By Maddy Boylan George
Kate Chopin moves the action in The Awakening from Grand Isle in the Gulf of Mexico, to the French Quarter in New Orleans, and then back to Grand Isle. The movement of the protagonist between island and city life allows the character to fully explore the internal conflict that she is experiencing throughout the novel. This conflict centres on the social, personal, and sexual awakening of Edna Pontellier, and the man who causes this, Robert LeBrun. From the map shown below it is possible to see firstly where the island are in relation to New Orleans; and secondly where the characters live in the French Quarter, by zooming in and out.
In the map (see below), the islands of Cheniere Caminada, Grand Isle, and Grand Terre are indicated. These islands are fairly isolated from the mainland and a boat is needed to get there. The inhabitants have to wait a couple of days for newspapers to arrive from the city. Vacation life on Grand Isle is slow-paced, and activities revolve around walking, bathing and eating. All of the holiday-makers on Grand Isle live in the wealthy area of the Quartier Francais. Although the characters reside on Grand Isle, the nearby islands of Grande Terre and Cheniere Caminada provide diversion. Robert suggests “in a low voice” that they should visit Grand Terre, another island paradise where Edna can feel free and relaxed. She states that she would “like to be alone there with Robert, in the sun, listening to the ocean’s roar (34)”.
The trip to Cheniere Caminada is a turning point in the novel. Although Edna and Robert have been alone before, this time they physically leave Grand Isle and have the entire day together. After this day together Robert realizes that he is in love with Edna; feeling guilty he invents an excuse to leave:“Robert was always intending to go to Mexico, but in some way never got there.” Robert has a very comfortable lifestyle in New Orleans as a clerk and correspondent; his family is wealthy and there is no real need for him to pursue a promised fortune in Mexico. Robert uses Mexico as an escape from his feelings. He later claims that he left Grand Isle because he knew that there was no hope while Edna was married to Leonce Pontellier. Their relationship is unresolved at the end of the novel; nothing has actually changed and Edna is still married. It seems that Robert again comes to his senses and realizes the futility of their relationship, and that is why he leaves her a second time.
The main focus of the trips to Cheniere Caminada is to attend mass at the Catholic Church, Our Lady of Lourdes. Set in the 1870s, The Awakening was published 6 years after a hurricane when the island was completely desolate. I found it interesting that this colossal hurricane destroyed the surrounding area, yet Kate Chopin uses Cheniere Caminada as a small paradise and an escape for Edna, even though when she was writing the novel the island had been abandoned and was no longer a refuge. Chopin used to vacation on Grand Isle, and was able to use her own memories of her vacations in order to build a picturesque description of the area. Edna went to Cheniere Caminada to attend church but left part way through the service with Robert. This abandonment of a group activity took place so that Edna could finally be alone with Robert. She falls asleep in Madame Antoine’s cottage and awakes refreshed, and with a new self-awareness. This photograph of Our Lady of Lourdes was taken in 1891, 2 years before the hurricane destroyed it.
Edna’s awakening only begins on the Island and is able to blossom fully when she returns to the city. Grand Isle is where she falls in love with Robert, although she does not admit this until back in the city, and it is where she dies. In contrast in New Orleans she is able to assert herself and take care of her own needs and priorities. Edna’s attitude as a reluctant wife and mother is shown early on in the novel. She describes Leonce as “monotonous and insistent”, and has to be reminded by Adele Ratignolle of her responsibilities. Although she cares for her children in theory, Edna is not a particularly attentive mother, and it is this quality that sets her aside from other characters. She is an ambivalent mother and varies between expressing maternal feelings, and rejecting her children entirely. By the end of the novel Edna is exhausted by being constantly relied on, and being a figure of support for the male characters in her life. “To-day it is Arobin; to-morrow it will be someone else. It makes no difference to me; it doesn’t matter about Leonce Pontellier-but Raoul and Etienne! (115).” The use of her husband’s full name suggests how emotionally distant she feels from him; he has become a stranger. As she begins to swim out to sea, she ponders the reliance that her children expressed towards her. Although as young children it is natural that they should seek attention and affection, Edna feels that they have purposely tried to “possess her, body and soul”. Although she loves her children, she loves herself more, and cannot see a way out of her own predicament, other than inevitable death. Robert has abandoned her, and with that, any chance she had to start a new life away from New Orleans: “She understood now clearly that she had meant long ago when she said to Adele Ratignolle that she would give up the unessential, but she would never sacrifice herself for her children” (115). By committing suicide Edna is quite literally sacrificing herself, but she makes the conscious decision to do it herself. Enough individual autonomy remains that she is able to choose her fate, rather than having it chosen for her by her family, or by society.
