Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 3: Kate Chopin's "The Awakening": Searching for Women & Identity in Chopin's "The Awakening"

Tools

The Lesson

Introduction

Kate Chopin. Image from the archives of the Missouri Historical Society.

Kate Chopin. Image from the archives of the Missouri Historical Society.

Credit: Courtesy of The Kate Chopin International Society.

By studying other female characters in The Awakening, students will see how Chopin carefully provides many examples of a socially acceptable "role" that Edna could adopt (of course, to the betrayal of her "awakening")—a perfect mother and wife, like Madame Ratignolle, an independent but somewhat ostracized "old maid" like Mademoiselle Reisz (who represents, in part, the artist), the "flirt" like Mariequita, one of the "young lovers" (they are never seen apart, and never described as independent of the other), a pious, almost single-mindedly religious, woman like the "lady in black," a servant to her children like the quadroon nurse, and so on. The novella, then, both portrays regional stereotypes while also criticizing cultural attachment to those stereotypes.

The men, likewise, operate as catalysts for these choices. Edna's husband, Leónce, and her children create the space for Edna to be like Madame Ratignolle. Alcée's presence allows her to be in a somewhat thrilling, but ultimately empty extra-marital relationship. Her romance with Robert is a particularly compelling complication: is there the danger of Edna and Robert becoming like the inseparable "young lovers"? Or could the relationship simply become like her affair with Alcée? Will she simply find herself in the role, once again, of "faithful wife" that she wanted to escape?

Given the severe reaction critics and readers initially had for The Awakening, Edna's choices were not regarded as popular or moral. What options did Edna have available to her?

Students should be encouraged to explore reasons why Edna and Robert's relationship may or may not work—what hints does Chopin leave for us, as readers, to help understand Edna's ultimate suicidal choice?

Guiding Questions

  • How does The Awakening speak to the roles of women and the conventions of literature at the end of the 19th century?
  • How does Kate Chopin use other characters in The Awakening in order to cast Edna Pontellier's desires—and social limitations—in sharp relief?

Learning Objectives

  • Reflect on how culture and setting plays an important role in a novel, especially in local color and regional literature
  • Analyze Edna Pontellier's character development specifically in relation to other characters in the novella and generally in relation to women's roles in 19th-century America

Preparation Instructions

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.

Download, print, and copy for students the PDF used in the Activity.

NOTE: if students are unable to access the online version of the text for class in order to search, or if you would like to combine that activity with notes students take while reading, then this assignment could be given out prior to—or while reading—The Awakening so that students can make note of relevant sections as they progress through the novella. The students should then come to class with at least two passages relevant to the character, at which point they will work on the questions.

Electronic Texts

E-texts of The Awakening are freely available at the following locations:

[Technical Instructions: In a web browser, you perform a text search by selecting the Edit menu, then selecting Find, then typing or pasting the search term into the box]

Examples of Possible Passages for Use in the Activity

The third paragraph of Chapter IV begins: "In short, Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother-woman." The chapter continues with an in-depth exploration of this concept that should prove to be particularly relevant to the conversation.

Edna's relationship to her children is a complex one, however; a wonderful passage to explore this issue—and the possible reasons for Edna's final choice—can be found in Chapter XVI, which relates a conversation between Edna and Madame Ratignolle. Edna states: "I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn't give myself."

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Kate Chopin's Characters

Students will track other characters in the novel, charting their relationship to Edna Pontellier. Chopin uses Edna's relationships to others to help explain what roles she does not want to fall into—an 'old maid' like Mademoiselle Reisz, a 'perfect mother' like Madame Ratignolle, a mistress to Alcee Arobin, and so on. Using one of the following e-text versions of The Awakening, students can perform a search using some of the names in order to better find passages specific to the characters they are examining. Two e-texts are available for use:

[Technical Instructions: In a web browser, you perform a text search by selecting the Edit menu, then selecting Find, then typing or pasting the search term into the box]

Instructions: Use the following table (by printing out this page), or download the "Activity 1. Kate Chopin's Characters" PDF file or an online MarcoPolo interactive (requires Flash).

In the "description of character" column, note specific attributes of that character as described in The Awakening. In the second column, describe their relationship to Edna—what role do they serve in her life? How are the two characters alike or different? In the third column, explain what the character does—what is their role in society? Can they be classified as a "type" of person? What is their social status?

Table for character descriptions
Character Name Description of Character
(who they are as a person)
Relationship to Edna?
(who they are in relation to Edna)
Role, job, or place in society?
(who they are in society)

Madame Ratignolle

 

   

Mademoiselle Reisz

 

   

Mariequita
(see Chapter 12)

 

   

"lady in black"

 

   

Madame Lebrun

 

   

"the lovers" (young couple)

 

   

Quadroon Nurse

 

   

 

Using the chart, students will profile the characters by writing down specific details about the various women characters in the text. How are the characters in these scenes portrayed? What is their relationship to Edna? What is their social status? Students should describe the characters' beliefs (especially about the role of women in society) or place in society as they can best deduce by the evidence. If they had to choose one or two words to describe that character's "type," what would those words be?

After students fill out the chart, they should—either in groups or as an entire class—compare the various characters' status, situation, and choices in life to that of Edna Pontellier. Is this lifestyle appropriate to the kind of life Edna wants to lead? Why or why not? In other words, how does the presence of the female character show a path that Edna could pursue, and what might some reasons be that Edna does not follow that path?

How do the following male characters help establish Edna's options in life? Does her relationship with any of them push her towards becoming like one of the other women in the list?

  • Leónce Pontellier (Edna's husband)
  • Raoul and Etienne Pontellier (Edna's children)
  • Robert Lebrun
  • Alcée Arobin

Assessment

Essay:

Assign a formal essay to answer any of the guiding questions in the curriculum unit, such as:

  • How does The Awakening speak to the roles of women and the conventions of literature at the end of the 19th century?
  • How does Kate Chopin use other characters in The Awakening in order to cast Edna Pontellier's desires—and social limitations—in sharp relief?

Alternatively, ask students to write about the role of men and the limits they represent for Edna Pontellier, along the lines of the last question in the Activity above:

  • How do the following male characters help establish Edna's options in life? Does her relationship with any of them push her towards becoming like one of the other women in the novella?
Creative Writing:

Ask students to write an alternative ending to The Awakening, where Edna makes a choice other than suicide. How would the story end? Would it compromise her "awakening?" Students should consider the restrictions in place for women at the end of the 19th century.

The Basics

Grade Level

9-12

Time Required

2-5 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > American
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Culture
  • History and Social Studies > People > Women
Skills
  • Creative writing
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Developing a hypothesis
  • Discussion
  • Essay writing
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Interpretation
  • Literary analysis
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Writing skills
Authors
  • Jason Rhody, NEH (Washington, DC)

Resources

Activity Worksheets
Media