Kate Chopin was born in 1851 to the well-to-do St. Louis couple Eliza and Thomas O’Flaherty. She attended a convent school, took piano and French lessons, and delighted in her two years as a St. Louis debutante. Chopin had a nonconformist side, too. For example, she spent many hours with her family’s slaves and became St. Louis’ “Littlest Rebel” when she took down and hid a Union flag. In addition, she retreated to the attic of her family’s home and remained secluded there for about two years after the death of several of her family members.
The Awakening opens at the summer resort of Grand Isle, a small hotel located 50 miles off of the coast of New Orleans. Grand Isle is populated by well-to-do families escaping the blistering New Orleans heat. The action begins as Leonce Pontellier, the husband of the novel’s protagonist, Edna Pontellier, sits on the porch of his cottage reading his day-old newspaper. Leonce is a self-important man who accepts as his due the deference of others to his perceived superiority. As Leonce sits on the porch, his wife returns from the beach with Robert Lebrun, the son of the resort owner. After some bantering between Robert and Edna about their trip to the beach, which Leonce does not find amusing, Leonce leaves for his club to play billiards. He invites Robert to join him, but the younger man declines the invitation, choosing instead to remain with Edna. Robert prefers the company of women, choosing to spend the long summer afternoons reading to the married ladies and playing with their children, rather than pursuing the more manly endeavors of working in the city or socializing at the local men’s club. Each summer, Robert “constitutes himself the devoted attendant of some fair dame or damsel,” but always chooses women who are safe-either girls who are too young to marry or matrons.
Chopin lived in, and generally wrote about, life in the South. In The Awakening, she wrote specifically about Creole society in Louisiana. Creoles saw themselves as different from Anglo-Americans and maintained cultural traditions passed down from their French and Spanish ancestors. They enjoyed gambling, entertainment, and social gatherings and spent a great deal of time in these activities. The Creoles seldom accepted outsiders to their social circles and felt that newcomers should live by their rules. Men dominated the households and expected their women to provide them with well-kept homes and many children to carry on the family name. Women responded by bearing children and refining their social talents. While the Creole men caroused, their women kept well-run houses and perfected their accomplishments in music, art, and conversation. Such refined women enhanced their husbands’ social status.
The Awakening tells the story of Edna Pontellier and the changes that occur in her thinking and lifestyle as the result of a summer romance. At the start of the story, Edna is a young mother of two and the wife of a successful New Orleans businessman. While the family is vacationing at a seaside resort, Edna becomes acquainted with Robert Lebrun, a younger man who pays special attention to her. Moonlit walks and intimate conversations with Robert spark feelings that Edna has forgotten. When she returns to the city, Edna throws off the trappings of her old life-devotion to family, attention to societal expectations, and adherence to tradition-to explore independence in love, life, and sexual fulfillment.
An objective third person narrates the story of Edna Pontellier and her search for self in The Awakening. The narrator does not criticize or applaud characters for their traits or their actions. Most important, the narrator withholds judgment of Edna and the choices she makes.
The Awakening has taken on a new significance since the advent of the women’s movement. Literary debates have raged over the significance of Edna Pontellier’s awakening, her suicide, and the conflict between motherhood and career for women in the 19th century. Many critics feel that Edna’s suicide was an independent victory over society’s limitations. Others feel that she killed herself because she felt defeated by society and did not want to disgrace her children.
1. Research the Creole culture. Explain how Creoles have both Spanish and French ancestry and how that ancestry affects their lifestyle. Describe the culture through the customs and traditions honored by Creole descendants as well as through their routines of daily life.
1. Compare and contrast New Orleans’ Carondelet Street and New York’s Wall Street in 1899. Does Carondelet Street still exist?
Bayou Folk is Chopin’s 1894 collection of stories that present the people of Natchitoches Parish as they live and love in daily life. Chopin’s skill as a local colorist as well as an adept storyteller is evident in her perfect rendering of people, places, and events of the area and time. She uses universal themes, such as prejudice and interracial relationships, that are not common in regional fiction. Another of Chopin’s collections is A Night in Acadie, written in 1897. Critics recognize this collection, too, for Chopin’s skill as a local colorist. The difference in this collection and Bayou Folk is that in A Night in Acadie, Chopin’s characters express their individuality more and recognize and heed impulses that are socially unacceptable. Chopin emphasizes more sensuous themes, and reviewers voiced their concerns.