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The Awakening | Discussion Questions 21 - 30

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Why does Doctor Mandelet describe Edna Pontellier as a "sleek animal waking up in the sun" in Chapter 23 of The Awakening?

Upon arriving at the Pontellier home for dinner, Doctor Mandelet finds Edna Pontellier "excited" and "radiant." She is just back from the races, where she was introduced to Alcée Arobin for the first time. The doctor observes "there was no repression in her glance or gesture." Doctor Mandelet proves an extremely intuitive man; no doubt he has benefited from his long experience treating both men and women. Later he intuitively concludes Edna is having an affair, and he is quite close to the mark. He seems to see signs of Edna's awakening; he even uses the verb waking to describe what he senses about her. He uses an animal image to describe her, which suggests she is becoming more in tune with her "animal" nature; such language is later associated with Edna's sexual awakening, catalyzed by Alcée Arobin.

Why does Chopin include the lady in black and the two lovers among the characters on Grand Isle in The Awakening?

The lady in black and the two lovers form a set that almost always appears together in the novel. These characters are also guests vacationing on Grand Isle, but they should not be dismissed as random background figures providing scenery for more important events. The two lovers represent young love: the romance, passion, and utter devotion that is expected of a young couple. The lady in black is likely a widow based on her clothing; she does nothing but pray, attend church, and read religious texts. She represents the end of the path for the typical married woman; having established no independence or individuality, she ends her days alone in nunlike fashion. Chopin includes these three characters to develop the theme of women in society and to show some of the expectations Edna Pontellier is up against.

What does Edna Pontellier's first successful swim suggest about the trajectory of her story in Chapter 10 of The Awakening?

As soon as Edna Pontellier has success in her swimming, she feels an overwhelming sense of elation and freedom. As a result she swims out farther than she should, putting her life in danger. She makes it back to shore, but it is a close call and she is exhausted. This impulsiveness and tendency to follow any strong emotion plagues Edna throughout the novel. Even though Edna's quest for independence is admirable on many levels, she also engages in a certain amount of self-destructive behavior because she can't control how her inner self expresses itself externally. As the novel progresses it becomes clearer Edna is in over her head, metaphorically speaking, and struggling to remain afloat. The world she lives in offers little support for a woman who wants a life of freedom and self-determination, and ultimately she is overpowered by the conflicting demands of her inner self and society's expectations of women.

How does Edna Pontellier's role as a mother complicate her awakening in The Awakening?

For much of the novel Edna Pontellier's main conflict seems to involve her relationships with men. She is caught between her marriage to Léonce Pontellier and her growing romantic interest in Robert Lebrun. She chafes at the limitations of marriage and the expectation that a wife should submit in every way to her husband's wishes and whims. She longs for Robert when he goes away and is filled with anticipation when he returns. With all of this going on, it is easy to overlook the importance of motherhood to Edna's internal conflict. The novel reveals early on that she is not a typical "mother-woman," but this seems to leave room for her to be a different type of mother. She interacts with her children in a playful, uncomplicated way as she works at her art. However, after her children go to visit their grandmother, Edna begins to realize more fully that motherhood is not a good fit for her. She feels a strong attachment to her children only when she is around them. She enjoys being alone in the house without her husband or children. She is appalled during Madame Ratignolle's childbirth and haunted by memories of her own childbirth experiences. In the end she feels children are antagonists who want to overpower her and "drag her into the soul's slavery for the rest of her days." Edna's awakening reveals her true nature is not maternal, even though she is a mother. Ultimately she cannot reconcile these two facts.

How is Léonce Pontellier characterized as a husband in The Awakening?

Léonce Pontellier is characterized as a conventional husband for his time. He is not vilified, although he seems petty when openly criticizing Edna's performance as a wife and mother. It is clear he is a man who only expects what he has been taught to expect. Edna Pontellier doesn't focus her displeasure on him so much as on marriage in general. In many ways Chopin portrays Mr. Pontellier as a decent husband. He gives Edna plenty of gifts and money and tries to engage her in tasks he believes women enjoy, such as picking out decorative things for their home. Of course he can't fathom Edna's internal struggles, but he is willing to give her time and space at Doctor Mandelet's suggestion. He is locked into the same social structures that confine Edna, but since they don't interfere with his freedom he can't see his own privilege or her lack of it.

