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The Awakening | Discussion Questions 11 - 20

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With what birds is Edna Pontellier associated in The Awakening, and what do these birds represent?

The first bird mentioned in the novel, the parrot, speaks loudly from its cage, disturbing the peace of Léonce Pontellier. This parrot represents Edna Pontellier, who is confined to her "cage" of social norms and increasingly disturbs the peace of her husband's privileged and conventional existence. Later Edna is represented by a pigeon when she goes to live in the "pigeon house." This small house is similar in many ways to the parrot's cage; however, a pigeon is a dull-colored bird and a parrot is a vibrantly colored bird, suggesting Edna is losing something vital as she continues her journey of self-discovery. Whether this is the loss of joy and beauty or the loss of womanhood's outward trappings is debatable, though both may be true. In the final scene Edna is represented by the broken-winged bird unable to sustain flight. This suggests Edna does not have the wherewithal to truly embrace her individuality and throw off the shackles of traditional womanhood. She tries, but she cannot fly with a broken wing.

How does the imagery of Edna Pontellier's wedding ring develop in The Awakening, and what does this development suggest?

The first rings described in the novel are those Léonce Pontellier returns to Edna Pontellier when she comes back from the beach in Chapter 1. After her husband draws attention to her sunburned skin, Edna notices her rings are missing, including her wedding ring. Silently accepting his criticism about her skin, she replaces the rings on her fingers. In this gesture the rings become symbolic of her husband's control over her. This scene is reversed somewhat in Chapter 17, when Edna removes her wedding ring and tried to crush it. She clearly associates the wedding ring with being trapped in a marriage she finds unsatisfying. Later in the chapter, she again replaces the ring on her finger.

How does the Victorian ideal of the "Angel in the House" apply to the main female characters in The Awakening?

The Victorian ideal of a woman whose self-sacrificing nature made her a tender mother and compliant wife was put into words by poet Coventry Patmore in his poem "The Angel in the House." The phrase caught on and became shorthand for a variety of behaviors considered becoming of the perfect woman. In The Awakening Chopin portrays Madame Ratignolle as the perfect angel in the house. A loving and attentive mother who produces a baby every few years and gives her entire existence to their care and to her husband's pleasure, she is even garbed in angelic white. Chopin describes Madame Ratignolle and women like her as "mother-women," saying, "they were women who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels." Chopin portrays Mademoiselle Reisz as the polar opposite. Mademoiselle Reisz, who first appears all in black, has chosen not to become a wife or mother, instead devoting all her energy to her music. The novel's main character, Edna Pontellier, is somewhere in between these two. She is not an angel in the house, but she is unwilling to forgo everything but her art, as Mademoiselle Reisz does.

In Chapter 9 of The Awakening what image does Edna Pontellier see when she hears Mademoiselle Reisz play the piece Edna calls "Solitude," and why is this image significant?

On Grand Isle Edna Pontellier makes a habit of listening to Mademoiselle Reisz practice piano, and the music calls up images to her mind as she listens. Edna calls one of the pieces "Solitude," even though it has another name. The piece evokes an image rich with foreshadowing: "When she heard it there came before her imagination the figure of a man standing beside a desolate rock on the seashore. He was naked. His attitude was one of hopeless resignation as he looked toward a distant bird winging its flight away from him." This image is significant for two reasons. First, it foreshadows the ending of the book, in which Edna strips off her clothes, watches a broken-winged bird plunge into the sea, and then swims out to sea herself. Second, the image contrasts sharply with the final moments of Edna's life. Edna imagines a man and a bird that flies away. In real life a woman (Edna) watches a broken-winged bird fail to fly. Edna can imagine a man symbolically leaving or being free to leave; she can't imagine a woman in the same position. She may find the imaginary man's solitude appealing and desirable, but she cannot have his solitude. When she stands in the very place her imaginary man stood and looks out over the same sea, the only solitude she can find is in death.

On the way to the Cheniere in Chapter 12 of The Awakening what does Robert and Mariequita's short conversation reveal about their perspectives on marriage?

This short conversation reveals Robert is uncomfortable with the idea of "running away" with anyone's wife. When Mariequita says that "Francisco ran away with Sylvano's wife, who had four children. They took all his money and one of the children and stole his boat," Robert quickly tries to make her stop talking: "Shut up ... Oh, hush!" Robert's awkwardness about the possibility of an extramarital affair or "running off" is important to the novel's resolution. The conversation also reveals a common opinion that romance and passion or love are not often found together. Robert and Mariequeta agree that the two people they see "leaning on each other" cannot be married—they seem too much in love.

