevents women from becoming morbid, as they might, had they nothing to occupy
their attention when at leisure. Business men commit suicide every day, yet we do not say that
suicide is epidemic in the business world. Why should we say the feeling is rife among society
women, because half a dozen unfortunates, widely separated, take their own lives? The tendency
to self-destruction is no more pronounced among society women than it ever was, according to
my observation. The desire seems to come in waves, without warning, and soon passes away.
The mere reading of a peculiar case of suicide may cause a highly nervous woman to take her
own life in a similar manner, through morbid sympathy. But do not men do the same thing every
day? Why all this talk about women? (Toth, 120)”. What is so remarkable about her response is
that she outwardly spoke about such matters when they were considered highly taboo. In today’s
society we still argue the same issues regarding the equality between men and women. However,
women are still closely analyzed and ridiculed for their actions. Chopin brought to attention
important issues that made people question their perspectives.
In order to understand the drastic ending of the story, one must analyze the events that
lead to it. The story starts off with the main character Edna Pontellier returning from the beach
with a young man named Robert Lebrun. It is already odd enough that a woman is spending time
alone with another man when she is indeed married to Mr. Pontellier. However, Mr. Pontellier
doesn’t seem to have an issue with his wife spending time on the beach with another man. This
could be because Mr. Pontellier does not care for his surroundings. He is a very business oriented
man and everything about the relaxing beach along with the people around him seems to bother
him. His wife, Edna, is the complete opposite. This foreshadows the inevitable doom between
Mr. Pontellier and his wife. When Edna returns from the beach Mr. Pontellier states, “What
folly! To bathe at such an hour in such heat!” exclaimed Mr. Pontellier. He himself had taken a
plunge at daylight. That was why the morning seemed long to him” (Chopin, 44). The way Mr.
Pontellier speaks to his wife is like he is speaking to a child and by doing so he proves that he
sees his wife as such. Mr. Pontellier continues, “You are burnt beyond recognition,” he added,
looking at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some
damage” (Chopin, 44). Mr. Pontellier had never actually viewed his wife as an equal. To him,
like many other men during the time, women were an accessory or a trophy. He also refuses to
be a part of his wife’s world and only seems to comment when things are not going according to
his liking. This also ties back to how men believed the only use for women was to bring children
into the world and to take care of them. Which may seem appalling at first but it was typical at
the time. Mrs. Pontellier may not be the perfect maternal housewife, however, there is Madame
Ratignolle to fill in that role in the novel. The comparison between Edna Pontellier and Adele
Ratignolle is explained as, “Though Edna has been married several years and has two children,
she is different, almost virginal, as though she is being initiated into the mores of a society she is
only now awakening to. The goddess of this world, Adele Ratignolle, is portrayed as a sensuous
Madonna," walking "with the grace and majesty which queens are sometimes supposed to
possess" (p. 892). Like Aphrodite, her sensuality is patent: "There was nothing subtle or hidden
about her charms; her beauty was all there, flaming and apparent. . ." (p. 888). Adele's being is
devoted entirely to procreation and nurture; manipulation of men through flirtation and
dependency exists for the sake of her role as mother-woman. Her warning to Robert to "let Mrs.
Pontellier alone" is her recognition of the threat to matriarchal solidarity that one who "is not one
of us" presents” (Franklin, 513). This occurs at the very beginning of the novel to introduce the
type of character Edna is. Which essentially also explains her awakening and rediscovering her
identity,not as just a woman, but her own person.
The main issue the public when reading novels of this matter is separating the author
from their story. While many readers concentrate on the author’s intentions, such as, whether
Edna’s suicide is selfish or not, they seem to forget the intentions of the story. This has been one
of the many “faults” of The Awakening. The audience reads too deep in what the author may
have wanted to convey instead of truly understanding what the story is all about. Treu mentions
literary theorist Roland Barthes and his take on the separation of author and text, “Inferential
readings also present something of a difficulty for the postmodern critic, a difficulty anticipated
by Roland Barthes in his influential essay, "The Death of The Author," where he describes a
literary situation in which the author is nothing more than a sort of intersection where language,
with its repetitions, echoes and references, keeps gathering. It is hard to see, then, in this scheme
of things, how any inferential reading can be obligatory, since there is no particular intelligence
privileged in a specific enough way to command that inference” (23). He continues to explain,
“Kate Chopin seems also to have anticipated our present critical environment when she lamented
that her original conception of the novel was changed by Edna's "making such a mess of things"
(quoted in Toth 1990,344). Can there be a more graceful way of asking the reader to pay
attention to the novel's text, rather than guessing at the author's intentions? Contemporary theory
encourages us to read the novel Chopin gave us without having to add anything to it. Much as
with swirrirning, too much critical effort can have a negative effect, while we might do better to
suspend our impatience for narrative resolution and allow Edna to float a while, held up by the
medium that sustained her thus far” (Treu, 23). The story of Edna Pontellier is much deeper than
why did she kill herself or was it really a suicide. The story portrays many subtle voices
throughout. The voice of a maternal housewife, a lover, a disconnected husband, etc. Which are
far more important to the intention of the story.
Whether you choose to read in the intention of the novel or focus on what might have
been the intention of Chopin when writing this novel, it is clear to see the story has an important
message throughout. It is honestly a shame that this novel is still very much relevant in today’s
society two centuries after this novel was written. A woman is still expected to be a good mother
and a good housewife. If any woman chooses a different life than what is considered “normal”
she is automatically deemed unstable or questioned as to why she doesn’t want to settle for an
ideal normal life. If Edna teaches her audience anything, its that a woman is simply a person that
is allowed to chose her own identity and it is as simple as that.
Chopin, Kate, and Sandra M. Gilbert. Penguin Classics: The Awakening and Selected Stories.
Penguin Books, 2003.
Franklin, Rosemary F. “The Awakening and the Failure of Psyche.” American Literature, vol.
no. 4, 1984, p. 510-526. JSTOR, doi:10.2307/2926153.
Toth, Emily. “Kate Chopin on Divine Love and Suicide: Two Rediscovered Articles.” American
Literature, vol. 63, no. 1, 1991, pp. 115–121. Jstor, doi:10.2307/2926566.
Treu, Robert. “Surviving Edna: A Reading of the Ending of ‘The Awakening.’” The Johns
Hopkins University Press, vol. 27, no. 2, 2000, pp. 21–36. JSTOR,