What evidence supports the interpretation that the mockingbird in Chapter 1 of The Awakening represents Mademoiselle Reisz?

Chopin uses birds—especially caged or confined ones—to symbolize women in the novel. The mockingbird's cage is near the parrot's cage; the narrator notes the mockingbird is the only creature who might comprehend the parrot, who speaks a "language which nobody understood." If the parrot represents Edna Pontellier, then Mademoiselle Reisz is the mockingbird, since she seems to be the only character who can understand Edna's awakening. In addition the "fluty notes" of the mockingbird suggest Mademoiselle Reisz's music, and the cage reflects Mademoiselle Reisz's small apartment and limited social circle as well as the restricted lives of women at the time.

How might Edna Pontellier's suicide in Chapter 39 of The Awakening be interpreted as a victory rather than a defeat?

Some critics believe Edna's final act is not one of failure but of victory. They argue Edna's awakening brings her a greater understanding of her own oppression, and since there is no path forward that will allow her to maintain her independence and individuality she chooses to throw off society's constraints by escaping to death. In death she is free. This reading casts Edna as bravely uncompromising rather than overwhelmed, opting to refuse the maternal obligations that threaten to hold her captive. This interpretation is supported by Edna's choice to strip off her clothes before entering the sea; this is a symbolic act of stripping off the external pressures of conformity and societal expectations. However, other evidence—such as the broken-winged bird—does not support this interpretation. It instead suggests Edna does not choose freedom but rather fails to fly.

Why does Madame Ratignolle beg Edna Pontellier to "think of the children" in Chapter 37 of The Awakening?

Madame Ratignolle is well aware of Edna Pontellier's discomfort with motherhood. She argues with Edna early in the novel about how much and what kinds of sacrifice a mother owes her children. Madame Ratignolle tells Edna to "think of the children" right after her own child is born. Swept up in the emotions of a mother who has just given birth, she appeals to Edna as one mother to another. Madame Ratignolle cannot understand what it is like to be a woman who doesn't want children or wishes she didn't have children. Her words demonstrate her disconnection from Edna's way of thinking and highlight Edna's isolation from other women. Madame Ratignolle's comment may also add to Edna's feelings of despair as she struggles with motherhood.

In The Awakening how do Edna Pontellier's feelings about Robert Lebrun while he is away in Mexico compare with her feelings when he returns?

In Chapter 34 Robert Lebrun has just returned from Mexico and runs into Edna at Mademoiselle Reisz's apartment. Robert and Edna go back to Edna's house and talk about Robert's time in Mexico. Robert mentions a Mexican woman he knew slightly, and Edna becomes jealous, but overall their conversation is polite and nothing more. The idea of Robert meeting other women makes Edna feel she has lost or could lose him, and his politeness keeps her at arm's length. While he is away Edna imagines a closeness between them that doesn't really exist. Without his presence she is free to see their situation in the most pleasant light. Now confronted with reality, she feels her happy fantasy melt away: "She had been with him, had heard his voice and touched his hand. But some way he had seemed nearer to her off there in Mexico."

What is Edna Pontellier's emotional state just before she meets Robert at the garden cafe in Chapter 36 of The Awakening, and why does she feel this way?

Edna Pontellier's affair with Alcée Arobin has satiated her newly awakened sexual appetite but has left her emotionally empty. Her emotions are attached to Robert Lebrun, who consistently avoids her. At the end of Chapter 35 she feels "no despondency," but she also feels no "hope." In Chapter 36 she has taken to eating by herself in an out-of-the-way garden cafe where she is unlikely to meet anyone she knows. Now doubtful of her future with Robert, she decides to protect her feelings by acting "indifferent and as reserved as he when she met him." When she encounters Robert in the garden cafe, she is in this state of hopelessness, feeling closed off from both Robert and Alcée.

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