Edna Pontellier in The Awakening by Chopin

Instructor: Liz Breazeale
''The Awakening'' is a classic feminist novel and has been studied since its publication. In this lesson, learn all about the novel's protagonist, Edna Pontellier. Then test your knowledge with a quiz.

Intro to The Awakening

The Awakening, a short novel by author Kate Chopin, was published in the heady days of 1899. As one of the first feminist novels (and, shocker, one actually written by a woman!), the work questions the traditional thoughts and attitudes toward women in the American South that prevailed around the turn of the century. It's also an example of early American modernist literature. American modernist literature flourished in the early 1900s, focusing on the individual's inner complexity and realistic portrayals of American life.

The story centers on Edna Pontellier, wife of important New Orleans businessman Leonce Pontellier. Leonce is of Creole descent, meaning he's a descendent of the original colonizers of Louisiana. This was very important at the time of the novel, as it distinguished someone's family. The novel gets its title from the awakening Edna experiences throughout the novel and the way in which she attempts to challenge the patriarchal society of which she's a part. Edna wishes to break from the constrictions commonly imposed by her society due to her gender and social status. As you can imagine, this does not end well for anyone.

Cover of the novel
The Awakening

Who Is Edna Pontellier?

Edna Pontellier is a mother and wife, but she strives throughout the novel to identify herself as a human being outside of these constricting identities. In 1899 when the novel was published, those were constricting identities indeed. Her husband, Leonce, is the typical businessman of his era. Though he is devoted to Edna, he believes that females are the weaker sex and that his wife is merely in some ridiculous hormonal phase that will die out. Leonce also firmly believes that Edna's journey toward discovering herself is destroying their family, as she pays less attention to their two sons, Raoul and Etienne as a result.

Edna has two sisters, one of whom gets married during the course of the novel. Edna refuses to attend the wedding, as she believes marriage is one of the worst things to happen to a woman in her lifetime. She's a sassy heroine, for sure, and has few friends. She dabbles in painting, a passion that grows more serious throughout the novel.

Photograph of a woman of higher class in 1900
1900s woman

Edna Gets Hers

Edna's titular awakening begins when she's on vacation with her family in Grand Isle, which is on the Gulf of Mexico. They stay at the house of the Lebruns, another well-to-do New Orleans family. Edna becomes fast friends with another wife and mother, Adele Ratignolle, who rapidly proves to be a foil for Edna - that is, a character that is the complete opposite of another. Madame Ratignolle is happy to be a mother and wife and never really seeks to be anything else. She's often described as the perfect example for all women of 1899. Edna also becomes friends with Robert Lebrun, the handsome, witty son of the mistress of the house.

Edna spends every vacation day in Robert's company, and perhaps it is this desire to find herself outside of her marriage that leads to her awakening. Edna begins to question why she got married in the first place, what her life's purpose is, and what she has sacrificed of herself to take on her role in society.

When Edna and Leonce return home to New Orleans, Leonce is called away for business. Edna withdraws from society, begins seriously practicing her art, and neglects her duties around the house. She has never felt more free, and when her children visit their grandmother in the country and Leonce is in New York, she begins an affair with the handsome, debonair Alcee Arabin. She experiences a strong sexual attraction to Arabin and realizes she has been in a loveless marriage all these years.

A wealthy neighborhood in New Orleans
St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans

The End of Edna's Awakening

For a while, everything seems to be going okay for Edna. She's making art, she's got a handsome dude following her around like a puppy, and she really doesn't care what people think of her anymore. All things considered, she's in a pretty comfortable position for a woman of her time period, but it all starts to go belly up in a hurry.

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