The Awakening | Study Guide

Kate Chopin

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The Awakening | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


As Robert Lebrun confesses his love for Edna Pontellier in Chapter 36 of The Awakening, what does he reveal about his hopes for their future, and why is this significant?

In Chapter 36, in the midst of Edna and Robert's professions of love, Robert says he hopes Léonce Pontellier will set her free so they can pursue the "wild dream" of Edna becoming his wife. This shows he can only think of one acceptable outcome of a romantic relationship: marriage. It's dramatically ironic because readers know, while Robert does not, Edna is soured on the whole idea of marriage, not just marriage to her husband. When Robert suggests marriage, Edna brushes it off as a silly suggestion and declares her intention to never belong that way to a man. Robert's dream is a wedge between them.

Why does Madame Ratignolle suggest that Edna Pontellier is "like a child" in Chapter 33 of The Awakening?

Madame Ratignolle makes this assessment of Edna after Edna tells her about the pigeon house. Madame Ratignolle is concerned that Edna will be staying alone, and there's already been talk about possible involvement with Alcée Arobin. She thinks Edna is not considering the harm to her reputation that living alone might cause. She tells Edna that she is like a child because she seems "to act without a certain amount of reflection which is necessary in this life." Madame Ratignolle's impression is that Edna is impulsive and emotionally driven, giving no thought to how her actions impact those around her or even her own safety and reputation. This impression is generally correct. Edna is impulsive and quite self-centered.

How might Edna Pontellier's suicide be seen as a sacrifice of life but not of self in The Awakening?

In Chapter 16 Edna Pontellier tells Madame Ratignolle, "I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn't give myself." Unfortunately Edna finds herself caught between giving her life and giving her self. Her true self is not motherly and does not want to be subject to the demands of marriage. But her life demands that she fulfill the roles of mother and wife. She chooses not to give up her self. She spends time alone and slowly lets go of her marital and parental responsibilities, but her affection for her children tugs at her. In the end she chooses to give up her life rather than succumb to the overwhelming pull of motherhood.

How is wing imagery important in Kate Chopin'sThe Awakening?

Wing imagery is related to bird imagery, and both are associated with women in The Awakening. Wings are an important part of the mother-women imagery in Chapter 4; mother-women are "fluttering about with extended, protecting wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened their precious brood." This image is extended to suggest the wings are angelic. In Chapter 27 Mademoiselle Reisz checks to see if Edna Pontellier's wings are strong, saying, "The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth." At the end of the novel wing imagery suggests Edna is broken by the demands placed on her: "A bird with a broken wing was beating the air above, reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water."

How does Chopin use art and music to develop Edna Pontellier's character in The Awakening?

There are three main avenues through which art and music weave throughout the novel, and all of three develop Edna Pontellier's character. First, Mademoiselle Reisz's piano music stirs Edna's imagination and awakens something in her. Edna's own art—her sketches and paintings—become more important as the novel progresses, moving from a hobby to a passion. Second, she focuses her energy on her art during the tumultuous time between returning to New Orleans and moving to the pigeon house. Her art is related to her quest for individuality and her own identity. Third, the little tune Robert Lebrun sings on the boat from the Cheniere to Grand Isle represents her continuing attachment to Robert. She sings it herself as she paints in her studio, and she makes Victor stop singing it when it brings up unpleasant feelings of loss related to Robert.

What is the effect of the sensory language in the final paragraph of Chapter 39 of The Awakening?

The novel's final paragraph is laden with images related to sight, smell, sound, and touch. Edna Pontellier is looking into the distance, but her other senses take her into the past, into her childhood: her "father's voice and her sister Margaret's"; "the barking of an old dog that was chained to the sycamore tree"; "spurs of the cavalry officer clanged"; "the hum of bees, and the musky odor of pinks." These remembered sensations create a disconnect between the external reality—Edna is drowning—and the internal reality—a summer day in childhood. The images suggest Edna has come full circle—from childhood back to childhood. They also suggest Edna's desire to return to a time before she became a mother and wife—an impossibility Edna cannot accept.

How does Mrs. Highcamp's presence develop the idea of the "mother-woman" in The Awakening?

Mrs. Highcamp is portrayed as a woman who uses her daughter as an excuse to be in the company of attractive men: "She had a daughter who served her as a pretext for cultivating the society of young men of fashion." Mrs. Highcamp is not a major character, but her presence does provide another dimension to the "mother-woman" concept—calling it into question from another angle. Since her daughter is of an age to meet available men, it is completely normal for Mrs. Highcamp to escort her in society. Yet readers are told that she has an ulterior motive. This shows that even mothers who adhere to socially acceptable behaviors may be selfish. Edna Pontellier allows her inward selfishness to drive her external actions and attitudes; those like Mrs. Highcamp cover their selfishness with a veneer of propriety.

What is the significance of ending The Awakening in the same setting where it began?

Edna's awakening begins on Grand Isle, and her time there is rich with the imagery of sleeping and waking as well as of the sea. Bringing Edna back to Grand Isle to complete the story suggests that her awakening is complete—she fully understands the feelings that arose in her during the summer and were so confusing at the time. It also suggests that Edna does see her own death as a kind of freedom, or even rebirth, since the ocean comes to symbolize both of these things over the course of the novel. Chopin even uses some of the same words to emphasize the way that Edna's understanding has grown. The following words appear in both Chapter 6 and Chapter 39: "The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude" and "The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace." The repetition—in very different contexts—suggests that Edna understands more deeply, or differently, in Chapter 39 what she experienced at the beginning of her awakening.

At what point in The Awakening does Edna Pontellier decide to commit suicide?

It may seem that Edna Pontellier makes up her mind at the last minute since she appears to be lighthearted as she talks to Victor Lebrun on Grand Isle. However, there is strong evidence she makes up her mind before arriving at Grand Isle: "She had done all the thinking which was necessary after Robert went away, when she lay awake upon the sofa till morning. ... Despondency had come upon her there in the wakeful night, and had never lifted. There was no one thing in the world that she desired." During that night she comes to see her children as antagonists who want to make a slave of her, and she devises a "way to elude them." She doesn't think of these things as she walks down to the beach because she doesn't need to—she has already decided what she is going to do.

How does Edna Pontellier feel, physically, when she wakes up after her long nap on the Cheniere, and when does she experience a similar sensation in The Awakening?

When Edna Pontellier wakes up from her nap at Madame Antoine's, she is wide awake: "Her eyes were bright and wide awake and her face glowed." She is also extremely hungry, and she eats the food left out for her with enthusiasm: "Edna bit a piece from the brown loaf, tearing it with her strong, white teeth. She poured some of the wine into the glass and drank it down." Edna also feels wide awake and ravenous after spending the evening with Alcée Arobin and Mrs. Highcamp; she is "neither tired nor sleepy" and is "hungry again, for the Highcamp dinner, though of excellent quality, had lacked abundance." In both cases feeling simultaneously hungry and wide awake come with the prospect of a romantic or sexual relationship. Edna's day on the Cheniere with Robert is filled with the promise of romance, although it becomes complicated later. The day at the races with Alcée Arobin and Mrs. Highcamp is the beginning of her affair with Alcée.

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