Tag Archives: The Awakening

The Awakening Pronunciation Guide


The Awakening‘s setting among New Orleans’ Creole community brings with it the inevitable wave of French names. Here is a brief pronunciation guide for major character and place names in the novel:

Alcée Arobin – al-SAY a-ro-BANH *

Chênière Caminada – shuh-ne-AIR* ka-mi-NAD

Lebrun – leh-BRUNH *

Léonce – LAY-ons

Pontellier – PAHN-tay-yay

Ratignolle – ra-tee-NYOL

Reisz – RICE

* In French, the final “n” or “r” sound would be pronounced toward the back of the mouth, almost as if it’s being swallowed.

Original cover of The Awakening at its publication in 1899.

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Kate Chopin Introduction

Kate ChopinKatherine O’Flaherty Chopin was born on February 8, 1851, in St. Louis, Missouri. The O’Flahertys were a wealthy, Catholic family. Her father founded the Pacific Railroad, but he died when Kate was four. Kate and her siblings were raised by their mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. These women proved to be strong role models. They encouraged Kate’s love of reading and storytelling. Kate was an average student at the convent school she attended. After her graduation, she became one of the belles of fashionable St. Louis society. She met Oscar Chopin, a wealthy cotton factor, married him after knowing him a year, and moved to New Orleans.

Oscar Chopin’s circle was the tight-knit French Creole community. Kate led a demanding social and domestic life because of her status. Unusually for the time, her husband was supportive of her independence and intelligence, and her storytelling gifts and her knowledge of French, English, and Creole made her a keen observer of  the local culture. She had much to draw from. Her husband’s business gave him prominence in the Creole community, and New Orleans was a city full of diversions, including horse racing, theater, music (Kate was an accomplished pianist herself), and, of course, Mardi Gras. norlhouseThe Chopins lived in three different houses in New Orleans; this one on Louisiana Avenue was the last. Like many wealthy families, they traveled by boat out of the city to one of the many small Gulf islands to vacation during the summer months. All of these experiences feature in Chopin’s stories and novels.

Oscar’s business failed in 1879. The family moved to their plantation in Natchitoches Parish near the small town of Cloutierville, which strengthened Kate’s connection to the Creole community and gave her more material to draw from. Malaria claimed Oscar’s life in 1880 at the age of 31. Kate moved back to St. Louis with their six children to draw support from her family and place the children in better schools than Cloutierville could provide. The loss of her mother a short time later added to her grief. A family physician suggested writing as an outlet, and Chopin’s literary career was born.

Chopin published her first story in the St. Louis Dispatch. Soon after, her first novel, At Fault, was published privately. Her prolific output over the next fifteen years includes nearly a hundred short stories for adults and children alike. The most famous of these, like “A No-Account Creole,” “Desirée’s Baby,” “The Story of an Hour,” and “A Pair of Silk Stockings” are set in the Creole community and explore its traditions and expectations, especially of the women concerned. Her story collections Bayou Folk and A Night in Acadie were nearly universally praised.

The publication of The Awakening in 1899, however, was a different story. Through its heroine, Edna Pontellier, The Awakening gave Chopin’s themes of independence, art, and possibility free rein. Edna’s decisions go against the expectations for women of the time. A few critics praised the novel’s artistry, but most were very negative, calling the book “morbid,” “unpleasant,” “unhealthy,” “sordid,” “poison.” Novelist Willa Cather labeled it trite and sordid. The overall view was that Edna’s decisions, which modern audiences view quite differently, as scandalous and unfeminine. Chopin was ostracized as a result. Her third story collection was refused by its publisher. The Awakening was removed from libraries for its scandalous content. Chopin herself never got over it; her writing output slowed to the point of cessation. Chopin bought a season ticket to the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis and visited on August 20, an unusually hot day. She took to her bed complaining of a severe headache that evening and lapsed into unconsciousness. Two days later, Chopin died, probably from a brain hemorrhage.

Awakening CoverIn 1969 Norwegian critic Per Seyersted wrote that Kate Chopin “broke new ground in American literature. She was the first woman writer in her country to accept passion as a legitimate subject for serious, outspoken fiction. Revolting against tradition and authority; with a daring which we can hardy fathom today; with an uncompromising honesty and no trace of sensationalism, she undertook to give the unsparing truth about woman’s submerged life. She was something of a pioneer in the amoral treatment of sexuality, of divorce, and of woman’s urge for an existential authenticity. She is in many respects a modern writer, particularly in her awareness of the complexities of truth and the complications of freedom.”

