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The Awakening | Discussion Questions 1 - 10

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What does Léonce Pontellier's first interaction with his wife, Edna, reveal about their marriage in Chapter 1 of The Awakening?

As Edna Pontellier and Robert Lebrun arrive at the cottage from the beach in chapter 1 of The Awakening, Léonce Pontellier says, "What folly! to bathe at such an hour in such heat!" This reveals he feels free to criticize her actions as "folly" even when they simply differ from his own choices. He then says, "You are burnt beyond recognition." As he makes these comments Mr. Pontellier is "looking at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage." In other words he feels he owns Edna. She wordlessly looks at her burned skin and then accepts her rings back from her husband, showing she is content to accept his criticisms—at least for the time being.

What figurative language does Chopin use to describe the sea in Chapter 6 of The Awakening, and what is the effect of this description?

Chopin makes lavish use of personification in Chapter 6 of The Awakening as she describes the sea. Most prominently, the sea is described as having a voice. It is a relentless voice that reaches to the most inward parts of a person: "never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation. The voice of the sea speaks to the soul." This description suggests the sea is godlike and can instill greater spiritual awareness in those who heed it. To Edna Pontellier the sea offers an awakening to greater individuality. Chopin also likens the sea to a lover: "The voice of the sea is seductive." At the end of the chapter the sea takes on even more human attributes; it has a body as well as a voice, and it can touch a person with the caress of a lover: "The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace." It offers Edna an awakening to greater sensuality.

What is Madame Ratignolle wearing when she and Edna go together to the beach in Chapter 7 of The Awakening, and what does this attire suggest?

Madame Ratignolle is dressed head to toe in "pure white," and her dress is lush with draperies and "a fluffiness of ruffles that became her." She has a veil around her head and gloves on her hands. Unlike Edna Pontellier, she clearly cares very much about avoiding the effects of sun exposure on her skin. She is thorough and disciplined in her adherence to social expectations, which includes protecting her pale skin. The fluffy, pure white attire also suggests she is an angelic being: feminine perfection itself. Edna is also wearing white clothing, but hers has a stripe of brown and does not completely cover her. Next to Madame Ratignolle's perfection, Edna's feminine image seems slightly impure.

How do Madame Ratignolle's and Mademoiselle Reisz's piano playing compare in Chapter 9 of The Awakening?

In Chapter 9 of The Awakening both Madame Ratignolle and Mademoiselle Reisz play piano for the assembled guests. Madame Ratignolle plays to facilitate dancing and admits she has kept up on her music "on account of the children ... because she and her husband both considered it a means of brightening the home and making it attractive." She chooses to play a waltz because it suits the party. When she plays most people dance. In contrast Mademoiselle Reisz consents to play because she likes Edna. Edna asks her to choose a piece that pleases her: she "begged that Mademoiselle Reisz would please herself in her selections." Rather than make music for the whole party or for the children, Mademoiselle Reisz chooses music that resonates with her. When she plays people react with great emotion and passion; the music "aroused a fever of enthusiasm." Edna weeps.

What is the significance of the memory Edna Pontellier shares with Madame Ratignolle in Chapter 7 of The Awakening?

In Chapter 7 Edna Pontellier shares a childhood memory of walking through "a meadow that seemed as big as the ocean" and making swimming motions with her arms as she made her way through the grass, "which was higher than her waist." She says she "could see only the stretch of green" directly in front of her, and she "must walk on forever, without coming to the end." This memory comes to her because it is similar to how she feels about learning to swim. The image of continuing forward "without coming to an end" as the grass comes up over her waist is similar to the final image of the novel, in which Edna wades, then swims, out to sea without stopping. The memory gives some insight into Edna's state of mind as well. She tells Madame Ratignolle she had been walking in the meadow "following a misleading impulse without question" and sometimes she still feels she "were walking through the green meadow again; idly, aimlessly, unthinking and unguided." Edna's awakening comes in stages; the first stage is an emotional awakening that comes without conscious thought. Her later sexual awakening is similarly tied to instinct and impulse rather than careful thought. Both walking through the meadow and swimming, then, symbolize Edna acting on her feelings and struggling to move forward without really seeing what is ahead of her.

What is the significance of Edna Pontellier's breakthrough in swimming ability in Chapter 10 of The Awakening?

