The novel has been incredibly influential on American literature and feminist literature more broadly. It is certainly considered to be Kate Chopin’s best novel and is often cited as one of the most important feminist novels of the 18th century.
Chopin’s ‘The Awakening’ is read in schools and universities around the world and features at the top of many literature-lovers lists of the best English-language novels of all time. But it wasn’t always that way. When the novel was published in 1899, the literary community turned against Chopin, refusing her entrance into local groups and generally speaking out against her writing.
The progressive message the novel conveys about women’s rights and individual freedoms was considered by many to be morally corrupt.
Chopin uses a variety of themes in her novel; the most important are:
- Woman’s Right
We will explore these themes in more detail below and their importance in ‘The Awakening.’
Edna Pontellier’s desire to be an individual, separate from her identity as a mother and a wife, is the issue at the novel’s heart. Society was not accepting of this concept, and when it was put into practice (and Edna moved out of her family home), she was looked down on and judged in an incredibly cruel way. What should be a basic human right, the ability to pursue one’s individual passions and desires, was not something that 18th-century women had access to.
Women’s rights are a fundamental theme in this novel. Chopin’s novel was panned by critics when it was realized, and the local literary community passed cruel judgment on the author for the novel’s content. Her depiction of and focus on Edna’s desire for freedom, passionate love, and her disdain for her role as mother/wife meant that the novel was received quite poorly. In fact, the reaction Chopin got to the novel was so negative that it turned the author off writing, mostly for the rest of her life.
Related to the previous themes, freedom (specifically for women) is a very important part of the novel. The main character Edna battles with what she knows society wants her to do/be (a dedicated mother and wife who never questions her husband’s authority), and what she feels in her heart she should be (an artist and independent woman who loves who she wants to love).
Her desire to break out of her confining life as a mother and wife set her on a dangerous path, one that means she’s ostracized from her family and community and ends up alone and lost.
Key Moments in The Awakening
- Edna and her family are on vacation on Grand Isle.
- Her initial unhappiness is revealed.
- She goes on a walk with Adele (Madame Ratignolle).
- She attends a party at Robert Lebrun’s.
- Edna learns how to swim and is amazed by the ocean.
- She and Robert go to Grand Terre, where they visit Madame Antoine.
- Robert leaves Grand Isle to go to Mexico.
- Edna takes off her ring and stomps on it.
- The Pontellier family leaves for New Orleans.
- Léonce travels on business.
- Edna moves into a new home.
- She has an affair with Alcée Arobin.
- Robert returns home, and they confess their love for one another.
- Edna leaves home, and when she returns, Robert is gone again.
- She goes to the ocean and swims so far out to sea she can’t return.
- She presumably drowns.
Style and Tone in The Awakening
Throughout Chopin’s ‘The Awakening,’ the author uses a formal tone that feels quite serious and matter-of-fact, especially as Edna’s unhappiness is revealed. She used a third-person omniscient narrator that adds to the distance the reader feels, at times, from Edna and her family. It also adds to the overall feeling of Edna’s isolation from the rest of the world and her desire to be her own person.
Chopin sought to capture life as it was during the 18th century for women who, like Edna Pontellier, were incredibly unhappy in their lives as mothers and wives. For example, these lines in which Edna is considering her life, her family, and her identity (as quoted from The Awakening):
I would give up the unessential; I would give up my money, I would give up my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself. I can’t make it more clear; it’s only something I am beginning to comprehend, which is revealing itself to me.
Symbols in The Awakening
Chopin uses a variety of powerful symbols in this novel. They include:
- The Sea
- The Moon
We will explore these in more detail below, how they are used, and their importance in ‘The Awakening.’
The sea, or ocean, is one of the most important symbols at work in this novel. It represents possibility, happiness, and freedom to Edna while also feeling overwhelming and hard to understand. It’s particularly important when Edna learns how to swim (and the freedom she feels in that action) and at the end of the novel when Edna effectively commits suicide by swimming too far out to return to shore.
Edna’s art, and art in general, is a symbol of freedom and failure. She’s inspired by the idea of becoming an artist and pursuing a life fueled by individualism and creativity. But, as Madame Reisz tells her, it takes a great deal of strength to walk this path in the time they’re living. In the end, Edna’s strength fails her.
The moon is a symbol that appears a few times in the novel. The moon is referenced in times when Edna is feeling sexually connected to Robert (with whom she falls in love throughout the novel) and at moments of her utmost strength.
The many times that Edna sleeps throughout the novel are connected with her “awakening.” Often, revelations about her life and marriage come after she’s slept. She sleeps at odd times, something that’s often interpreted as a rebellion against the natural patterns of life and a way of standing up for her individual wants and needs.
What is the most important theme in The Awakening?
The most important theme of this novel will change depending on who is asked But, for many, the most important theme is individual freedom. For Edna, this means the ability to pursue her own passions. In the context of the novel, it results in her losing her family.
What is the irony of The Awakening?
The irony of this novel is deeply sad. Edna finally achieves the freedom she’s been hoping for, and as soon as she does, her depression and isolation become too much to handle, and she commits suicide.
What is the main conflict in The Awakening?
The main conflict in ‘The Awakening’ is between Edna (a symbol for women in the 18th century and throughout time) and society’s perception of how women should behave/live. Edna decides to try something different and pursue her individuality, leaving her husband and children. This results in her falling into a deep depression due to her new isolation.