The Awakening by Kate Chopin


The Awakening
Kate Chopin


Here’s a book I’ve been meaning to read for a long time.  I knew that The Awakening, published in 1899, represented an important expression of feminist ideas, a controversial subject at the time.  I did not know that it is also a story about depression.

How to be happy inside oneself.  That is Edna Pontellier’s chief struggle.  The novel begins at Grand Isle, a vacation resort in the Gulf of Mexico, off the shores of New Orleans.  Edna is twenty-eight, married to Leonce, a successful businessman and they are summering with their young boys and other wealthy families.  It is during this summer that Edna begins to question her marriage, her role as a mother and the choices that led to them.  A close relationship with Robert Lebrun, the son of Grand Isle’s proprietor, teeters on the edge of infidelity.

Edna’s outward appearance suggests happiness and success, but her inner self has always known something darker.  She begins to feel that above all else, she will not be happy until she tends to this side.  Instead of merging her outward persona with her private identity, however, Edna’s two beings bang up against each other.

Chopin writes:

At a very early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life – that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions.

Edna’s modern ideas are bound to shake up her life, during a time when women played submissive roles in marriage and society.  Women were expected to fit into the conventional scheme.  To sacrifice for their husbands and their children.  But Edna, in an argument with her friend Madame Ratignolle, states that she would never sacrifice herself for her children, or for anyone.

I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself.

From this point begins Edna’s awakening, and when Robert abruptly departs for Mexico, Edna suddenly feels that she has been denied his love.  Summer ends and nothing will be the same when the Pontelliers return to New Orleans.  Edna exhibits increasingly reckless and alarming behavior and it’s only a matter of time before something gives.

I’ll leave out the ending and simply state that its finish made me completely change my feelings about Edna’s character.  I was sympathetic and supportive at first, but her final actions make me think two things.  One, that Edna had a pretty good life before her awakening.  She had money, servants, and people to take care of her children.  While Leonce had certain expectations of Edna and her role as wife and mother, he took his role as husband and money-maker seriously.  It seems natural for him to think that she hasn’t held up her end of the deal.  My second opinion is that this first idea can’t apply to Edna’s character, because, above everything else, she is suffering from depression and no amount of logic or reason can change her thoughts.  How strange, however, to merge an awakening of feminist thinking with depression.  I’m left unsure of the story’s message.

Chopin’s book was not well received when it was first published, partly for its ideas and partly because of its racy subject matter.  It was nearly forgotten until the 1960s when Per Seyersted, a Norwegian scholar, rediscovered the book and its feminist message.

Kate Chopin was a well-known author of short stories for children and adults.  She married at nineteen and had six children.  She became a widow at age 32 and began her writing career.  Interestingly, her doctor suggested writing as an outlet to help her cope with sadness and depression.  (Source:  Wikipedia)

Click here to visit the Kate Chopin website for many interesting facts about the author’s life and her books.

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

16 thoughts on “The Awakening by Kate Chopin

  1. I remember when my lit class read this in college that we discussed what it meant to give up “yourself.” I remember, too, that I found this book a slog–we’d just read The French Lieutenant’s Woman which was far more compelling to me. Your review is very illuminating. Well done!

    1. I don’t know how I missed this one in college. I certainly can’t argue with the idea of holding onto your inner self/happiness. And women during that time period didn’t have a lot of options. But when you think about it, both men and women were locked into roles and most people just made the best of things in their own situations. Maybe men had it better. I don’t know. The fact that Edna didn’t have to work hard at anything in her life made me less sympathetic. I didn’t study any of the literary discussions of the book, so my opinion could be completely off. It seemed more a story about depression than women’s rights or freedoms. Thanks for reading and commenting!

    1. Well I can’t say it was my favorite and my son read it for his English class a few years ago and hated it! I felt Edna’s character was very self absorbed. If she had been slaving away in a loveless marriage it would have been different.

  2. I read The Awakening in college as an undergraduate and wrote a 12 page analysis on it. I don’t remember at all what I wrote, but I remember having conflicted feelings about it as you do.

    1. Hi Kim, I’m not sure why I didn’t read this in college, but I’m glad I finally got to it. I do think it should be a staple read, to show the position women were in during the late 1800s. I still feel conflicted about it. I wish Edna had resolved her problems differently. Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

    1. Agreed, but I this is my opinion – I didn’t read any analysis of the book, so I don’t know what the established view is. Thanks, Ann, for reading and commenting!

  3. You brought back such memories to me in this review! Like Kim, above, I read The Awakening when I was in college – probably freshman year. I say that, because the book blew me away. I LOVED it, and after reading your review here and bringing back the story to me, I’m not sure why the ending didn’t bother me. I’m sure it did, but I would view the ending differently now than I did at 20. At 20 and being an early feminist (which I had to hide from my family), I felt Chopin expressed feelings that many women held in. The book also solidified my feelings that marriage would not be for me (of course, two weeks after I graduated from college, I ….married…!). But Chopin’s writing opened me up to other women authors, and her subject opened me up to a searing interest in the plight of women, and how to best change our course of action. BTW, isn’t Chopin the author of the short story about the woman and the wallpaper (nowadays we’d say she had postpartum depression – in Chopin’s day, women who got depressed after childbirth were put in a sanatorium). I think I’ll re-read The Awakening now. THANKS for the wonderful review.

    1. Wow, thanks for all these comments. I can’t believe I didn’t read this in college. I’m sure I would have had a different reaction. I also think that because we have raised/are raising four boys/men, I’m more tuned into a male perspective. I agree that Chopin shows really well how women needed to hold onto something of value inside themselves if they were going to be happy. I don’t think I know about the story of the woman and the wallpaper. I think I will look for that. Thank you again for putting so much time into your comments! I’ve been out of action for about a week, but I’m jumping back in to the blogging world!

      1. I apologize – I just looked up the story I was talking about and it was written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, not Chopin. I didn’t read this story until about 10 years ago and it’s stayed with me since – try it out! [The Yellow Wallpaper (original title: “The Yellow Wall-paper. A Story”) is a 6,000-word short story by the American writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman, first published in January 1892 in The New England Magazine.[1] It is regarded as an important early work of American feminist literature, illustrating attitudes in the 19th century toward women’s health, both physical and mental.]
        I tend to write long comments when I get really engaged with a blog post, as I did with yours. :-0 xo

      2. Hello – thanks for telling me about this story. I bet it’s in one of my anthologies. My son took an American Lit class in college and we had to buy the books, so he gave them to me when he was finished! I’m going to look for it!

  4. This sounds like a fascinating book and if nothing else that is raises so many feelings and also conflicting emotions shows it can’t be all bad! A fascinating review and very intrigued. I love the old looking book cover – such a sense of nostalgia! Wow, your summer challenge is coming along a treat and yep, summer until October 21st so plenty of time for the rest!😃

  5. I really liked The Awakening. But I read it in college (as so many others here) and now I’m not sure. You’ve made some good points and have me wondering… If I read it now, would I fee the same? It’s sitting on my shelf right here and I’m going to read it again. I do think depression has its place in this book but I can see how it might make one conflicted about the message. Off to grab it from the shelf. Thanks! 🙂

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