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Free Study Guide-The Awakening by Kate Chopin-Free Online Booknotes
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CHAPTER SUMMARIES WITH NOTES

Chapters I-VI

Summary

At the Grand Isle resort, a green and yellow parrot and a mockingbird scream back and forth from their cages, annoying Mr. Léonce Pontellier. From the porch of his own cottage, Mr. Pontellier surveys the resort, the patrons at their relaxations and Madame Lebrun at work with her servants. He sees his two children with their quadroon (one-quarter Negro) nurse. He smokes, grows bored with his paper, and watches Mrs. Pontellier come up the beach to the cottage with Robert Lebrun. Mr. Pontellier feels that Mrs. Pontellier's mid-day swim and subsequent sunburn show poor judgment, for she has "damaged" herself. Mrs. Pontellier gestures to Mr. Pontellier for her rings. She puts them on her hands, and when she and Robert start to laugh, Mr. Pontellier wants in on the joke. But they have nothing interesting to recount, and Mr. Pontellier tries to persuade Robert to come with him to Klein's hotel to gamble. But Robert wants to stay and talk to Mrs. Pontellier (Edna), and so Mr. Pontellier goes off with a promise to his little boys to bring them a treat. Mrs. Pontellier knows that her husband may or may not be back for dinner; they fully understand each other, often without words.

Mrs. Pontellier's eyes are yellow-brown, like her hair. They are quick and piercing. Although she is not classically beautiful, she is attractive in an unconventional way. Chopin writes of the heroine, "Her manner was engaging."

Edna is under thirty and Robert is even younger. He is clean- shaven and carefree. He smokes and talks about himself, while Edna fans herself and listens. Robert wants to go to Mexico for a business venture. He speaks English, Spanish, and French. He likes spending summers at his mother's comfortable resort. Edna talks a little about Kentucky, where she grew up, and about her father and her engaged sister. When she realizes her husband is not coming back for dinner, Mrs. Pontellier goes in to dress for dinner while Robert wanders out to the croquet game and plays with Edna's children.

Mr. Pontellier comes in at eleven in a good mood and wakes his wife--he has won some money. Edna is not very responsive, which annoys her husband since she is the "sole object of his existence." Mr. Pontellier checks on the sleeping boys and is not satisfied that they have been put to bed properly. He feels that Raoul has a fever. Edna disagrees. Mr. Pontellier reproaches Mrs. Pontellier for her lack of motherly interest. She refuses to answer his accusations, and he falls asleep. She is wide awake and goes outside to sit in a wicker rocker on the porch. She listens to an owl and the sea and breaks into tears without knowing why. She knows her husband is basically kind, but she is filled with an unfamiliar and strong sense of oppression.


The next morning Mr. Pontellier is composed; he leaves to go back to the city and his work for the week. He is glad to be going and gives Edna half his winnings from the previous night. She likes money and decides that this will buy a nice present for her sister's wedding. He promises an even nicer gift for her sister. Mr. Pontellier is popular with all the ladies and the children. He says good-bye to everyone, and later in the week he sends Mrs. Pontellier a box of candies and fruits, which she passes around to all her fellow vacationers. He does this on occasion, and everyone thinks Mr. Pontellier must be the best husband in the world.

Mr. Pontellier's feeling that Edna does not do her duty by her children is more a feeling than a perceived fact, and he is later sorry for voicing that opinion. But the boys do not go to their mother when they fall and hurt themselves. They stand their ground without their mother's help, and they pay little attention to their nurse. Other women at Grand Isle that summer are motherly types (called "mother-women" by Chopin), but not Edna.

Adèle Ratignolle is one such type. She is beautiful, with blue eyes and red lips, and although a bit stout, she is extremely graceful. Her hands are lovely. She sews little bibs and dresses for her children while talking to her friend, Mrs. Pontellier. She even brings her a pattern for a set of children's winter pajamas, although Edna is not interested in such things. Not wanting to insult her friend, Edna gets some newspaper and cuts out the pattern.

Madame Ratignolle has been married seven years and has had a baby every two years; she constantly talks about her "condition." She does not know whether or not she should eat one of the candies Mr. Pontellier has sent. Robert sits with them, making conversation, and it occurs to Edna that although she married a Creole, she has never spent so much time with them before. Their lack of prudery surprises her. They talk freely about intimate matters, but the women are chaste. Madame Ratignolle tells Edna all the gossip in amazing detail. Robert, too, tells funny stories to married women. They openly read books that Edna would hide, and they discuss them.

The three often sit together, talking. This summer Robert has devoted himself to Madame Pontellier, as everyone knew he would. He seems to choose a different married woman each summer. For two summers it was the same woman, but then she died, and he threw himself at the feet of Madame Ratignolle. Edna looks at Madame Ratignolle as if at a "faultless Madonna." Robert teases Adèle about his former attachment to her. They laugh at the idea that Alphonse, her husband, would be jealous: Chopin explains that "the Creole husband is never jealous." Robert keeps telling Edna of his former passion for the heartless Adèle, while Adèle calls him names. This sort of comedy, Edna notes, is never played out when she and Robert are alone. She does not know what to make of it, nor how the words of love are meant to be taken. She is glad that she and Robert do not have such a relationship.

Edna likes to sketch, and she tries to draw Adele. Robert watches and says she is not a bad artist. But he is really oblivious to her work and rests his head on Edna's arm. She discourages him. He does it again. She upbraids him, but he does not apologize. The picture looks nothing like Adèle, but they all compliment Edna. Edna does not like the picture and destroys it.

The children come to see what they can get out of Mr. Pontellier's box of candy. The quadroon nurse stands at the customary respectful distance. As the sun starts to set, the children play under an oak tree. Madame Ratignolle has a fainting spell, and after Edna and Robert run to her aid, she recovers. But Edna notices that Adèle's face never lost its rosy tinge during the fainting spell. Then Adèle walks away with the grace of a queen to greet her children, and Robert persuades Edna to go for a swim.

Edna is confused about her desires: "A certain light was beginning to dawn dimly within her,--the light which, showing the way, forbids it." At this early stage in the novel, she can be moved to sudden emotion, as on the night when she cried on the porch. She is beginning to realize her true human position in the universe, and she senses the existence of a world outside the domestic realm.

Notes

The first six chapters present the main characters and the story's conflict: Edna becomes aware of her position as a married woman who has a fairly dull life--and who enjoys the attentions of an unmarried young man. Chopin starts by painting a clear picture of Léonce Pontellier as a typical "good" husband: he indulges his family in little treats but also has certain expectations of his wife and his home. He sees his wife and children as prized possessions and does not engage with them very much.

Chopin presents a clear picture of the Lebrun resort at Grand Isle and of the Creole society that inhabits it. The quadroon nurse stays at a certain distance, as if according to some agreement, like a shadow, uninterested but watchful. Adèle Ratignolle plays the part of the pure, devoted mother. Edna is intrigued by her but feels that she herself is different. The children are also distant, as seen from Edna's perspective. This leads the reader to wonder whether Léonce is right about the heroine's lack of motherly instinct. And Robert plays the perfect suitor. The danger is that Edna does not know Creole society well enough to see where the lines of intimacy are drawn. She both likes Robert's attentions and rejects them as manipulative or insincere.

At the end of this section, Chopin chooses to discuss Edna's rising discomfort directly, juxtaposing it with the meditative effects of the sea: this foreshadows the outcome of Edna's new beginning, her "awakening."

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