59 pages 1 hour read

Kate Chopin

The Awakening

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1899

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Summary and Study Guide


The Awakening is Kate Chopin’s second novel. It was first published in 1899 and is considered one of the first examples of feminist fiction.

The novel opens in the 1890s Louisiana, at Grand Isle, a summer holiday resort popular among wealthy Creoles who live in nearby New Orleans. Edna Pontellier, her husband, Léonce, and their two children are vacationing at the cottages of Madame Lebrun. Léonce is a kind and devoted husband, but he is often preoccupied with work. Due to his frequent work-related absences, Edna spends most of her time with her friend, Adèle Ratignolle, a married Creole woman who exemplifies female submission and elegance. Looking at Creole women, and especially at Adèle, Edna begins to see what it means to be free, even if this freedom is limited only to one’s speech. Creole women had many restrictions when it came to their behavior, but they could be frank and unreserved in their speech. Such openness at first surprises Edna but then helps her liberate her own long-repressed emotions and desires. This also begins Edna’s process of “awakening,” which is the focus of the novel.

Edna’s transformation accelerates when she befriends Robert Lebrun. Robert is a single young man who is known among Grand Isle residents for choosing one woman each summer to whom he plays “attendant.” Even though Robert often chooses married women, his attentions are perceived as mock romance, and no one takes them seriously, partially because the decency of Creole women is always taken for granted. This summer, Robert devotes himself to Edna, and they often spend their days sunbathing together and chatting by the shore.

As the summer progresses, Robert’s attention begins to stir in Edna internal changes. She begins to paint again as she did in her youth, she also finally overcomes her fear of being out in the water alone and learns to swim. One summer night, after she for the first time swims alone, Edna becomes aware of her independence and sexuality. She also begins to question her husband’s authority over her and becomes more understanding of her own desires and emotions. Although Robert and Edna never talk openly about their feelings, the two become aware of the growing intimacy between them. Recognizing his affections for Edna, Robert promptly decides to leave Grand Isle for Mexico. Although he tells everything that he is leaving to seek his fortune, in fact, he hopes to forget his forbidden love for Edna.

When the summer ends and the Pontelliers arrive back in New Orleans, it becomes apparent that Edna is not the same person she was. She no longer sees her identity as that of a wife and a mother, and instead continues to foster her newfound sense of self. She pursues her painting and neglects all her social responsibilities. Léonce is worried about the changes in his wife and thinks that the reason for them might be a mental illness, so he seeks the guidance of the family physician, Doctor Mandelet. As a wise and insightful man, Doctor Mandelet suspects right away that Edna’s transformations might be kindled by an affair, but he decides not to share this observation with Léonce. Instead, Doctor Mandelet advises Léonce to leave Edna alone and to let her do what she pleases, and her odd behavior will pass. Léonce follows the doctor’s advice and allows Edna to stay home while he is away on business.

As soon as her husband leaves, Edna’s mother-in-law takes their two children to spend some time with her in the countryside. With her family gone, Edna completely abandons her former lifestyle. She decides to move into a smaller house and declares her unwillingness to be anyone’s possession. Although Edna still longs for Robert, she begins an affair with a town womanizer, Alcée Arobin, at whom she directs of her increasing sensuality. Edna does not feel an emotional attachment to Alcée and maintains control throughout their affair, refusing to succumb to male domination.

Edna continues her friendship with a now-pregnant Adèle and Mademoiselle Reisz, the free-spirited and independent pianist. Edna often finds herself moved by Mademoiselle Reisz’s playing and visits her regularly. During one of the visits, the pianist warns Edna of the sacrifices required of an artist. Mademoiselle Reisz is also good friends with Robert, and he regularly corresponds with him. The pianist shows the letters to Edna since in them Robert talks mostly about his love for her. Edna’s friendship with Mademoiselle Reisz continues her process of awakening, because the pianist, a self-sufficient woman who dedicated herself only to her art, serves as a role model for Edna.

During one of her visits to Mademoiselle Reisz, Edna accidentally encounters Robert. She is hurt that he did not seek to meet with her as soon as he returned from Mexico. Although he tries to maintain emotional and physical distance from Edna, he finally admits his love for her after Edna kisses him. Despite this, he reminds her that they cannot be together because she is the wife of another man. Edna tries to explain to him that her husband no longer has any rights over her and that she, as an independent woman, can live with whomever she pleases. Robert feels that he cannot trespass upon moral and social boundaries and is not willing to enter into the adulterous affair, even with a woman he loves.

Before the two of them can express themselves completely, Edna is called to Adèle’s labor and, before leaving, she asks Robert to wait for her. Although Adèle’s childbirth is painful, she finds the strength to ask Edna to think about the effect of her actions on her children. Edna begins to realize that her children and their reputation will be deeply hurt if she leaves her family for another man.

When Edna returns to her house, Robert is no longer there, and a goodbye note has been left in his place. Overwhelmed with thoughts about her children and the realization that even Robert would eventually not fulfill her desires, Edna feels extreme devastation and solitude. She decides to return to Grand Isle, the place where her emotional and sexual awakening has begun. Realizing that she cannot return to her former life with Léonce but also not wanting to hurt her children via adultery, she gives herself to the sea. It remains ambiguous whether the suicide is meant to foreground the triumph of Edna’s independence or her ultimate submission.