Places: The Awakening

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1899

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: Late nineteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Grand Isle

*Grand Awakening, TheIsle. Island resort in the Gulf of Mexico about fifty miles south of New Orleans, Louisiana, where Léonce Pontellier’s family stays in a summer cottage. Léonce goes to his office in Carondelet Street in the financial quarter of New Orleans during the week, returning to the island on weekends.

The Pontelliers do not have a happy marriage. Like most characters in the novel, Léonce is a Creole descendant of New Orleans’s original French and Spanish settlers, and he is quite content with his life. His wife, Edna, however, was raised in a Presbyterian home in Kentucky, and is restless under the restrictions of Louisiana’s patriarchal Roman Catholic society. At Grand Isle, she displays the first signs of independence and begins to become her own person–to “awaken.” She befriends Mademoiselle Reisz, whose creativity she admires, and carries on a summer flirtation with Robert Lebrun, a son of the property owner. She also spends time at the beach with Robert and her children, learns to swim, and even swims out far from the shore alone. Her resistance to Léonce has begun; she is, Kate Chopin writes, “like one who awakens gradually out of a dream.” Grand Isle thus represents her first feelings of freedom.

At the end of the novel, Edna returns to Grand Isle in the off season and, feeling no further possibilities in her life, removes all her clothes, swims far out into the sea, and drowns.

*Chenière Caminada

*Chenière Caminada. Island between Grand Isle and the Louisiana coast to which Edna, Robert, and others go by boat to attend mass on Sunday. After falling asleep during the service, Edna awakens and asks how many years she has slept. Chenière Caminada is one of many islands in this area that represent choices in life. Edna talks of going with Robert to look for pirate gold at Grand Terre, for example, an island adjacent to Grand Isle.

*New Orleans

*New Orleans. Colorful and culturally diverse Gulf port city, at the mouth of the great Mississippi River, where the Pontelliers own a charming home on Esplanade Street in the city’s most fashionable neighborhood. Pontellier is proud of his house, for he values all his possessions highly–including his wife, Edna. However, their life on Esplanade Street feels increasingly restrictive to Edna after the family’s summer on Grand Isle. Regarding her home as a prison, she starts to break free, first by failing to be “at home” when other women call, and then by beginning an affair with the experienced playboy Alcée Arobin. New Orleans is thus the hub of the repressive Creole society Edna seeks to flee.

Pigeon House

Pigeon House. Smaller house into which Edna moves after failing to find freedom in her own home, even when her husband and children are away. Edna is happy in her new surroundings: “Every step which she took toward relieving herself from obligations added to her strength and expansion as an individual.” The house thus represents her physical removal from conventional and repressive Creole society.

Garden restaurant

Garden restaurant. Suburban restaurant in which Edna runs into Robert, and their affair seems about to begin. However, Robert is a product of the same Catholic and patriarchal Creole society that produced Léonce and would not think of taking another man’s property–unless to make her his own property. Edna feels trapped by every relationship; only when she is away from the city–as when she is on Grand Isle or in this garden restaurant–does she begin to feel her true nature.

Edna’s childhood home

Edna’s childhood home. House in Kentucky bluegrass country in which Edna grew up and about which she often thinks. Her last thoughts in her life return there, to the site of her early romances and happiness. It is not her childhood family that matters to her, for she later argues with her father and refuses to go to her sister’s wedding. Rather, the Kentucky home and her Presbyterian upbringing signify Edna’s differences from both her husband and most of the other Creoles in New Orleans. “She is not one of us; she is not like us,” the Creole woman Madame Lebrun warns her son–meaning, she is not from New Orleans Creole society.

Suggested ReadingsBloom, Harold, ed. Kate Chopin. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. A collection of ten critical essays on Chopin’s works, with considerable discussion of The Awakening. The editor’s introduction contains a thought-provoking comparison of The Awakening with the poetry of Walt Whitman.Bonner, Thomas, Jr. The Kate Chopin Companion: With Chopin’s Translations from French Fiction. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988. An attractive and useful volume consisting mainly of a dictionary of characters, places, titles, terms, and people from the life and work of Chopin. Most of the translations are of stories by Guy de Maupassant, including “Solitude,” which is essential reading for anyone wishing to understand Chopin’s psychological outlook.Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. Edited by Margaret Culley. New York: W. W. Norton, 1976. Contains fifteen essays or critical excerpts and ten 1899 reviews. Also contains background material on the situation of women in Chopin’s time.Ewell, Barbara C. Kate Chopin. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1986. A biography of Chopin which surveys her writings in their entirety. Ewell emphasizes that The Awakening is Chopin’s best-known and most important creation but represents only a portion of her total achievement as a writer. This excellent study also contains a chronology, a bibliography, and comprehensive endnotes.Fryer, Judith. The Faces of Eve: Women in the Nineteenth Century Novel. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976. A chapter describes Edna Pontellier as the first woman in American fiction who is a fully developed character.Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1981.Keesey, Donald, Comp. Contexts for Criticism. 2d ed. Mountain View, Calif.: Mayfield, 1994. Considers The Awakening from the perspectives of historical, formal, reader response, mimetic, intertextual, and poststructural criticism.Martin, Wendy, ed. New Essays on “The Awakening.” Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1988. A collection of four essays about Chopin’s novel with a lengthy introduction by the editor, who provides an overview of Chopin’s life and work. Each essay offers a distinct point of view; together they are intended to represent the best contemporary ideas about The Awakening by the so-called New Critics.Platizky, Roger. “Chopin’s The Awakening.” The Explicator 53, no. 2 (Winter, 1995): 99-103.Seyersted, Per. Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969. Reprint. New York: Octagon Books, 1980. An excellent biography by an authority on the author who served as editor of The Complete Works of Kate Chopin, published by Louisiana State University Press in 1970. Seyersted was influential in bringing Chopin back into the literary spotlight as a feminist writer of the first rank.Toth, Emily. Kate Chopin. New York: William Morrow, 1990. An exhaustively researched book regarded by many critics as the definitive biography of Chopin. Toth identifies real-life models for Chopin’s literary characters. Many photographs are included.Ziff, Larzer. The American 1890’s: Life and Times of a Lost Generation. New York: Viking Press, 1966. A social and literary history of the decade. Depicts Chopin as an artist and a pioneer in women’s rights.
Categories: Places