Episode 17

The Awakening, by Kate Chopin

Published on: 16th March, 2021

Amy: Welcome to Breaking Down Patriarchy! I’m Amy McPhie Allebest. Just this past week I received an email from a friend who has been listening to the podcast, and she said that these essential texts have been helping her make sense of things that she hasn’t been able to make sense of, and helping her feel validated and empowered… so of course I was so thrilled and gratified, because that’s the effect these books have had on me too, and that’s why I’m doing this project. In her email she said “ I feel like I’ve woken from a deep sleep and have been starving for this knowledge.” Today we will be reading a passage from a book where the main character literally and metaphorically wakes up from a deep sleep, and she’s literally and metaphorically starving. So I think a lot of our listeners will relate to this text! It’s “The Awakening,” by Kate Chopin, published in 1899. The setting is similar to the one in “The Yellow Wallpaper” last week - it’s the United States in the late nineteenth century -  but Kate Chopin has a unique perspective as a Southern writer, and her story caused a huge scandal when it was published. It talks about adultery and women’s sexuality, so it flagrantly challenges the social norms of the day. Also the book is considered hugely important because it represents the rich inner world of a woman’s thinking and it carved new paths for authors who came after her. But before I get ahead of myself, I want to introduce my reading partner today, Shauna Rensch. Hi, Shauna!

Shauna: Hi, Amy!

Amy: Shauna and I met through our husbands - my husband Erik and Shauna’s husband Danny work together at chess.com, and they are like brothers. And then in recent years, Shauna, you and I have gotten to hang out, and we can bond about how ridiculous our husbands are when they’re together. And I also think you are so smart and well-spoken, always weighing in on any topic with really informed insights. I’m so excited to have you join me for this discussion - thank you so much!!!


Shauna: Thanks for having me. I’m really excited to be part of this project with you. I’ve really learned a lot from listening to the other episodes. Especially because I felt like it was a lot of things that I kind of knew but definitely didn’t have the real facts to back it up or hadn’t heard the real stories about why certain things were true.


Amy: Before we talk about Kate Chopin and “The Awakening,” can you tell us about yourself?


Shauna: Sure. I was born in the suburbs of Chicago and lived there until the end of high school. I was raised by a single mom after my parents divorced when I was 7. This was very impactful as I saw her reinvent her life post divorce. She started her own graphic design company which made it possible for her to work from home while raising me and my three younger siblings. We all moved in with my grandparents after the divorce and lived close to them until my grandma passed away when I was 17. They helped raise me and were a very big part of my life. My grandma was a school teacher which I think is part of the reason I was drawn to teaching. 


My family moved to Arizona right after I graduated high school. I started dating my husband when I was 19 and was at ASU trying to decide what I wanted to do. I jumped from wanting to be a naturopathic doctor to spanish translator and had finally settled into teaching when I got married and had my first son at 22. Since I was two years through college and couldn’t figure out how to do student teaching while wanting to stay home with him, I decided to take a break. My husband taught chess lessons and we ran tournaments on the weekends. When I was pregnant with my second I decided to finish my bachelors and picked a humanities degree so I could complete it online. I graduated when he was 9 months old. It was nowhere near where I started but was great for me because it gave me a lot of appreciation for history and writing that I didn’t have previously. Then I took tests to get highly qualified so I could teach at a charter school. I taught for 6 years and then I went back to school online and got my teaching certificate by completing a Masters degree in elementary education between my third and fourth kids. So now I have two boys (15 and 12) and two girls (9 and 5). I officially shifted into being a stay at home mom the last few years which has been a big change for me. I’ve always had a job in some way or been in school. The last year has been a major overhaul in my life, as it has been for many people, and now I’m just looking to transition into whatever this next stage of life brings.



Amy: And then really quick, your thoughts on Patriarchy or on this project. What interested you in doing an episode?


