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The Awakening  
Author Kate Chopin
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Novel
Media type Print
ISBN 978-0-19-953694-8
OCLC Number 1226208

The Awakening is a novel by Kate Chopin, first published in 1899 (see 1899 in literature). Set in New Orleans and the Southern Louisiana coast at the end of the nineteenth century, the plot centers on Edna Pontellier and her struggle to reconcile her increasingly unorthodox views on femininity and motherhood with the prevailing social attitudes of the turn-of-the-century South. It is one of the earliest American novels that focuses on women's issues without condescension. It is also one of the most important novels written by an American woman in the nineteenth century (perhaps second only to Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin in terms of historical and social significance).[citation needed] When published it was assailed for its frank depictions of female sexuality but has since been cited by critics and scholars as one of the most influential American novels ever written.[citation needed] It is also widely seen as a landmark work of early feminism.

The novel's blend of realistic narrative, incisive social commentary, and psychological complexity makes The Awakening a precursor of American modernism and prefigures the works of American novelists such as William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway and echoes the works of contemporaries such as Edith Wharton and Henry James. It can also be considered among the first Southern works in a tradition that would culminate with the modern masterpieces of Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty, Katherine Anne Porter, and Tennessee Williams.

Contents

Primary characters

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Edna Pontellier

The novel's protagonist. She is presented as a complex and emotionally dynamic character (a rarity for female characters of the period).[1] Her "awakening" to the stifling realities of being a woman at the end of the nineteenth century forms the core of the plot.

Roberto Lebrun

The son of the proprietor of the Grand Isle resort where the Pontellier family spends its summers. Edna and Roberto develop a mutual attraction that forms the central conflict of the novel. They want to doink like two dogs in heat. He relocates to Mexico (under the pretext of seeking business opportunities) in order to escape a relationship that has no chance of survival. His return from Mexico further complicates matters and leads to the novel's tragic climax.[1]

Léonce Pontellier

Edna’s husband. Léonce is both a callous patriarch and a fond husband with very clear ideas about what a woman's preoccupations should be. In his eyes, Edna's only aim in life is the orderly maintenance of the family estate and the care of their two children. He becomes genuinely confused at his wife's gradual desire for emancipation and his absence on an extended business trip to New York City provides Edna the room to reconsider her situation.

Alcée Arobin

Edna's lover. They do it over and over and over again. And again. And then a little more. When Roberto Lebrun leaves for Mexico Alcée actively seeks Edna's attention and affections. At first ambivalent at the prospect, eventually Edna allows him to court her. Alcée comes with a womanizing reputation but treats Edna in a chivalrous (if aggressively infatuated) manner.

Adèle Ratignolle

Friend of the Pontellier family. She is set up in opposition to Edna as an almost unthinkingly self-sacrificing mother. She is the traditional ideal of femininity for the late 1800s but is also a warm, generous, and boisterous presence. As Edna struggles with her place in the home and in society at large, Adèle reminds her to think of her children and put them above all else, even herself.

Mademoiselle Reisz

A pianist. While barely a fringe member of New Orleans society (she is renowned as a gifted pianist but is not a part of the "in crowd"), Edna seeks out Mlle Reisz both for advice and because Mlle Reisz is in communication with Robert Lebrun while he is in Mexico. A perceptive and bluntly honest woman, she is almost shamanistic as she helps Edna sort out her emotions.

Plot summary

The novel opens with the Pontellier family vacationing on Grand Isle at a resort on the Gulf of Mexico managed by Madame Lebrun and her two sons, Robert and Victor. The Pontellier family is composed of Léonce Pontellier (a businessman of Acadian heritage) and Edna (his twenty-eight year old wife). They have two sons, Etienne and Raoul who do not feature prominently in the plot and who are largely symbols of Edna's proscribed existence.

Edna spends most of her time with her close friend Adèle Ratignolle. In a boisterious and cheery manner, Adèle reminds Edna of her duties as a wife and mother. At Grand Isle, Edna eventually forms a connection with Robert Lebrun, a charming and earnest young man who actively seeks Edna's attention (and affections). They start to fall deeply in love, but Robert, sensing the doomed nature of any relationship that would develop between them, flees to Mexico under the guise of pursuing a nameless business venture.

At this point in the novel, the narrative focus shifts to Edna's complex and shifting emotions as she reconciles her filial duties with her desire to be with Robert and her desire for social freedom.

The summer vacation over, Edna and the family return to New Orleans. Gradually, Edna begins to take an active role in her own happiness and reassesses her personal priorities. She starts to isolate herself from New Orleans society and withdraw from some of the duties traditionally associated with motherhood. Léonce eventually calls in a doctor to diagnose her, fearing she is losing her mental faculties. The doctor advises Léonce to let her be.

Léonce decides to leave Edna home as he travels to New York City on business. The children are sent to stay with his mother, leaving Edna alone at the house for an extended period. This gives Edna physical and emotional room to breathe and think over various aspects of her life. While her husband is still in New York, Edna decides to move out of her house and into a small bungalow nearby. During this period of transition she begins an abortive affair with Alcée Arobin, a persistent suitor with a reputation for being free with his affections. It's the first time in the novel Edna is shown as a sexual being, but the affair proves awkward and emotionally fraught.

