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The Awakening | Discussion Questions 41 - 50

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What do Robert Lebrun and Alcée Arobin mean to Edna Pontellier in The Awakening, and how are the men similar and different?

Robert Lebrun is the focus of Edna's romantic love. She longs to be with him, and he kindles her sexual desire though their relationship is never consummated. Alcée Arobin is a seductive lover who sees Edna's developing sexuality and engages her in a sexual affair. In some ways Alcée stands in for Robert in Edna's mind: she does with Alcée what she cannot do with Robert. The two men are different in that Robert will flirt with married women but not seduce them, while Alcée does not draw this line. They are similar in that both would prefer the relationship with Edna to be on their own terms and bristle when Edna takes control of the relationship and sets its boundaries.

What settings and events is the "mystic moon" associated with in The Awakening?

The moon is mentioned many times in the novel, all while the Pontelliers are at Grand Isle, before returning to New Orleans. In Chapter 9 the moon is described as having a "mystic shimmer" on the night that Mademoiselle Reisz plays piano, and as the group walks down to the water it is again called a "mystic moon" lighting the "mystic hour." As the group walks to the beach where Edna will finally succeed at swimming, "the white light of the moon had fallen upon the world like the mystery and the softness of sleep." Robert tells Edna a story about a spirit that rises up when there is a moon and puts people under spells—and suggests that Edna is under its spell. Under this moon Edna experiences "the first-felt throbbings of desire" for Robert. After Robert and Edna spend their day together, the moon makes an appearance on the way home, and Robert again refers to the "spirit." Under this moon "a subtle current of desire passed through [Edna's] body." Thus the moon is associated with Grand Isle, with Edna's first milestones in her awakening, and with her desire for Robert.

In Chapter 11 of The Awakening why does Edna Pontellier refuse to come inside even when Léonce Pontellier insists on it?

On the night of her first successful swim, Edna decides to rest in a hammock outside the cottage rather than go inside. When Léonce Pontellier insists Edna Pontellier come inside, she stubbornly refuses: "I don't wish to go in, and I don't intend to." Residences of all sizes represent confinement, from the bird cages to the cottage on Grand Isle to the various homes and apartments in New Orleans. And at this point Edna is already feeling oppressed by Léonce's attempts to assert his will over hers. By refusing to go inside she is symbolically choosing to stay outside and be free rather than return to the limited and confining cottage. She prefers the colder, dirtier hammock's freedom to the clean comforts of confinement.

Given the setting of The Awakening, how is it impractical for Edna Pontellier to continue sexual activity outside her marriage?

Aside from the social taboo of such a situation, there would have been practical concerns, including pregnancy. Methods of contraception were available in the late 1800s, but these were imperfect compared to today's methods. The Catholic Church has a dim view of contraception, and so even the imperfect contraceptive methods might have been difficult to come by. It is likely that had Edna wanted to continue seeing a man without being married she would have eventually borne another child, or more than one. It is easy to forget this aspect of the story's setting given how modern readers may take effective contraception for granted. However, such factors might have played into Mademoiselle Reisz's decision to forego men altogether, and Edna's decision to end her life.

What is the purpose of including so many of Edna Pontellier's memories of past infatuations in Chapter 7 of The Awakening?

In Chapter 7 of the novel Edna recalls several infatuations she had before she was married. The first was a "dignified and sad-eyed cavalry officer who visited her father in Kentucky." The second was a "a young gentleman who visited a lady on a neighboring plantation." The third was a "great tragedian," whose photo she had but whom she never actually met in person. Her infatuation with the tragedian had a "persistence" that "lent it an aspect of genuineness." All of these infatuations are one-sided; they are examples of Edna's feelings for men she sees but never gets to know. They are feelings for an imagined person rather than a real one. Their inclusion seems to serve the purpose of establishing a pattern of behavior. Edna has a history of building a fictional version of a man in her imagination and falling in love with it. This is largely what happens with Robert, especially when he is away in Mexico.

In Chapter 1 of The Awakening what is the significance of Mademoiselle Reisz's reply when Edna Pontellier asks if she can visit again?

When Edna Pontellier is on her way out after becoming emotional reading Robert's letter and listening to piano music, Mademoiselle Reisz says, "Come whenever you feel like it. Be careful; the stairs and landings are dark; don't stumble." Like many of Mademoiselle Riesz's words, these feel like a warning that applies to more than the practical situation at hand. Edna has rejected many of the typical hopes and dreams of the future, and the typical social norms for a woman in her society. Without these familiar things to light her path into the future, she is metaphorically looking into the dark. She must be careful not to stumble and fall.

What does Madame Lebrun's parrot say in Chapter 1 of The Awakening, and how does this speech apply to the novel?

The parrot says "Allez vous-en! Allez vous-en! Sapristi! That's all right!" Translated from French it means something like "Go away! Go away! Good Lord!" (Sapristi is a French idiom of exasperation derived from a reference to God or Christ.) In the moment it is applicable because Mr. Pontellier does go away, as ordered. To the novel as a whole it is applicable because the parrot represents Edna, who does tell her husband to "go away" in various ways throughout the novel. She also tells many others to go away by her words and actions, and so ends up alone.

How does Edna Pontellier's discomfort with Creole society in The Awakening reveal an important inner conflict?

Edna Pontellier grew up in Kentucky and married into the wealthy Creole society of New Orleans. Her discomfort with Creole social norms is described toward the beginning of the novel, as Robert Lebrun and Madame Ratignolle are much more talkative on topics Edna's upbringing led her to think of as private, such as romantic affairs and pregnancy. Edna's approach to life, until the novel's events, has been to conform outwardly but to think freely. However, this great divide between inner and outer existence is a source of conflict within her as she seeks to bring them into alignment. It is far more difficult for Edna to reconcile her inner and outer selves because she has never expressed herself freely.

What is the importance of women's clothes in The Awakening?

In the novel clothes represent the behavioral expectations imposed on women by Victorian social norms. Thus Madame Ratignolle is always perfectly attired, and Mademoiselle Reisz seems to care little and wears shabby, unflattering clothing. Edna Pontellier, who spends the novel shedding behaviors that are imposed on her from without, also removes more and more clothing during the novel's events. For example, in Madame Antoine's she loosens her clothing before removing "the greater part of them." Then she "took off her shoes and stockings" before taking her nap. At the end of the novel she first removes her clothing, replacing it with a bathing suit. When she peels off this final bit of clothing, she is naked. This symbolizes Edna's removal of the last trace of Victorian social norms.

In Chapter 11 what does Mademoiselle Reisz play after Chopin's "Impromptu," and how does this reflect events in The Awakening?

After Chopin's "Impromptu" Mademoiselle Reisz plays "the quivering love notes of Isolde's song." This refers to Wagner's opera Tristan and Isolde, in which an Irish princess named Isolde marries King Marke but is in love with the king's nephew, Tristan. The two have a secret meeting, and the king catches them. Tristan is wounded in a fight with some of the king's friends. He dies, and Isolde decides to kill herself to be with him in the afterlife. Isolde and Edna Pontellier have a few things in common. They are married women in love with men who are not their husbands. Both cannot be with the men they love in this life. Both end their own lives.

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