Study Guide

The Awakening Themes

By Kate Chopin

  • Identity

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    The Awakening is largely about an identity crisis. Dissatisfied with her labels as "wife" and "mother," Edna Pontellier seeks an independence that is hard to come by for Victorian women. The "awakening" that Edna experiences is the awakening of her true self – her real humanity that had lain dormant under a socialized exterior. The unleashing of the Inner Edna in the face of societal convention constitutes the main thrust of the novel.

    Questions About Identity

    1. Edna says in Chapter Sixteen: "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. I can't make it more clear; it's only something which I am beginning to comprehend, which is revealing itself to me." What is she talking about?
    2. To what extent does Edna feel motherhood to be a component of her identity?
    3. What is the key moment(s) in the novel where the Inner Edna begins revealing herself? At what point does the Inner Edna’s dominance yield negative repercussions?

    Chew on This

    Edna Pontellier commits suicide at the end of The Awakening because she realizes that her true identity is incompatible with Victorian society.

  • Women and Femininity

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    The restrictions and expectations imposed on Edna Pontellier in The Awakening are based purely on her gender. The societal structure of the Victorian Era decreed that a woman was fit to be only a wife and mother, but Edna has other ambitions: artistic, financial, and sexual freedom. In seeking her own identity, Edna necessarily runs counter to her society’s notions of womanhood.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. To what extent does Edna imitate or learn from the other female characters in the novel?
    2. Why doesn’t Edna try to be more like a "mother-woman"?
    3. Does Edna’s awakening provide potential for other women to be awakened (like maybe Adele Ratignolle)?

    Chew on This

    Although the friendship of Adele Ratignolle and Mademoiselle Reisz are key elements in Edna’s awakening, Edna ultimately transcends her friends’ models of living.

  • Marriage

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    In The Awakening, marriage is a huge barrier to happiness and individual fulfillment because the archetypical marriage had an "I Tarzan, you Jane" dynamic. At the start of the novel, Edna is barely conscious of her habit of simply acquiescing to her husband’s orders, but as the book progresses, she begins to disobey his commands and make her own decisions about how to spend her time and energy. Furthermore, by the end of the book that Edna is so disillusioned by the whole institution of marriage that she doesn’t even want to marry the man that she truly loves.

    Questions About Marriage

    1. What’s Edna’s problem with marriage? She hates on it so much even though she is married. How did that happen?
    2. What would a happy marriage look like for Edna? Is such a situation possible?

    Chew on This

    Edna wants no greater independence and freedom of movement in her marriage than what her husband already enjoys.

  • Love

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    In The Awakening, love is a fantasy. It’s used in jest by the Creole community (Robert Lebrun in particular), and we also know that Edna has a history of infatuations that culminate in a crush on the aforementioned Robert. This time, however, Robert swears it’s real. But after they declare their love for each other, reality sets in. They have different priorities: he wants marriage, she wants freedom. This novel really doesn’t fall for the whole "true love" shtick.

    Questions About Love

    1. Does The Awakening have an example of true love? Do Robert and Edna really love each other or are they just clinging to a fantasy? Are the young lovers on Grand Isle and example of true love?
    2. What are the most predominant forms of non-romantic love in The Awakening?
    3. Love and sex are distinguished in The Awakening (so conveniently, too, in the forms of Robert Lebrun and Alcee Arobin). What’s the effect of that distinction? Why don’t love and sex seem to go together in this book?

    Chew on This

    True love does not exist in The Awakening.

  • Society and Class

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    The Awakening features that age-old conflict between the individual and society. Is it more important to conform or to be yourself? Our protagonist Edna views herself as a super-fabulous individual, but society has a different take on the matter.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. To what extent is society to blame for Edna’s suicide? Not at all? Totally?
    2. What role did Creole society play in Edna’s awakening? Did it play a role?

    Chew on This

    Edna committed suicide because she realized the impossibility of simultaneously fulfilling herself as an individual and as a member of society.

  • Repression

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    Repression plays out subtly in The Awakening, as the open, "free-speaking" Creoles who are partly responsible for Edna’s awakening (artistically, sexually, etc.) turn out to be all talk and no walk. At the end of the day, the Creoles really do expect husbands and wives to be faithful to one another. They limit their scandalous behavior to flirtatious talk and "dirty" novels. Restraint is the name of the game here. In contrast, Edna, who begins the novel as very repressed, learns the talk and then walks the walk.

