The Awakening by Kate Chopin is a novel about a woman in the late 1800s who struggles to determine her own identity in a world that pushes feminine virtues and prohibits female sexuality. The main character, Edna Pontellier, goes through one of three stages of transition throughout The Awakening. The first stage (the “awakening”) refers to Edna’s discovery of her own sexuality and independence, which is evident in The Awakening as Edna begins to rebel against the societal expectations placed on women and begins to reach for freedom.
The second stage (the “realization”) refers to moments when it becomes apparent that society will not allow Edna achieve freedom without repercussions; this moment occurs within The Awakening when Edna takes a lover and then feels guilt after their encounter. The third stage (the “conventionality”) shows how Edna learns from her mistakes and regains peace with society by conforming to its expectations; in The Awakening, this conformity is most notable when Edna gives up her need for personal freedom once she realizes that society will punish those who reject its mandates.
The protagonist, Edna Pontellier, is a married woman living in New Orleans who begins The Awakening in search of her own identity and for an escape from societal expectations. The novel opens to show that Edna has already begun this journey; we find her swimming far out into the ocean and coming back to shore tired and exhilarated (Chopin 3). Chopin uses language like “exhausted” and “weary,” which only hints at the physical demands of such a swim (3); even if Edna did not feel physically drained when she reached dry land, it is clear that she feels mentally invigorated by her swim in the cool water.
The scene shows us how Edna can take care of herself and that she no longer needs to rely on others for support, which is exemplified when Edna heads back to the Pontellier house alone. The transformation has begun; Edna is beginning to rebel against societal expectations by going out alone at night in a time when women were expected to travel with male companions (Bruccoli 113). The Awakening then switches focus from showing Edna’s journey of self-discovery to exploring how Edna struggles within a society that rejects her newfound independence.
The main conflict in The Awakening comes from the protagonist’s struggle with society over her decision to reject its mandates about female sexuality and identity. The conflict occurs when Edna seeks sexual pleasure with Alcee Arobin and then feels guilt after their affair. The conflict between Edna and society is present from The Awakening’s beginning, but it becomes most prominent when Edna flirts with a man named Alcee Arobin in Chapter 2 of The Awakening.
After their flirtatious exchange, Edna feels happy and excited because she thinks Alcee liked her too (Chopin 20). When Edna goes to meet him at his home so they can go for a walk together, she discovers that he brought another woman along (20). Intense feelings of anger and embarrassment consume her when she realizes that Alcee was not interested in spending time alone with her; he used her to cheat on the other woman.
The conflict reaches its climax when Edna comes to terms with what happened; The Awakening uses language like “crushing blow” and “pangs of agony,” which describes the intense physical and emotional pain Edna experiences (Chopin 33). The conflict reaches its resolution when Edna moves beyond her feelings for Alcee to find a new lover in Robert Lebrun, who is described as being open and kind. The conflict ends with Edna moving past her guilt over what she did with Alcee Arobin because The Awakening shows that society will not punish her for her actions.
The story begins with her awakening to an awareness of life and living it on her own terms. The novel explores her realization that she can do more than be a wife and mother, but Chopin doesn’t rush this awakening. The transformation isn’t immediate, which provides some insight into how difficult it was for women to break free of the restraints imposed by society. The reader meets Mrs. Pontellier when she’s already come into conflict with societal expectations, though she isn’t entirely conscious that there might be another way to live her life than as expected.
She thinks: “I tried to answer discreetly–indeed I did” (Chopin, The Awakening 1. 38). The reader is told the story of Edna Pontellier through her own words; she speaks in first-person narrative throughout The Awakening. The effect of this is to allow Edna’s voice to come through clearly and perhaps even more authentically than it might otherwise be if viewed from an external perspective. Edna makes some decisions that will alter the course of her life, but they aren’t made hurriedly or impulsively.
The reader has ample opportunity to observe how Mrs. Pontellier thinks about various issues before she takes action on them. The reader witnesses how Mrs. Pontellier slowly comes into awareness of who she really is and what kind of life will best suit her, and how she is able to make choices that will help her live life on her own terms. The events and characters in The Awakening serve as catalysts that spark Edna’s need for change, but they don’t force her hand.
The reader is introduced to the Pontellier family in Chapter Two when Mrs. Pontellier is still caught up in what someone else thinks of her: “I was unable to go to sleep again for a long while; my mind had been too much excited. ” The story then flashes back to an afternoon picnic when Mrs. Pontellier and her husband meet Robert Lebrun and some other guests. The entire scene is one in which everyone’s status and expectations are made clear: “Everyone seemed very happy and contented. The day was all that such a day should be,” but the reader immediately recognizes how different this is from Mrs. Pontellier’s perspective: “I was not happy” (Chopin, The Awakening 2. ).
The contrast between Edna’s hidden unhappiness and the general cheerfulness of everyone else continues throughout The Awakening. The reader learns about Mrs. Pontellier’s social circle in Chapters Three through Six when she attends five consecutive dinner parties at which nearly every guest is introduced to the reader, including Madame Ratignolle who seems to embody everything that Edna wants for herself: “She had given birth to fourteen children and she had never known one moment’s sorrow or suffering” (Chopin The Awakening 3. 26).
The reader meets the Arobin’s, Robert Lebrun’s friends; Edna begins to think that perhaps she would like her life to be more like that of the Arobin’s: “With each day my interest in them increased… I wanted someone who would need me” (Chopin The Awakening 3. 57-58). The reader gets a sense of the social expectations placed on Edna when she is invited to Mr. Pontellier’s club and meets other married couples (whom she previously only knows through her husband), but also meets people who are less constrained by societal expectations than others: “I was amused at this new phase of my existence”.