Kate Chopin's The Awakening: A Sourcebook

By Janet Beer; Elizabeth Nolan | Go to book overview

Introduction

The Awakening has its own unique style; it is written in a lyrical, sensuous language which is, in a number of ways, closer to poetry than to prose. The chapters are sometimes only one paragraph long; sometimes they extend to three or four pages. The organisation of the text does not conform to that which most of us would find familiar in the nineteenth-century novel in terms of length and detail. This text relies on other means to establish scene, setting and character. Some individuals depicted in the novel have a representative function, for example, the woman in black who seems to dog Edna's footsteps on Grand Isle, or the lovers who fail to be unobtrusive everywhere they go. The commentary here also gives an account of the role of the major players in the story of Edna Pontellier's awakening and pays particular attention to the catalytic effect of her friendships with Mademoiselle Reisz and Madame Ratignolle, looking in detail at her encounters with these women. Mademoiselle Reisz figures throughout the text as a representative of the woman who has managed to find a role for herself outside the conventional constraints of marriage and motherhood. She is an artist but her life is not glamorised by Chopin; rather the opposite, as Mademoiselle Reisz is portrayed as ugly and bad-tempered, living in inconvenient and insalubrious accommodation, and pursuing her independent existence at the cost of friends, family and comfort. The life she leads gives Edna an insight into the kind of maverick existence of the woman artist. Madame Ratignolle, similarly, has a presence as a richly rounded character but also as a symbol of the most stereotypical 'mother-woman', a warm and fluffy individual, devoted to the care and support of her husband and children to the exclusion of all else. She is an entirely domestic creature and as such stands in sharp contrast to Edna Pontellier.

To understand the tenor of Chopin's novel it is best to look at complete chapters; in this way the interest and excitement of her highly original style is not fractured. She structures the text in short sections and so it is possible to engage with an individual chapter as a lyrical whole. Whilst it is not practical or appropriate to include every chapter, gaps in continuity are addressed by commentary provided in headnotes.

To work with unbroken text has the additional advantage of allowing extensive commentary on the structure, themes and language of the novel. The selection of

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