    Questions About Repression

    1. Who is the least repressed character in The Awakening? The most repressed?
    2. Why does Mr. Pontellier remain so restrained when he sees Robert Lebrun flirting with his wife?
    3. What if the character seeking sexual fulfillment was Mr. Pontellier? How would the book change?
    4. Why on earth does Edna play games with Arobin and then sleep with him for the first time after finding out that Robert will soon be home?

    Chew on This

    Had Edna Pontellier not spent her summer in Creole society, she would have remained unaware of her need for personal fulfillment and would have remained faithful to her husband.

  • Art and Culture

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    In The Awakening, producing real art requires holding a position outside the societal mainstream. The lives of the two artists we see in The Awakening, Mademoiselle Reisz and Edna Pontellier, suggest that art requires a singular devotion that is impossible to have if also married. The Awakening thus paints a conflict between the pursuit of art and acceptance by society. Mademoiselle Reisz and Edna are both willing to pay the price to be real artists.

    Questions About Art and Culture

    1. Why does Mademoiselle Reisz tell Edna that it takes great courage to be an artist? By her own criteria, is Mademoiselle Reisz an artist?
    2. What’s the difference between when Mademoiselle Reisz plays the piano and when Adele plays the piano?
    3. Why does Mademoiselle Reisz consider Edna to be the only audience member worth playing for?

    Chew on This

    In The Awakening, art is inextricably linked to passion.

  • Family

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    In The Awakening, Edna Pontellier challenges her role as a mother while Adele Ratignolle fulfills it to a tee. Motherhood is not a dynamic or fluid concept in The Awakening, but rather a static, idealized image that all women should aspire to. This image functions as an ideal while at the same time holding women to an impossible standard. Edna refuses to play this game as she considers her children to be perfectly secure and happy without involvement on her part.

    Questions About Family

    1. What exactly is a "good mother" in Edna’s society? Why does Edna have trouble following that model?
    2. Is Edna a good mother by the standards of her society? By the standards of our society?
    3. How important is motherhood to Edna? Why did she have children in the first place?

    Chew on This

    For Edna, individual self-expression takes precedence over motherhood.

  • Respect and Reputation

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    In The Awakening, the main characters live in a society obsessed with reputation. Mr. Pontellier in particular carries this obsession out to unhealthy ends – he becomes more concerned about his reputation than about his marriage, and is willing to put good money on it. To have a good reputation in The Awakening, however, is not necessarily viewed as being synonymous with having a good character.

    Questions About Respect and Reputation

    1. Who cares the least for his or her reputation? Who cares the most? Why?
    2. What are the various ways we see in the text that a woman can lose her "good reputation"? How many of them did Edna hit?
    3. Is reputation a true reflection of character in The Awakening?
    4. What defines a person’s reputation in The Awakening?
    5. How does Edna’s reputation evolve over the course of the novel?

    Chew on This

    Edna’s reputation shifts from good to bad over the course of The Awakening, but in return she gains a better sense of self.

  • Life, Consciousness, and Existence

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    In Kate Chopin’s day, ideas about the human psyche (including the subconscious) were just beginning to gain momentum. Regardless of whether Chopin was intentionally integrating these concepts into The Awakening, issues of the subconscious are definitely present in the novel as we see Edna come to terms with deeper layers of her identity. We see her acting on impulses she doesn’t understand and feeling depressed when she denies these impulses. Moreover, we can also see Edna’s "awakening" as the awakening of her true inner self that has been operating below the level of her conscious mind.

    Questions About Life, Consciousness, and Existence

    1. We found this quote from Chapter Twelve a little scary: "She was blindly following whatever impulse moved her, as if she had placed herself in alien hands for direction, and freed her soul of responsibility." Is this Divine Providence directing her actions? How did her soul suddenly get freed of responsibility?
    2. To what extent does Edna’s newly independent identity feel like a dream that comes crashing to a halt once she returns to Grand Isle?

    Chew on This

    Once Edna makes a conscious decision to be guided by her subconscious, she finds greater fulfillment as a human being.