The other person to whom Edna reaches out during this period of solitude is Mademoiselle Reisz, a gifted recitalist whose playing is renowned throughout New Orleans but who maintains a generally hermetic existence. At a party earlier in the novel, Edna is profoundly moved by Mlle. Reisz's playing. Mlle. Reisz is in contact with Robert while he is in Mexico, receiving letters from him regularly. Edna begs her to reveal their contents, which she does, proving to Edna that Robert is thinking about her.

Eventually Robert returns to New Orleans. At first aloof (and finding excuses not to be near Edna), he eventually confesses his passionate love for her. He admits that the business trip to Mexico was an excuse to get away from a relationship that would never work.

Edna is called away to help Adèle with a difficult childbirth. Adèle pleads with Edna to think of what she would be turning her back on if she did not behave appropriately. When Edna returns home, she finds a note from Robert stating that he has left and will not be returning.

Edna is devastated. She goes immediately back to Grand Isle, where she first met Robert Lebrun. It is also where she learned to swim earlier in the novel, an episode that was both exhilarating and terrifying, and an episode that perfectly encapsulated the conflicting emotions she wrestled with during the course of the novel. The novel ends with Edna allowing herself to be overtaken by the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. [2]

Style

Kate Chopin's narrative style in The Awakening can be categorized as naturalism, with its focus on the banalities of everyday life and the consequences of social norms.

Chopin's admiration for the French short story writer Guy de Maupassant is evident in The Awakening, yet another example of the enormous influence Maupassant exercised on nineteenth century literary realism. Chopin's novel bears the hallmarks of Maupassant's style: a perceptive focus on human behavior and the complexities of social structures.

However, Chopin's style could more accurately be described as a hybrid that captures contemporary narrative currents and looks forward to various trends in Southern and European literatures.

Mixed into Chopin's overarching nineteenth century realism is an incisive and often humorous skewering of upper class pretension, reminiscent of direct contemporaries such as Oscar Wilde, Henry James, Edith Wharton, and George Bernard Shaw.

Also evident in The Awakening is the future of the Southern novel as a distinct genre, not just in setting and subject matter but in narrative style. Chopin's lyrical portrayal of her protagonist's shifting emotions is a narrative technique that Faulkner would expand upon in novels like Absalom, Absalom! and The Sound and the Fury.

Alternately (almost contradictory), the stark absence of sentimentality and the uncluttered nature of the plot look forward to the stories of Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor and the plays of William Inge, while Edna Pontellier's emotional crises and her eventual tragic fall look ahead to the complex female characters of Tennessee Williams's plays.

Aspects of Chopin's style also prefigure the intensely lyrical and experimental style of novelists such as Virginia Woolf and the unsentimental focus on female intellectual and emotional growth in the novels of Sigrid Undset and Doris Lessing.

Perhaps Chopin's most important stylistic legacy is the detachment of the narrator. Not only does the narrator treat women's issues without condescension, they offer neither an assessment of nor an opinion on the protagonist's behavior. This is wholly at odds with the contemporary Victorian tendency toward narrative judgment and editorial commentary. The narrator neither cheers on nor condemns Edna. The reader is left to assess the protagonist's decisions, which is arguably the novel's boldest stylistic choice.

Publication and critical reception

The Awakening was particularly controversial upon publication in 1899. Chopin's novel was considered immoral not only for its comparatively frank depictions of female sexual desire but for its depiction of a protagonist who chafed against social norms and established gender roles. The public reaction to the novel was similar to the protests which greeted the publication and performance of Henrik Ibsen's landmark drama A Doll's House (1879), a work with which The Awakening shares an almost identical theme.

However, published reviews ran the gamut from outright condemnation to the recognition of The Awakening as an important work of fiction by a gifted practitioner. A good example of this can be found in the divergent reactions of two newspapers in Kate Chopin's hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. The St. Louis Mirror said: "One would fain beg the gods, in pure cowardice, for sleep unending rather than to know what an ugly, cruel, loathsome Monster Passion can be when, like a tiger, it slowly awakens. This is the kind of awakening that impresses the reader in Mrs. Chopin's heroine." Later in the same year, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch would write in praise of the novel in an essay entitled "A St. Louis Woman Who Has Turned Fame Into Literature."

Some reviews clucked in disappointment at Chopin's choice of subject: "It was not necessary for a writer of so great refinement and poetic grace to enter the over-worked field of sex-fiction," (Chicago Times Herald). Others mourned the loss of good taste as when The Nation referred to Chopin as "one more clever writer gone wrong."

And some reviews indulged in outright vitriol, as when Public Opinion stated: "We are well-satisfied when [Edna Pontellier] drowns herself."

However, Chopin did not garner universally negative reviews. The Dial called The Awakening a "poignant spiritual tragedy" with the caveat that the novel was "not altogether wholesome in its tendencies." In the Pittsburgh Leader, none other than Willa Cather would set The Awakening alongside Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert's equally notorious and equally reviled novel of suburban ennui and unapologetic adultery. She famously quipped: "A Creole Bovary is this little novel of Miss Chopin's."

Legacy

Kate Chopin did not write another novel after The Awakening and had understandable difficulty in trying to publish stories after its publication; but today it is regarded as a classic of feminist fiction.

The Awakening was dramatized in a film known as Grand Isle in 1991.[3]

References

  1. ^ a b Telgen, Diane, and Kevin Hile, eds. Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context and Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels. Vol. 3. Detroit, MI: Gale, 1998.
  2. ^ Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. New York, NY: Bantam Classic, 1981.
  3. ^ http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0101970/

External links


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