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.
Edna does not fit in with the Grand Isle crowd. She is the only person at the hotel who is not a Creole, and she is embarrassed by the Creole society’s openness on subjects such as sex and childbirth. Edna’s discomfort with the Creole community is aggravated by a growing dissatisfaction with her socially-prescribed role as a “mother-woman,” a role that assumes that she will be completely fulfilled by caring for her husband and children. Instead of experiencing this fulfillment, Edna is restless and subject to spells of depression that she does not understand. Edna’s performance of her motherly duties does not satisfy her husband, either. On more than one occasion, he berates her for neglecting their children, and for being unconcerned about keeping up social appearances. For example, when Leonce returns from his club late one evening, he awakens Edna, telling her that one of their young sons has a fever. Edna believes that the child is perfectly well, since she had only put him to bed a few hours before. When Edna does not immediately spring from her bed to minister to her son, Leonce accuses her of neglect. Edna’s response is to cry long after her husband has smoked a cigar and gone to bed. Leonce’s scoldings begin to lose their effectiveness as the story progresses, however. The more Leonce chastises Edna for her shortcomings, the more resentful she becomes until she finally dismisses his complaints altogether.
Edna’s feelings of boredom grow, and the more restless she becomes, the more she finds herself drawn to Robert. The two become nearly inseparable, sitting together and talking in the afternoons, going to the beach to swim, and taking boat trips to neighboring islands. As Edna’s infatuation with Robert becomes obvious, one of Edna’s friends, Adele Ratignolle, warns Robert to stop flirting with Edna, because she is not like the Creole women with whom Robert has flirted in the past. Adele tells Robert that Edna is different because she might make the mistake of taking him seriously. Robert becomes angry at the suggestion that he is not a man who a woman should take seriously, but retreats from his position when Adele reminds him that should he allow himself to become involved with a married woman, he would not be worthy of the trust that the families at Grand Isle place in him. Adele’s warning may ultimately precipitate Robert’s premature departure from Grand Isle.
Edna’s restlessness leads to a series of emotional awakenings from which she begins to gain a sense of the parts of her life that she must cast off. These awakenings cause her to try to break away from the traditional role of wife and mother that turn-of-the-century society prescribed for women. Her first awakening occurs in chapter nine, when she listens to the artist Mademoiselle Reisz play the piano. Edna is “fond of music” because it allows her to enjoy pleasant mental images. She sits on the edge of the gallery during a gathering of all the vacationers. In this scene, she is poised on the edge of two worlds, the family-centered world of Creole society, and the enticing gulf, with its “mystic moon” which “speaks to the soul.” The “voice of the sea” exerts a strong influence on Edna throughout the novel, offering a salve to her restless spirit and “inviting” her “to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude” in an attempt to fulfill her inner self. As Edna sits looking out over the gulf and listening to the strains of Mademoiselle Reisz’s haunting music, Edna experiences the “first passion of her life.” Her awakening becomes apparent later in the evening as she effortlessly swims for the first time. Edna has tried to learn to swim all summer but has no success until after her awakening.
Following her initial awakening, Edna begins to depart from the prescribed “mother-woman” role. She returns to her family’s cottage after her swim, drained and tired after experiencing both the “unlimited” in which her “excited fancy” wished to “lose itself,” and a momentary flash of terror that she would be unable to regain the shore. Robert accompanies her to her cottage, where Edna reclines in a hammock, and Robert remains with her until the other bathers return from the beach. As he leaves, Edna experiences the “first-felt throbbings of desire” for him. She remains in the hammock after Leonce returns from the beach, despite his insistent demands that she enter the house and go to bed. She tells him to leave her alone, tired of his rude commands, and finally tells him that he should “not speak to [her] that way again” as she “shall not answer.” Only after her husband seats himself outside with her, smoking the cigars which are symbols of his overbearing masculinity, does Edna enter the house.
The next morning, Edna summons Robert, inviting him to accompany her to a nearby island, the Cheniere Caminada. While attending mass at the Cheniere, Edna becomes ill. Robert takes her to the home of Madame Antoine, who offers Edna a place to rest. Later in the evening, Madame Antoine tells stories of lovers and pirates that are so real to Edna that she can hear the “whispering voices of dead men and the clink of muffled gold.” As they return to Grand Isle late that night, Edna and Robert lay plans for other excursions together, and their conversation implies that they are each considering embarking on an affair. Shortly after their trip to the Cheniere, however, Robert suddenly decides to leave Grand Isle and go to Vera Cruz to seek his fortune with a family friend. Shocked by his abrupt departure, Edna begins to realize the depth of her feelings for Robert. He bids her a cold and distant farewell, which, coupled with his “unkind” departure, sends Edna into a depression from which she never fully recovers.