Shauna: Well, as I said I was raised by a single mother. Her parents were first generation immigrants. Their parents had all moved to the United States from Greece. My parents divorced when I was 7 and my mom moved us all in with my grandparents while she got on her feet. This was really interesting because I grew up watching different generations with very different beliefs dealing with each other. They were Greek orthodox but my mom hadn’t stayed part of the church and raised us to be more spiritually centered. Living with them felt like a clash of worlds and made me understand a lot about my mom and her rebellion. She was the first in her family to marry a non-Greek and then the first to get a divorce. But she was a warrior. And a lot of her fight was with patriarchy. She grew up with a lot of cultural norms that diminished her value because she was a woman. And I grew up with a lot of family stories about the negative effects of these practices on the women in my family. She wasn’t given a middle name because she was a girl but her brothers had middle names. Her grandmother had three girls and by the time she had her third, I was told, she wouldn’t even hold her because she was so upset about not having a son. My mom talked to us about her pain in this way and really wanted something different for us. And it made me aware of male dominance in the world around me. My mom passed away last year, very suddenly from cancer and it made me reexamine the stories and attitudes in my family and what I am passing onto my children, the girls and boys. I want to be a part of bringing more understanding to the systems and stories we are taught within our individual families and from the larger society. Especially the ones that seem to limit us or box us in, as a woman or a man. \


Amy: Thanks, etc. :) Now as a set-up to this famous novella, let’s learn about Kate Chopin.


Amy: Bio of Chopin


Chopin was born Katherine O'Flaherty in St. Louis, Missouri, on February 8, 1850. Her father, Thomas O’Flaherty, had immigrated from Galway, Ireland. Her mother, Eliza Faris, was a well-connected member of the French community in St. Louis. The family was Roman Catholic, following their French and Irish traditions. At the age of five, Kate was sent to Sacred Heart Academy, where she loved to read, how to handle her own money and make her own decisions - we talked a bit about nuns a few episodes ago, and how women  had more autonomy in convents than they did in the outside world, and apparently they passed on some of that skill and independence to their pupils, even if they didn’t become nuns!


Upon her father's death, Kate was brought back home to live with her mother, her grandmother, and  her great-grandmother, comprising three generations of women who were widowed young and never remarried. So between the convent and her family life, she was surrounded by relatively independent women. For two years she was tutored at home by her great-grandmother, who taught her French, music, and history. After those two years, Kate went back to Sacred Heart Academy, where she had a wonderful teacher who guided her to write regularly and to develop her critical thinking skills. 


In St. Louis, Missouri, on June 8, 1870, Kate married Oscar Chopin and settled with him in his home town of New Orleans. Kate gave birth to their first baby the following year, and in total had six children in eight years. Then, the year the last child was born, in 1879, Oscar Chopin's cotton brokerage failed.

The family left New Orleans and moved to Cloutierville, to manage several small plantations and a general store. They became active in the community, which was what was then called “Creole” society, meaning at the time, ethnic and culturally French. (Important to note that “Creole” today usually means biracial people who are of European and African descent. But in Chopin’s day and time it meant white, French people, so when she refers to “Creole” in the book, that’s what it means.)

In 1882 Kate’s husband Oscar died. She was 32 years old, with six children from age 12 to 3. And when Oscar died he left her $42,000 in debt (which would be approximately $1 million today). For awhile the widow Kate ran Oscar’s business, and a scholar named Emily Toth describes that Kate “flirted outrageously with local men; (she even engaged in a relationship with a married farmer)." Although Chopin worked to make her late husband's plantation and general store succeed, two years later she sold the business and moved to St. Louis to live by her mother. Her children gradually settled into life in St. Louis, but Chopin's mother died the following year.

