Kate Chopin's The Awakening: Summary and Analysis

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Katherine Godin

Katherine is a teacher of middle and high school English and has an M.A. in English Education and an M.Ed. in Educational Administration.

'The Awakening' was criticized tremendously because of its unusual theme of a rebellious woman whose desires and actions in contrary to society's expectations of a woman. Discover the controversy around the novel's publication, its summary and analysis, and the influence of 'The Awakening' on feminist literature. Updated: 08/28/2021

A Female Perspective

The Awakening is a novel by regionalist writer Kate Chopin. Noted as one of the first feminist works in American literature, the story centers around one woman's transformation from traditional housewife and mother to an individual with a sense of self-awareness and an independent purpose beyond her family.

Chopin wrote one of the first American feminist works.
Kate Chopin Photo

When first published, The Awakening was quite controversial, because of the way the story questioned gender norms and social traditions and weaved in the topic of female sexuality, to the shock of her 19th century readers. Motivated by the author's own experiences as an educated and self-reliant woman, the novel garnered terrible reviews. In spite of this initial poor reception, The Awakening, which was Chopin's last novel, ultimately became her most influential. It was basically re-discovered in the late 20th century, bringing Chopin attention as a remarkable storyteller and feminist writer.

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Like in many of her other stories, Kate Chopin sets The Awakening in two Louisiana locales - Grand Isle and New Orleans. It is in the seaside town of Grand Isle that the story begins. The Pontellier family, consisting of mother and wife Edna, husband and father Léonce and their two sons, vacation together in a resort run by Madame Lebrun and her two sons Robert and Victor. It is clear that Edna and Léonce have a traditional marriage, one in which it is expected that Edna care for her children and husband, rather than follow her own pursuits. It is clear, at times, that Léonce is not satisfied with Edna's level of effort with their boys and feels that she is not like the other mothers around them. Edna, herself, feels as though there is some sense of dissatisfaction growing within her.

Léonce must leave his wife and sons in Grand Isle for a weeklong business trip. During this time, Robert Lebrun (who is young and handsome of course) and Edna spend time together, and Edna falls in love. Without her husband and with this new kind of attention, Edna feels different - more alive, self-reliant and independent. Before any affair begins between the two, Robert senses that the relationship would be pointless, since Edna is a married woman. He leaves Grand Isle abruptly for what he describes as a business venture in Mexico. Edna is terribly sad when Robert gives little explanation.

The Pontellier family returns to their home in New Orleans, but Edna's behavior has changed. She no longer fulfills social obligations or supports her husband the way she once did. She begins to focus on artwork and other pursuits that she enjoys. Léonce becomes concerned and consults a doctor who believes that if she is left alone she will most likely be fine. Léonce leaves his wife for a trip to New York while their sons go to spend some time with their grandmother.

The novel takes place in two Louisiana locations.
Louisiana Map

Edna, alone now for the first time, considers her life, her freedom and her purpose. She thinks of Robert often. Her emotional state fluctuates. She begins an affair with a man nearby named Alcée. She feels too unattached to her house and all of her material possessions, so she moves temporarily into a smaller house down the street in her husband's absence. She hears about Robert's adventures in Mexico and finally runs into him at a mutual friend's house, where she finds out that he has been back in town for a few days. While cold at first, after some time, Robert admits that he thought about Edna the entire time and admits his love for her.

Just as Edna is freed by the news, she is called away to help a friend for a few hours. When she returns back to her small cottage, she finds a note from Robert. In it, he says goodbye and tells her that he loves her. Devastated, Edna chooses to return to Grand Isle where she and Robert first met. She thinks of her life, her husband, her children, and how her soul is not her own as she walks the beach. She considers all of those people who did not understand her or what she was feeling as she walks into the water. Exhausted, Edna lets the waters overtake her.

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