At the end of the summer, the Pontelliers return to their fashionable home in New Orleans. Edna’s malaise deepens, leading her to ignore her household responsibilities in favor of “lending herself to any passing caprice.” Edna neglects the supervision of the servants, leading to unpalatable meals. She paints and refuses to keep her “at home” days, demonstrating a general disregard for society’s conventions. When Leonce chastises Edna for “letting the housekeeping go to the dickens,” she does not become upset like she used to. Instead she tells Leonce to leave her alone because he “bothers” her. She begins roaming through the streets of New Orleans, on some days feeling happy and content, and on others feeling “unhappy, she did not know why-when it did not seem worthwhile to be glad or sorry, to be alive or dead.” The change in Edna becomes obvious to everyone around her, including her father when he comes to New Orleans for an extended visit. Edna in “some way doesn’t seem like the same woman.”
In the midst of Edna’s turmoil, Leonce departs on an extended business trip. During his absence, Edna sends her children to stay with their maternal grandmother and continues to live for herself. She begins attending the races and other social outings with Mrs. Highcamp, whom her husband has discouraged her from socializing with, and Alcee Arobin, with whom she ultimately has an affair. She decides to move from her husband’s home into a house around the corner, which is dubbed the “pigeon house” because it is so tiny. Before she leaves Leonce’s home, Edna hosts an elaborate dinner party for a selected few of her friends. She is the consummate hostess, making even the irascible Mademoiselle Reisz content, until Robert’s brother, Victor, begins singing a song that poignantly reminds her of Robert. The lethargy that she has suffered from since the previous summer once again falls over her, and when the young man refuses to stop singing the song, she becomes agitated and cries out for him to quit. The party breaks up quickly after her outburst. Leonce is horrified at her flouting of societal conventions, but rather than casting her out, he covers her social faux pas by making a grand spectacle of remodeling the family home.
Edna misses Robert sorely after his departure from Grand Isle, yet it is only in the presence of Mlle. Reisz-“that personality which was offensive to her,” but whose “divine art” reached Edna’s spirit and “set it free”-that she admits that she is in love with the younger man. Edna experiences a second epiphany as a result of Mlle. Reisz. As she continues to slide into despair during the New Orleans winter, Edna decides to find Mlle. Reisz. She begins spending time with the artist, listening to her play the piano. Upon learning that Robert has been writing to Mlle. Reisz, she begs for news of the young man. After Robert returns to New Orleans, Edna inadvertently meets him at Mlle. Reisz’s apartment; again, Mlle. Reisz unwittingly acts as a catalyst for Edna’s emerging sense of what she must do to ease her restlessness. Edna discovers that the young man has been avoiding her, and although they go to a cafe to have some coffee, they part on strained terms. They later meet, again by coincidence as Robert has continued to avoid Edna, in a garden coffeehouse, and this time he accompanies her to the pigeon house. Edna confesses her love and passion for Robert very openly, telling him that they will “love each other.” Just as they are on the verge of becoming intimate, however, Edna is called away to attend Adele who is giving birth to her fourth child. Robert begs Edna not to leave, but Edna feels compelled to sit with her friend. She leaves, promising to return shortly.
Edna finds Adele’s ordeal exhausting and emotionally draining, and as she leaves Adele’s bedside, the attending physician recognizes her turmoil. He speaks of the tricks that nature plays in order to get “mothers for the race,” and invites Edna to come and speak with him about what is troubling her. Still distressed by Adele’s pain, Edna returns to the pigeon house, expecting to find Robert. Instead, she finds a note which says “Good bye-because I love you. Good bye.”
Edna spends the remainder of the night lying on her sofa, thinking. In the morning, she goes to Grand Isle. She encounters Victor, and tells him that she is going to the beach for a swim. She requests that he find some lunch for her. She then goes down to the beach, strips her clothes from her body, and “stands as a newborn creature under the sky.” She walks into the gulf, which again “speaks to the soul, inviting the soul to wander in abysses of solitude.” She swims out quite far, not realizing until it is too late that she has no strength to return to the shore. She drowns in the gulf, remembering key events from her life, and through her death becomes one with the sea which has so affected her.
While the plot of the novel is common by today’s standards, it caused a huge commotion when Herbert S. Stone and Company published The Awakening in 1899. The book was removed from library shelves in Kate Chopin’s hometown of St. Louis, and the St. Louis Fine Arts Club expelled Chopin from its membership. Although there was some praise for the novel’s artistry and insight, critics generally denounced Chopin for her failure to condemn Edna’s actions and for allowing Edna to make her final choice in life.
As evidenced by the many reprints of the book, modern critics appreciate Chopin’s skill and artistry-particularly her use of psychological realism, symbolic imagery, and sensual themes. The feminist movement lauds Chopin’s portrayal of Edna and the restraints tradition places on women.