The Awakening | Study Guide

Kate Chopin

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The Awakening | Chapter 1 | Summary

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Summary

The novel opens as Léonce Pontellier, a guest at Mrs. Lebrun's cottages on Grand Isle, attempts to read his newspaper in peace. Mrs. Lebrun's birds—a mockingbird and a colorful parrot—are making an annoying amount of noise in the main house, so Mr. Pontellier walks to his own cottage and settles into a rocking chair to read. Having only left New Orleans the day before, and since the newspaper is a day old, much of the news is old. As he reads he can still hear the sounds of the birds from the main house, as well as two girls playing a piano duet and Mrs. Lebrun's voice directing her servants. His two children play croquet with other children as their nurse supervises.

Mr. Pontellier begins to smoke a cigar and watches as his wife, Edna, and Robert Lebrun return from taking a swim at the beach and approach the cottage. As the two sit down on the cottage's porch steps, obviously having enjoyed themselves, Mr. Pontellier remarks that Edna is sunburned. Then he gets up to leave, saying his plan is to play a game of billiards. He leaves Robert and Edna at the cottage and tells his two children he will bring them presents, indicating he might not return in time for dinner.

Analysis

The first chapter of the novel introduces several main characters, a central conflict, and symbols that will be important to the book's main themes. The opening image shows Léonce Pontellier, a man of wealth and privilege, who has the freedom to find what he desires. In the moment what he desires is a peaceful setting in which to read and smoke. He is able to pick up and walk to a quieter location to satisfy this desire. In contrast are the birds in their cages. They have no freedom to move about as they please but are confined in a small space in a fixed location. This juxtaposition highlights the stark contrast between men's and women's roles in society: men have freedom to move and find what satisfies them, and women are confined to smaller spaces and more restricted roles. Birds will continue to symbolize women in the novel, and the theme of women in society will continue to develop.

Robert and Edna are introduced not as people but as a parasol, both a dehumanized "it" and a couple. Edna doesn't object when her husband chastises her about her sunburn; she accepts it without comment. The Pontelliers clearly have little affection for one another. Mr. Pontellier does not look forward to spending time with his wife, and Edna is indifferent to this. However, she obviously enjoys Robert Lebrun's company, and he hers. Edna's relationships—with her husband and with Robert—will be a focus of her emotional conflict throughout the novel.

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