Chopin did not consider herself a feminist, but her themes of independence and women’s self-realization are stirrings of a movement that would resound throughout the twentieth century. She is now considered one of the essential authors of American literature.

Includes material from the Biography page of the Kate Chopin International Society.

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Video Study Guide: The Awakening

Alas, until Sparky Sweets, Ph.D. and the good folks at Thug Notes produce one for The Awakening, we’ll have to look for other sources. This video study guide from Brittany Reads is quite good. Check the file on YouTube for more links.


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A Middle-Class Wife

This essay appeared in the January 20, 1917 edition of The New Republic. Although its origins come some twenty years after the publication of The Awakening, many of the sentiments could have been uttered by Edna Pontellier. Consider the context and tone of the remarks to understand more about Edna’s state of mind.

A Middle-Class Wife
Alice Austin White

I HAVE two babies; I hope they may never know how warmly at this moment I hate them. I have a husband; we were married because we were very much in love-and him I hate too. I have a large stock of relatives, and them I hate with the heart and should hate with the hand if I had not the misfortune to be well brought up. This emotion of mine, especially in connection with my spouse and offspring, is, up to the present, local and temporary; indeed I think it will not grow into a permanent hatred, but will gradually assume two peculiar forms: toward my children a passionate and slavish devotion, which will make me resent my daughters-in-law; and toward my husband regards, reasonably kind, which will be reciprocated. My feeling toward my relatives, on the other hand, is becoming quite, quite fixed.

It is all the fault of the children. I wanted children very much; I am fond of children, mentally and physically; and the sheer normality of having them I rejoice in. Furthermore, having been an only child myself, I wanted my children close together so that they might enjoy one another all the way up. I seemed to think I could have babies as easily as a geranium has red blossoms. But I find they commonly come rather hard and that I am not the only woman who for months after a baby is born has an aching body and a dull mind and a defective sense of humor. During this period one’s husband is very fatherly toward one, and one begins to feel the small asp of hate nipping at one’s heart.

The semi-invalidated stage that I have gone through with each of my babies is well past: I am normally sturdy—I have to be. I shall not tell over the tale of the things there are to do, cooking and mending and washing and baby-tending. It happens that I relate my daily household misadventures in a way diverting to my relatives, and they think I dote on housework. A really model wife and mother, say my kin; so unexpected, they say, considering her education, and all. And when I crawl to bed at half past eight, no thought save detail of housework and child-rearing has found place in my mind all day; I have done no reading save snips from a book propped against the sink faucets while I washed dishes; and I have simply heard, not shared even mentally such stimulating conversation as my husband brings home to dinner.

I know house and children ought not to take all my day and all my strength. If I had had special training in domestic science and child-psychology and nursing I should doubtless be able to do my work in less time and with far less effort. But in college and university I flew straight in the face of providence, which is a war-name of advising relatives, and worked at mathematics, while in the spare time which I might have devoted to stray courses in home economics as a sop to the gods, I took ‘cello. Furthermore, I am glad of it. If I were to have a vacation tomorrow and a financial windfall, I should take two courses in mathematics at the university, and a ‘cello lesson a week, and bask in it as my sister-in-law does in chiffon underwear.

You ought to have help, say my relatives, and I add a verse to my hymn of hate for them. Among the qualities for which I love my husband are generosity, sensitiveness, modesty and conscientiousness, and I take it each of these characteristics has lower money-making value than the others. Some day when we have got middle-aged, we shall have the salary we need now; and just about that time our relatives will die and leave us money we could get on without. If I happened to be male instead of female, which God forfend, could double the family income by teaching at the university, but the university does not yet see its way to employing women on its teaching staff, and I therefore scrub the square of my kitchen floor instead.

The truth is, however, that it is not a floor-scrubber and dishwasher that I desire. I could get along with that work or leave it happily undone. It is the care of two children under three that concerns me. It is unremitting and nerve-tearing, and the day in and day out of it is under mining mercilessly my ability to be lovable and to love. Furthermore, I have not the qualifications that would justify entrusting me with sole responsibility for the growth of human beings. Maternal instinct I have in normal amount; I could be trusted to rescue my infants from a burning building, but that is a very different matter from knowing what to do with twenty-four hours’ worth of bodily and mental development every day. I do not want a nursemaid; I have no training for my job, but I have an occasional vagrant idea, and it does not appeal to me to exchange my services to my offspring for those of a hand-maiden with neither training nor ideas. The helper for me should be a trained psychologist, a child-lover, to be sure, but a child-lover with expert knowledge of the needs of growing minds. She should have also training in the treatment of the smaller physical ailments of children. She ought to cost me two thousand dollars a year, but in the present state of women’s wages I have no doubt I could get her for a thousand. And I want her only half the day-five hundred dollars. Our income is sixteen hundred.