Chopin struggled with depression after the successive loss of her husband, her business, and her mother. And this is so interesting, especially in context of last week’s episode on “The Yellow Wallpaper”: Chopin went to her obstetrician and family friend, Dr. Frederick Kolbenheyer for help with her depression, and he suggested that she start writing, believing that it could be therapeutic for her, that it would be an outlet for her energy, and that it could be a source of income. So maybe St. Louis was different from the East Coast, or it was super good luck to find an open-minded doctor. But either way, whereas Charlotte Perkins Gilman was prescribed the “rest cure” and told to “never pick up pen and paper again” when she had severe depression, Chopin was prescribed exactly the opposite, and told to write.

And thank goodness she was, because by the early 1890s, Chopin's short stories, articles, and translations were appearing in periodicals, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper, and in various literary magazines. She was considered a regional writer who provided “local color” as kind of a niche “Southern genre.” And her strong literary qualities were mostly overlooked.

But nevertheless, she was published in prestigious national magazines like The Atlantic Monthly and Vogue, and a collection of her short stories was published by Houghton Mifflin with very good reviews.

In 1899, her second novel, The Awakening, was published. Some newspaper critics reviewed the novel favorably, but most condemned it as being vulgar and immoral and offensive.  Chopin's treatment of female sexuality, motherhood, and marital infidelity were wildly out of step with the cultural norms of the time. 

The book was out of print for several decades, but it was rediscovered in the 1970s, when there was a wave of new studies and appreciation of women's writings. The novel was then reprinted and was critically acclaimed for its writing quality and importance as an early feminist work of the South.

Although interestingly, I read a few articles on Chopin, and she did not describe herself as a feminist and she was not even in favor of women’s suffrage. Which just goes to show that human beings are complex and can only go so far.

Anyway...

While visiting the St. Louis World's Fair on August 20, 1904, Chopin suffered a brain hemorrhage. She died two days later, at the age of 54. 


So as Shauna and I organized our thoughts, we decided it would be helpful to offer a quick synopsis of the story so there’s a framework of characters and events, and then we’ll analyze the themes. So spoiler alert!! If you haven’t read the book, go read it right now!! I didn’t know the ending when I read it and I was really glad I didn’t. So listeners, you have been warned. Shauna, could you give us the outline of the story?



Shauna: Of course. 

The novel opens with the Pontellier family—Léonce, a New Orleans businessman of Louisiana Creole heritage; his wife Edna; and their two sons, Etienne and Raoul—vacationing on Grand Isle at a resort on the Gulf of Mexico managed by Madame Lebrun and her two sons, Robert and Victor.

Edna spends most of her time with her close friend Adèle Ratignolle, who cheerily and boisterously reminds Edna of her duties as a wife and mother. At Grand Isle, Edna eventually forms a connection with Robert Lebrun, a charming, earnest young man who actively seeks Edna's attention and affections. It seems casual at first but Edna begins to think of him more and as they separately realize their infatuation, Robert senses the doomed nature of such a relationship and flees to Mexico under the guise of pursuing a nameless business venture. The narrative focus moves to Edna's shifting emotions as she reconciles her “womanly” duties with her desire for social and sexual freedom to be with Robert.

When summer vacation ends, the Pontelliers return to New Orleans. Edna gradually reassesses her priorities and takes a more active role in her own happiness. She starts to isolate herself from New Orleans society and to withdraw from some of the duties traditionally associated with being a wife and mother at that time. Léonce eventually talks to a doctor about diagnosing his wife, fearing she is losing her mental faculties. 

The conversation they have is interesting as it’s two men’s perception of the changes in her attitude and character. The doctor wonders about what influences she’s been exposed to and asks. “Has she,” asked the Doctor, with a smile, “been associating of late with a circle of pseudo-intellectual women – super-spiritual superior beings? My wife has been telling me about them.” (66). The doctor advises Léonce to let her be and assures him that things will return to normal. Here’s how he phrases his recommendation. “Pontellier,” said the Doctor, "...Woman, ...is a very peculiar and delicate organism – a sensitive and highly organized woman, such as I know Mrs. Pontellier to be, is especially peculiar. It would require an inspired psychologist to deal successfully with them. …Most women are moody and whimsical. This is some passing whim of her wife, due to some cause or causes which you and I needn’t try to fathom. But it will pass happily over” (66). The fact that their conversation is limited to seeing change caused by a shift in her mental state and they dismiss trying to understand her because they are not psychologists objectifies her to a machine that is just on the fritz but will eventually get back to “normal”. But back to the story...

