The Awakening

by: Kate Chopin

Chapters I–V

Summary: Chapter IV

Léonce cannot explain why he always feels dissatisfied with Edna’s treatment of their sons, but he perceives a difference between his wife and the other women on Grand Isle. Unlike the others, who are “mother-women,” Edna does not “idolize” her children or “worship” her husband at the cost of her own individuality. Edna’s friend Adèle Ratignolle, who embodies all the grace and charm of a romantic heroine, is the prime example of the mother-woman. Back on Grand Isle, Adèle, Edna, and Robert relax, eating the bonbons Léonce has sent and conversing about Adèle’s sewing, the chocolates, and, much to Edna’s shock, childbirth. As a result of her marriage to Léonce, who is a Creole (a person descended from the original French and Spanish settlers of New Orleans, an aristocrat), Edna has spent a great deal of time surrounded by Creole women. Yet, she is still not entirely comfortable with their customs. Their lack of self-restraint in conversation is at odds with mainstream American conventions. Nevertheless, they somehow possess a quality of lofty purity that seems to keep them free of reproach.

Summary: Chapter V

Since early adolescence, Robert has chosen one woman each summer to whom he devotes himself as an attendant. As he sits with Edna and Adèle by the shore, he tells Edna of his days as Adèle’s attendant. Adèle jests that, at the time, she had feared her husband’s jealousy, a comment that inspires laughter because it was accepted that a Creole husband never has reason to be jealous. Adèle says that she never took Robert’s proclamations of love as serious confessions of passion.

Robert’s decision to devote himself to Edna for the summer comes as no surprise to those on Grand Isle. Yet although Robert devotes himself to a different woman every summer, his playful attentions to Edna differ from his treatments of past women, and when he and Edna are alone he never speaks of love in the same “serio-comic tone” he used with Adèle. Edna sketches Adèle while Robert watches. He leans his head on Edna’s arm until she gently pushes him away. Adèle is disappointed that the finished drawing does not resemble her, but she is still pleased by the work. Edna herself is unsatisfied. She smudges the paint and crumples the drawing.

Edna’s children bound up the steps with their nurse some distance behind them. They help Edna bring her painting equipment into the house and she rewards them with bonbons before they scamper away again. Adèle experiences a brief fainting spell, which Edna suspects may be feigned. After recovering, Adèle gracefully retires to her cottage, meeting her own three children along the way and receiving them with “a thousand endearments.” Edna declines Robert’s suggestion that they go for a swim, unconvincingly complaining that she is too tired. She soon gives in to Robert’s insistent entreaties, however, and he places her straw hat on her head as they move toward the beach.

Analysis: Chapters I–V

It is appropriate that The Awakening, which is essentially a novel about the social constraints of women in the Victorian era, opens with the shrieking complaint of a constrained parrot: “Go away! Go away! For God’s sake.” These words, the first in The Awakening, immediately hint at the tragic nature of the novel, as the bird echoes the phrases of rejection and rebuff that it has heard time and again. Although Madame Lebrun’s parrot speaks English, French, and “a little Spanish,” it also speaks a “language which nobody understood, unless it was the mocking-bird that hung on the other side of the door, whistling his fluty notes. . . .” Caged and misunderstood, the parrot’s predicament mirrors Edna’s.

Edna also speaks a language that nobody, not even her husband, friends, or lovers, understands. It seems that Edna must have a mockingbird-type figure, someone who understands her mysterious language as the mockingbird understands the parrot’s. Although we have not yet met her, it will soon become clear that, if the parrot stands for Edna, the mockingbird represents Mademoiselle Reisz, the unconventional and self-sufficient pianist who will inspire Edna’s independence later in the novel. Indeed, the parallels extend quite far. Like the parrot, Edna is valued by society for her physical appearance. And like the mockingbird, Mademoiselle Reisz is valued by society for her musical talent. Although the parrot and the mockingbird are different, the two birds can communicate since they share, like Edna and Mademoiselle Reisz, the common experience of confinement. The metaphor of the pet bird applies not only to Edna and Mademoiselle Reisz but also to most women in the nineteenth century. Never asked to voice their own opinions, these women were instead expected to repeat the ideas that society voiced to them through the bars of their metaphorical cages.