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The Awakening by Kate Chopin: Characters, Themes & Symbols

Instructor: Amy Anderson
Discover why the late nineteenth-century novel The Awakening caused quite a scandal when it was first published. In Kate Chopin's novel, the main character Edna, a young mother and wife, comes undone when her heart is awakened by the attention of another man.

Character List

  • Edna Pontellier--young wife and mother living in New Orleans
  • Léonce Pontellier--Edna's businessman husband
  • Etienne & Raoul Pontellier-- the Pontelliers' young sons
  • Madame Lebrun--owner of the Grand Isle beachfront cottages where the Pontelliers are vacationed
  • Robert Lebrun--Madame Lebrun's older son and Edna's love interest; he leaves for Mexico soon after Edna arrives to the Grand Isle and develops feelings for him
  • Victor Lebrun--Madame Lebrun's other son
  • Adèle Ratignolle--Edna's close friend
  • Monsieur Ratignolle--Adèle's husband
  • Mademoiselle Reisz--Edna's confidant, a pianist who helps spark Edna's independence
  • Alcée Arobin--Edna's lover back in New Orleans; the affair is one based more on passion than real love
  • The Colonel--Edna's father
  • Doctor Mandelet--Physician to the Pontelliers

Summary and Analysis

Edna Pontellier is vacationing at the Grand Isle in Louisiana when we first meet her. She is mainly unaccompanied by her husband Léonce, who is often back home in New Orleans handling business. As Edna enters this exotic island setting, she feels the stir of desire for a love interest, Robert Lebrun. He is the son of the owners of the Grand Isle cottages. While vacationing, she also decides to start painting again, something she had long given up on due to the responsibility of being a proper wife and mother.

Because Robert is young and passionate, he represents Edna's desire to feel free, as free as a little girl. While Robert and Edna flirt, they do not consummate their desire. Instead Robert leaves for Mexico, incapable of reconciling his love for a married woman. When he abandons Edna, this symbolizes the end to Edna's fantasy world.

At this time, Edna's other companion at the island is Adèle. Her character represents everything that Edna is not. Adèle is a content wife and mother. Adèle's effortless devotion to fulfilling her societal obligations serves to highlight Edna's growing disenchantment with her own role as a wife and mother. At this point in history, women were usually one of two things: a father's daughter or a husband's wife. For someone like Edna, there were no other options. She had to repress her desire. Repress is a psychological term that means to cover up or hide secret longings. While psychoanalysis was not yet fully developed at the time Chopin wrote The Awakening, it seems clear that Edna must have at least suffered from depression once Robert abandoned her.

Edna's husband, Léonce, is older, powerful and dedicated to keeping up with appearances. He represents the exact societal pressure that Edna is crumbling under. He is also controlling, treating Edna like a little girl. He always wants her to come back inside while Edna would rather stay outside thinking about Robert.

When Edna returns to her home in New Orleans, her confidant is a gifted pianist named Mademoiselle Reisz. It should be noted that Reisz is the only character Edna confessed her love for Robert to. Reisz is the exact opposite of Adèle. Reisz is unmarried and childless after having devoted her entire life to music. Reisz represents what Edna can never have. It is too late for Edna to be unfettered or free. She already has children and a husband. Reisz, like Adèle, serves as a dramatic foil for Edna's characterization. A dramatic foil is when one character's personality serves to highlight the main character's differences. Adèle highlights Edna's lack of interest regarding marriage and motherhood; Reisz, on the other hand, demonstrates who Edna longs to be.

After moving to a small house apart from her husband and children, Edna takes a man named Alcée as a lover. While her heart is with Robert, Edna's awakening has led to physical desires she can no longer ignore. Alcée is a wealthy businessman with a reputation for scandalous affairs. While Edna may be one of his conquests, Edna refuses to fully submit, maintaining her independence. Alcée's characterization represents the allure of promiscuity, but he also serves to remind Edna that no man can fill Robert's place. In other words, sex alone can't mend a broken heart.

Near the end of the novel, Edna assists Adèle through childbirth. Robert also gives his final goodbye to Edna, refusing to continue their love affair. Shortly after Adèle's baby is delivered, Edna returns back to the Grand Isle where her awakening started and drowns herself.

Themes

Theme is a way of describing the central ideas in a piece of literature. The themes of The Awakening are often described as feminist. Feminism is the study of how women are treated by culture. One of these feminist themes is woman versus society. Edna's depression and subsequent suicide show that she ultimately rejects motherhood and marriage. Having rejected what society holds so sacred for a woman, she can no longer function in that society.

Another theme is female friendship. As we talked about earlier, Edna's two female friends serve to highlight Edna's characterization. In this sense, Edna witnesses two forms of womanhood: one she should strive for, like Adèle, while Reisz represents the husbandless, childless path Edna could have taken, but did not.

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