Léonce prepares to travel to New York City on business and his mother comes to take the boys to her home. Being left home alone for an extended period gives Edna physical and emotional room to breathe and reflect on various aspects of her life. (This reminded me of your reference to “free space” in a previous episode which is required for personal reflection which women were generally unable to have). While her husband is still away, she moves out of their home and into a small bungalow nearby. She wants to establish her own space that is not supported by her husband’s income and material possessions. Here she also begins an affair with Alcée Arobin, a persistent suitor with a reputation for being free with his affections. 

Edna also reaches out to Mademoiselle Reisz, a gifted pianist whose playing is renowned but who maintains a generally hermetic existence. Her playing had moved Edna profoundly earlier in the novel, representing what Edna was starting to long for: independence. Mademoiselle Reisz focuses her life on music and herself instead of on society's expectations, acting as a foil to Adèle Ratignolle, who encourages Edna to conform. Reisz is in contact with Robert while he is in Mexico, receiving letters from him regularly. Edna begs Reisz to reveal their contents, which she does, proving to Edna that Robert is thinking about her.

Eventually, Robert returns to New Orleans. He is at first aloof and finds reasons to avoid Edna and she is heartbroken. After a few meetings her apparent unhappiness softens his guard and they admit their feelings. He admits that the business trip to Mexico was an excuse to escape a relationship that would never work.

After a first kiss between them in which he laments about her belonging to Leonce and her claiming her independence, Edna is called away to help Adèle with a difficult childbirth. Adèle suspects Edna’s affair and  pleads with Edna to think of what she would be turning her back on if she did not behave appropriately. When Edna returns home, she finds a note from Robert stating that he has left forever, as he loves her too much to shame her by engaging in a relationship with a married woman.

In devastated shock, Edna returns to Grand Isle, where she had first met Robert. Edna reflects on her position in life as a confined woman through marriage and motherhood and without seeing any way to feel fulfilled without causing pain to those around her, she decides that her only escape is to drown herself in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. She swims out with no plans to return and slowly lets the water take her.


Amy: Soooo sad!!! Ack!! Ok. Let’s talk about three main themes. First, we’ll talk about the patriarchal constructs at play in these characters’ lives. Then we’ll talk about motherhood, then we’ll talk about some of the...

Next Episode All Episodes Previous Episode

Listen for free

Show artwork for Breaking Down Patriarchy

About the Podcast

Breaking Down Patriarchy
An Essential Texts Book Club
Breaking Down Patriarchy is a podcast for everyone! Learn about the creation of patriarchy and those who have challenged it as you listen to bookclub-style discussions of essential historical texts. Gain life-changing epiphanies and practical takeaways through these smart, relatable conversations.

About your host

Profile picture for Amy Allebest

Amy Allebest

I grew up in Colorado as the oldest of 5 children, reading, writing, drawing, singing, and practicing the piano and violin. I attended Brigham Young University, where I met Erik Allebest during my first week of freshman year, studied abroad in Israel, lived in Chile for a year and a half as a missionary, and married Erik all before graduating with a degree in English. Erik and I moved around - to Colorado, Southern California, Utah, Spain, and Northern California - while Erik started and ran chess businesses for a living (primarily chess.com) and I stayed home to raise our four children. Those four kids have become brilliant, hilarious people and are our very best friends. I am a long-time trail runner, a recent CrossFitter, a lifelong reader and writer, and an almost-graduate of Stanford University's Master's of Liberal Arts program.