Kate Chopin's The Awakening: A Sourcebook

By Janet Beer; Elizabeth Nolan | Go to book overview

Key Passages

Chapter One

In this first, brief chapter, Chopin manages to communicate a great deal of information about the life of her heroine, Edna Pontellier, whilst also establishing many of the dominant themes in the novel.

The image of the caged bird with which the novel opens has often been commented upon. References to flight and entrapment recur throughout the text resonating symbolically with the predicament of Edna Pontellier; for instance, as she walks to her death at the end of the novel a bird with a broken wing circles down to the water before her. Also introduced here is the language of possession; Mr Pontellier is said to look at his sunburnt wife 'as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage'. As Edna returns from the sea she puts her wedding ring back on, taking it from her husband 'silently'. This is the first in a series of removals and restorations of the clothes and jewellery which signify her position as a married woman. Léonce Pontellier is here delineated, as he will be throughout the novel, as a man absorbed by the world of business, the company of men, financial autonomy and the pursuit of extra-familial pleasures. He is described here and elsewhere as a generous man but one who is largely absent.

Robert Lebrun, seen for the first of many times returning from the beach with Mrs Pontellier, is set up as a ladies' man; he admits 'quite frankly' that he prefers the company of women in general and Mrs Pontellier in particular. In Creole society the role of resort bachelor was deemed to be harmless to married women; there are intimations here, however, that the intimacy between Robert and Edna will take an inappropriate turn. Many of the other people introduced here have important structural roles but are not fleshed out as characters. The woman 'telling her beads' shadows Edna throughout her time on Grand Isle, counting off her prayers whilst Edna moves further and further away from the teachings of the church. The Farival twins are young girls on the threshold of womanhood, encouraged to parade their accomplishments but to remain otherwise silent. Similarly the 'quadroon nurse' and her charges, the Pontellier children, are described, but remain substantially in the background; in other words, Edna's distance as a mother is reflected in the organisation of the narrative.

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