How is the Ratignolle marriage portrayed in Chapter 18 of The Awakening, and what explains Edna's reaction to the couple's "domestic harmony"?

Both of the Ratignolles are portrayed positively in Chapter 18. Madame Ratignolle graciously accepts Edna Pontellier's gift of sketches; she "appreciated the gift far beyond its value." Monsieur Ratignolle's "cheerfulness was unbounded, and it was matched by his goodness of heart, his broad charity, and common sense." Their marriage is exemplary. Chopin says the Ratignolles "understood each other perfectly. If ever the fusion of two human beings into one has been accomplished on this sphere it was surely in their union." The food they serve at dinner is excellent and the conversation lively; Monsieur Ratignolle speaks with "animation and earnestness," and Madame Ratignolle is "keenly interested in everything" her husband says, even "chiming in, taking the words out of his mouth." Nothing in Chopin's description suggests a dark side to this marriage. Yet Edna is depressed by her dinner with them, and she pities Madame Ratignolle because the happy wife will never feel "anguish" or "delirium." Edna says the marriage "was not a condition of life which fitted her, and she could see in it but an appalling and hopeless ennui." Edna has such negative feelings about her own marriage that she cannot recognize happiness in another marriage. Instead of being happy that her friend has found contentment and recognizing that she herself has different needs, Edna simply feels put off by the whole scene of domestic bliss.

Why does Léonce Pontellier conclude that Edna is "not herself" in Chapter 19 of The Awakening, and how does the narrator refute this?

By this time Edna's behavior has become erratic. She has decided to do whatever she feels; she is driven by impulse, "lending herself to any passing caprice." She also refuses to do any of the things a married woman of her station is expected to do. Léonce Pontellier believes that she has "absolute disregard for her duties as a wife" and feels it is wrong that "a woman at the head of a household, and the mother of children, [would] spend in an atelier days which would be better employed contriving for the comfort of her family." He concludes she is "not herself" because she has never before neglected these duties. The narrator refutes this conclusion by saying Edna is not changing away from her old self; she is changing into her real self. Since her husband is not inside her mind he cannot see this truth: "he could not see that she was becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world."

What does Edna Pontellier sing as she practices her painting in Chapter 19 of The Awakening, and why is this song significant?

By Chapter 19 Edna has begin to focus on her artistic impulses. She has a little studio, and the household members act as models. As she works she sings "Ah! si tu savais!" The song triggers a memory of "the ripple of the water, the flapping sail," the "glint of the moon upon the bay," and the "soft, gusty beating of the hot south wind." The memory sends a "subtle current of desire" through her body. The song triggers this memory because Robert Lebrun sang it while he and Edna sailed home from the Cheniere. Edna associates the song with him and with the long day they spent together. After they got home she felt the "voice, the notes, the whole refrain haunted her memory." Even after Edna returns to New Orleans and resumes city life, this memory still haunts her. In Chapter 30 Victor sings the song at her dinner party; Edna finds it too painful and makes him stop.

In Chapter 21 of The Awakening how does Mademoiselle Reisz's apartment reflect her personality and situation?

One room of Mademoiselle Reisz's apartment is dominated by a large piano, with little else in it. She has another room for sleeping, and a third where she keeps a stove and often eats her meals. The apartment is "dingy," and her furniture, apart from the piano, is "battered." The apartment reflects Mademoiselle Reisz's personality; she is focused on piano and tends to neglect appearances. The apartment also reflects her situation; in some ways she has a very restricted life since society at the time offers women few options for expressing individuality. The small apartment reflects Mademoiselle Reisz's choice to give her attention to her music rather than expand her social opportunities through conventional means.

Why does Edna have mixed feelings about Mademoiselle Reisz in The Awakening?

In Chapter 21 Mademoiselle Reisz tells Edna, "I really don't believe you like me, Mrs. Pontellier," and Edna admits, "I don't know whether I like you or not." In Chapter 26 Edna has begun to find solace in Mademoiselle Reisz's apartment; although the pianist's personality "was offensive" to her, Edna continues to see Mademoiselle Reisz and invites her to the dinner party. Even then Mademoiselle Reisz is not a model party guest: she shuns conversation and focuses on the food and drink. Edna's mixed feelings may stem from her own struggles. She feels pulled toward Mademoiselle Reisz because the pianist represents the independence and strength Edna aspires to. Yet Edna is somewhat appalled by Mademoiselle Reisz's coarseness and the extreme version of the solitary and independent woman she represents.

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