Such a woman as I have in mind, however, take charge of a very appreciable number of children along with my important two. For five or six hours a day she could take care of a nursery-full, and still have time for life and love; while the sigh of relief that a mother breathes when she ties her son’s Windsor under his chin and posts him off to school would be breathed five years earlier. Indeed she might enjoy her children, and the sigh be dispensed with. Four hours a day of freedom for us educated, reasonably intelligent, good-stock, middle-class mothers—! The possibilities are limitless. We might even have more children.

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Femme de l’Intériure: The Creole Woman

angelAs the critic Per Seyersted phrases it, Kate Chopin “broke new ground in American literature. She was the first woman writer in her country to accept passion as a legitimate subject for serious, outspoken fiction. Revolting against tradition and authority; with a daring which we can hardy fathom today; with an uncompromising honesty and no trace of sensationalism, she undertook to give the unsparing truth about woman’s submerged life. She was something of a pioneer in the amoral treatment of sexuality, of divorce, and of woman’s urge for an existential authenticity. She is in many respects a modern writer, particularly in her awareness of the complexities of truth and the complications of freedom.” (The Kate Chopin International Society)

Edna Pontellier reveals this dynamic throughout The Awakening. The women around her represent two potential choices for her development. But in order to understand her journey, we have to understand her starting point. Victorian society in the United States demanded rigid, defined roles for both men and women. The ideal Victorian woman was exemplified by the English poet Coventry Patmore”s 1854 narrative poem “The Angel in the House.” The paragon of female virtue described in the poem, who Patmore based on his own wife, is a creature whose feminine beauty, virtue, attention to family, and devotion to husband set her apart from mere mortals (these expectations carried with them a suppressive, near overwhelming demand for perfection which few women could hope to maintain). When you add on the cultural expectations of New Orleans, you can see why change, for Edna, is a gradual process.

These expectations are laid out beautifully in the following 1901 excerpt from The Picayune’s Creole Cook Book, published in 1901 by the New Orleans Picayune, one of the three leading newspapers in the latter part of the 19th century. The Picayune was the first Southern daily to be published by a woman, Eliza Poitevent Nicholson, who took over the paper after the death of her husband in 1876.

The Creole mother eminently merits the term that was bestowed upon her long ago by a sweet Louisiana poet, and which has become a household word in the French Quarter, Femme de l’Intérieure. These words indicate her life, that beautiful, interior, hidden home life, not given to solving the many vexing questions of woman suffrage and woman’s rights, that agitate the minds of many of the sex in our day, for she is no aggressive competitor in the ranks and callings of men; she is indeed the “Femme de l’Intérieure”, the queen of the hearth and home. She holds the home as woman’s supreme sphere, her ideal realm, where Love is her throne, a throne reared in the hearts of her husband and children, and of which the attendant ministers are Purity, Truth and Fidelity. She is cultured, gracious, refined, as able to grace the parlor as she is capable of presiding in the kitchen; thoroughly conversant with all the leading topics of the day, with which she familiarizes herself, not that she may be regarded simply as a brilliant woman, not for the sake of argumentative discourse on public platforms, but for her own inner satisfaction and pleasure, and that she may be the fitting companion of her husband, the pleasing, intelligent confidant of her children, the wise and earnest director of their moral and intellectual aspirations and ambitions. And so her husband learns to look to his home during the weary working hours of the day as to a beacon star, for he knows that within bloom the fairest flowers of modest worth; the violet and the rose are there, the chrysanthemum and the lily, and those that bloom in God’s own garden shed not a sweeter fragrance than these heavenly exotics around the hearth of the true Creole home…


Essentially, Edna Pontellier has two choices for her life, as characterized by her two closest friends.

The Mother-Woman
Adèle Ratignolle


Young Mother and Two Children
by Mary Cassatt, 1905

Good mother
Inner peace


Repressed by society
Chained to husband
Child bearer


The Artist-Woman
Mademoiselle Reisz


Girl at the Piano
by Theodore Robinson, 1887

Devoted musician


Bitter and unfriendly
Scorned by society

Victorian family painting at top: “The Golden Butterfly – The Harvey Family.” John Henry Frederick Bacon (1868-1914)

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