All summer Edna Pontellier has been trying to learn to swim, and she hasn't been able to do it on her own. She is used to having someone else's hand on her, helping her stay afloat. Finally, after the party at which Mademoiselle Reisz plays piano, Edna, "with a sweeping stroke or two," succeeds in swimming on her own. She is exhilarated and joyful because swimming independently is a way of taking control of herself; she feels that "some power of significant import had been given her to control the working of her body and her soul." However, she quickly becomes overconfident and reckless: "She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before." When she has more power, she assumes more risk and puts herself in danger: "A quick vision of death smote her soul" as she realizes she has gone too far out. This small episode echoes the overall trajectory of Edna's awakening in the novel. She plunges into her individuality with reckless abandon, only to find herself overwhelmed; she learns leaving behind social structures means she has no structures at all. As she reaches "for the unlimited in which to lose herself," she does eventually lose herself.

How is the trip to the Cheniere in Chapter 12 a metaphor for Edna Pontellier's life journey in The Awakening?

In Chapter 12 Edna Pontellier sets sail with Robert Lebrun for the Cheniere, and as they sail across the water Edna feels "as if she were being borne away from some anchorage which had held her fast, whose chains had been loosening—had snapped." Setting out across the water feels like a symbolic action to her, as if she were leaving her old life behind and heading into something new. She feels "free to drift whithersoever she chose to set her sails," and she enjoys it. She and Robert talk about a fantasy future together, as if her husband and children do not exist. They make romantic plans to find treasure together by the light of the moon: "Then I'll take you some night in the pirogue when the moon shines." Sailing away from Grand Isle represents Edna's emotional journey away from her old self and its trappings—namely her children and her husband. The trip shows she desires instead a future with Robert.

Why does Edna Pontellier distinguish between her "life" and her "self" in Chapter 16 of The Awakening?

This distinction comes up because Edna Pontellier and Madame Ratignolle are having a discussion about their children. Madame Ratignolle maintains a mother's highest duty is to give up her life for her children if necessary. Edna Pontellier says she would give up her life but not her self. Unlike Madame Ratignolle, Edna sees a difference between the self and life. She can imagine giving up her physical body for her children but not her inner self, her identity. This is one of Edna's core inner conflicts because she does not feel naturally connected to her children. As she discovers her true self, she realizes motherhood really is not part of her identity.

How and why does Léonce Pontellier's attitude toward Edna Pontellier change when the family moves back to New Orleans in The Awakening?

Léonce Pontellier is critical of Edna's parenting and her attentiveness to him on Grand Isle. He is annoyed when he comes in late and she remains half asleep as he talks about his evening; he finally invents an imaginary crisis to make her get up. However, he largely ignores or accepts that she spends her time with Robert, listening to Mademoiselle Reisz's piano playing, and swimming. He doesn't expect her to perform domestic oversight; presumably Madame Lebrun oversees the cooking and cleaning personnel. Edna spends most of her time as she pleases, while her husband spends time in other pursuits. Back in New Orleans society is far more structured, and women are saddled with many more expectations. Mr. Pontellier becomes exasperated by Edna's desire to spend her time as she pleases because this means she is not performing her wifely and motherly duties as society expects. Mr. Pontellier even considers there may be something medically wrong with Edna when she won't attend to the social calls and visits so important to his reputation and standing in New Orleans society.

How do Edna Pontellier's various residences reflect her journey in The Awakening?

As the novel begins the Pontelliers are vacationing on Grand Isle, where they have rented a cottage at Madame Lebrun's resort. The cottage is in an idyllic natural setting, and Edna Pontellier has access to wide open spaces and the expansive sea. From this residence, so close to the wildness of nature, the setting moves to the house on Esplanade Street—a grand mansion in the city of New Orleans filled with beautiful objects. Then, in an attempt to achieve independence Edna moves to a smaller house known as the pigeon house. The cottage on Grand Isle is the setting of Edna's first awakenings. She becomes aware of her own individuality and begins to adapt her outward life to her inward one. The proximity to the sea, a potent symbol of life and rebirth, highlights Edna's "rebirth" as an individual. The natural setting also reflects the way Edna begins to experience natural inclinations and passions; these seem to bubble up from her inner self and emerge unexpectedly, sometimes to her great confusion. The urban, structured New Orleans setting contrasts with Grand Isle's nature, and here Edna's newly awakened self tests itself against the powerful force of societal expectation. The grand mansion is large, but it is her husband's property; it provides the illusion of freedom but is in fact restrictive. The pigeon house seems to offer Edna freedom from her husband's control, but it is much smaller, suggesting options for an independent woman are limited.

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