Kate Chopin. Image from the archives of the Missouri Historical Society.
Credit: Courtesy of The Kate Chopin International Society.
Kate Chopin's The Awakening is a frank look at a woman's life at the turn of the 19th century. Published in 1899, Chopin's novella shocked critics and audiences alike, who showed little sympathy for the author or her central protagonist, Edna Pontellier. A master of craft, Chopin wrote a forceful novel about a woman who questioned not only her role in society, but the standards of society itself. In this lesson, students examine Chopin in context.
The websites used in the Activity provide a greater amount of detail—and complication—of literary realism of the 19th century, but the following two definitions serve as good starting points.
In its literary usage, the term realism is often defined as a method or form in fiction that provides a "slice of life," an "accurate representation of reality."
—from the Columbia Dictionary of Modern Literary and Cultural Criticism, ed. Joseph Childers and Gary Hentzi
Literary realism is a 19th century conception related to industrial capitalism. In general, it means the use of the imagination to represent things as common sense supposes they are.
—from Bloomsbury Guide to Literature, ed. Marion Wynne-Davies
Literary realism is a variable, complex, and often argued about concept. No one work is a perfect example of 'realism'—Lesson #2 allows students to read through some basic attributes of realist literature in order to use that context to examine The Awakening. Practitioners of a realist style in the American tradition include William Dean Howells, Mark Twain, and Henry James.
These two literary terms are often used interchangeably, and certainly they have many similarities. For the purposes of this lesson, students should not need to differentiate between the two, but for the teacher's clarity the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, excerpted in the EDSITEment reviewed website Documenting the American South, distinguishes them as follows:
Although the terms regionalism and local color are sometimes used interchangeably, regionalism generally has broader connotations. Whereas local color is often applied to a specific literary mode that flourished in the late 19th century, regionalism implies a recognition from the colonial period to the present of differences among specific areas of the country. Additionally, regionalism refers to an intellectual movement encompassing regional consciousness beginning in the 1930s.
In The Awakening, as well as her short stories, Chopin frequently focused on the Creole culture of Louisiana. Unique regional features included a heritage that drew from French and Spanish ancestry, a complex cast system, the settings of urban New Orleans and rural vacation retreats like Grand Isle (located on the Gulf Coast). Chopin's use of a culturally foreign protagonist - Edna was a protestant from Kentucky, rather than a French-speaking Catholic Creole like her husband—casts cultural differences into even sharper relief. Specific textual examples of Edna's encounter with Creole culture can be found in "Selected Passages" below.
Chopin's The Awakening is set in Louisiana—in the resort town of Grand Isle, as well as New Orleans. Often, the characters slip into French phrases, or Chopin uses words that might be unfamiliar to students—such as Creole or quadroon. Students should be encouraged to use either a print or online dictionary while reading—the Internet Public Library has several available, including Dictionary.com, which provides both English and French dictionaries.
Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and other useful websites. Download and print out documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
E-texts of The Awakening are freely available at the following locations:
The following information is useful for introducing and contextualizing the novel for students. The teacher may want to use these resources as the stage for a web research exercise, allowing some students to research aspects of Chopin's life, her environs and culture influences. Alternatively, the teacher might introduce the activities below with a brief lecture, drawing from the following resources.
American Authors on the Web, via EDSITEment-reviewed Center for the Liberal Arts, links to Dr. Ewell's Kate Chopin page, which has several images of Chopin, as well as the setting she wrote about—Grand Isle. (Note: the images include a hurricane map—in 1893 a large hurricane swept through that region.)
Chopin's novel, while universal in its themes, depends heavily on Louisiana Creole culture for its effect. French Creoles in Louisiana: An American Tale, curriculum developed by Harriet J. Bauman for the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, has a great deal of useful information about Creole culture, available through Domestic Goddesses: AKA Scribbling Women (a link from EDSITEment-reviewed Kate Chopin: A Re-Awakening). The Encyclopedia of Cajun Culture, available through EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library, has brief essays on a variety of relevant topics, including the meaning of Creole and Cajun.
Students may wish to compare Chopin's representation of Creole culture with George Cable's Who Are the Creoles?, which was published in 1883 (and available through the American Memory Project). Cable's article is lengthy, but the first few pages provide some description of Louisiana, and images (engravings) of old New Orleans and other sites are interspersed throughout the remainder of the article (which deals predominantly with the history of Louisiana Creole culture). The article extends from page 384 to page 398. The introduction and Section VII: "What is a Creole?" (which begins on page 395) serves as perhaps the most useful for reference or review.
If students engage the material via online web research, then they might write up a brief summary of Chopin and/or Creole culture (approx. 250 words) to turn in. How does Chopin's life situation contribute to the circumstances of writing something like The Awakening?
If the teacher lectures based on the above (and other resources), the teacher can give a short quiz or assign a brief report.
Even though Chopin did not claim to be a suffragist, study of the Suffragist movement is very relevant to her body of work. Study of the movement not only highlights some of the biases against women at the time, but it also illuminates Edna Pontellier's struggle for a non-traditional place in society. EDSITEment has several lessons that deal with the Suffragist movement that might be incorporated into this lesson:
The following lessons were developed for grades 6–8, but can be adapted for use in grades 9–12:
1-2 class periods