The Lady in Black in The Awakening: Quotes, Analysis & Significance

Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

Terri Beth has taught college writing and literature courses since 2005 and has a PhD in literature.

Kate Chopin's 'The Awakening', tells the story of an upper class wife and mother awakening to her individuality and sexuality. The figure of the Lady in Black provides a powerful symbol of the consequences of defying social expectations.

Who is the Lady in Black?

Nowadays many celebrate and promote women's freedom and equal rights. But that was not so in Kate Chopin's day and she knew it. She used the Lady in Black to symbolize the reminder of going against strict societal doctrine for women's behavior and purpose.

Kate Chopin's 1899 novella, The Awakening, is the story of Edna Pontellier, an upper class wife and mother in a Creole community in turn-of-the-century Louisiana, who gradually begins to discover her individuality and sexuality outside of her rigidly defined social roles as wife, mother, and caretaker of the household.

The unnamed Lady in Black appears time and again like a ghost haunting Edna's new world, dampening her new-found sense of individuality. The Lady in Black symbolizes the power of social expectations, the strong grip of gender norms, or gender roles and requirements, and the consequences of defying them.

Kate Chopin
Chopin

Following the Lovers

The Lady in Black never speaks in Chopin's novella, nor is she ever identified. Instead she seems to follow the characters like a messenger of warning or doom. Most often, the Lady in Black is seen following the two young lovers, also unnamed, who remain blissfully ignorant of her near-constant presence. The lovers pursue their pleasures, unaware of the Lady in Black looming close by. 'The lady in black,' the narrator writes, 'with her Sunday prayer book, velvet and gold-clasped, and her Sunday silver beads, was following them at no great distance.'

The lovers think they are in charge of their own destiny. They seem to believe that their future is theirs alone, to be determined by them and guided by their love and passion for one another. They are young. They think they are powerful and unique.

The presence of the Lady in Black suggests otherwise. She carries her prayer book and her beads, and she follows hard on the lovers' heels.

Condemnng Sexuality

The religious paraphernalia the Lady in Black carries suggests the strong influence of the Roman Catholic church in Edna's and the young lovers' Creole community. She provides a stark reminder of the power of social roles, particularly those pertaining to marriage, the family, and sexuality, as defined by the church.

The church condemns sexuality outside of the bonds of marriage, which already puts the passionate lovers on dangerous ground. Their passion for one another only becomes 'moral', or 'okay', once they are married. For now, the lovers risk becoming outlaws, exiled from the church and society's good graces, if they act too rashly on their desires. The Lady in Black serves as a warning for all who would recklessly defy society's rules.

Kate Chopin with her children in 1877
Chopin

Religion Over Sensuality

At the turn-of-the-century, the sensual, that which can be experienced by the body's physical senses, was disparaged. It was seen as corrupting, sinful, and deceptive, leading people to fall into every kind of vice, from sex to overeating to simple laziness.

This is especially true of women's sexual desires. Women's sexuality was believed to be an unpredictable, dangerous, and insatiable force. Only through rigid regulation could women be prevented from succumbing to their biological impulses, enslaved by their physical desires.

In one scene, Edna Pontellier is beginning to discover her love for Robert LeBrun. Monsieur Farival is shaken by the emotion he sees in Edna and Robert. He's intrigued and excited, as only the best gossip can make us.

Chopin writes, 'He [Monsieur Farival] whispered an anxious inquiry of the lady in black, who did not notice him or reply, but kept her eyes fastened upon the pages of her velvet prayer-book.' The Lady in Black is unmoved. She does not notice or care. She's absorbed in her spiritual meditations.

Edna, a woman awakening to her own desire, is contrasted with the Lady in Black, steadfastly denying the physical, keeping her mind, body, and spirit focused on the spiritual.

Monsieur Farival's excitement and curiosity suggest how disruptive the fall into the sensual can be. The Lady in Black, with her refusal to notice or respond, exemplifies the continued denial of the sensual.

Blind Faith and A Warning

The religion the Lady has devoted her life to remains a mystery to her. She knows only what she has been taught; does only what she has been instructed to do.

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