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 curriculum unit, students will explore how Chopin stages the possible roles for women in Edna's time and culture through the examples of other characters in the novella. By showing what Edna's options are, Chopin also exhibits why those roles failed to satisfy Edna's desires. As students pursue this central theme, they will also learn about Chopin, her life, and the culture and literary traditions in which she wrote. Many late 19th century writers reacted against an earlier wave of sentimental writings, focusing instead on an approach more akin to “realism”—studies of daily affairs and commonplace events. Part of Chopin's realism relies on regionalism or local color writing, a style of writing that emphasizes regional differences in terms of language, dialect, religion, cultural expectations, class societies, and so on. Readers follow Edna—a Protestant from Kentucky—in her encounters with Catholic Creole society in Louisiana. Edna's role as “outsider” allows for a comparison between two different Southern cultures and her awakening in part results from the clash of the two world views.
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 websites used in Lesson 2 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 caste 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 Lesson 2.
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.