The island represents freedom from the traditional social norms that Edna finds so suffocating when she returns to New Orleans. The island is a place of tranquillity and relaxation; Edna is able to spend entire days with Robert and there be no reproach. In contrast, in the city when she spends time with Alcee Arobin, Mademoiselle Ratignolle states that the world is “evil-minded” and that a mysterious “someone” was talking of Alcee Arobin visiting her. Decorum and propriety matter a lot more in the city, and it is this change, coupled with Robert’s abandonment, that eventually force her back to the peace of Grand Isle, and her death.
If the map below is zoomed in it is possible to see the specific streets within the French Quarter, and where the main characters reside. I have given a key underneath so that it is possible to differentiate each point. The French Quarter is quite small and close-knit and most of the addresses that Edna visits in the novel are within walking distance of her house on Esplanade. However, on a couple of occasions Edna takes a streetcar to reach the edges of the suburb. The society is limited to a very confined area, and it is easy to imagine how claustrophobic that must have felt for a free spirit like Edna Pontellier, who would have been repeatedly bumping into people she knew and socializing with the same people. That kind of society also appeared to listen to gossip and speculation, as seen when Edna involves herself with Alcee Arobin.
Her association with Mademoiselle Reisz, an accomplished pianist but social outcast, represents Edna’s change in attitude towards society. Whenever Edna feels unhappy in her home on Esplanade Street, she seeks out Mme. Reisz, who one day says, “the bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings” (83). Although Edna does not fully understand what Mme. Reisz means by this, it is clear that Edna is undergoing a personal conflict that centers on society. This is only a problem in New Orleans, when people and the culture of the city dictate how things should be done, and how people should behave. Edna is forced to rebel.
As an island, Grand Isle is important because it signifies the loneliness and isolation that Edna feels, despite being surrounded by family and friends. The sea is often described and its importance suggested, “the voice of the sea is seductive…inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose oneself in mazes of inward contemplation.” The sea is important because Edna finally learns to swim without any help. It is a physical, strengthening act that she achieves and rejoices in. When Edna returns to New Orleans after several weeks she begins to quietly rebel against her former life. Instead of playing the hostess and receiving callers she decides to go out. Following a small argument with Leonce, Edna’s “face was flushed and her eyes flamed with some inward fire that lighted them (52).” This state continues as Leonce becomes more and more alarmed by her lack of regard for social norms, or her duties inside the home. Following her family’s departure she begins an affair with Alcee Arobin, this seems quite self-destructive as she is still in love with Robert. With her husband away, it is almost as though she is causing mischief for the sake of it; her actions do not seem very involved. There is a general sense of lethargy and discomfort that escalates as the novel moves on, and her personal crisis remains unresolved.
Edna begins to venture beyond the French Quarter: she and Alcee Arobin go to the races, and she meets Robert in a remote café on the outskirts of New Orleans. Catiche is a very small café and Edna uses it as a respite from the typical social scene in the French Quarter, “The place was too modest to attract the attention of people of fashion…it was the last place in the city where she would have expected to meet anyone she knew(105).” She is forced to leave the French Quarter as it is too small and claustrophobic; in a manner similar to Grand Isle, her excursions serve the purpose of an escape from society and protocol.
When Robert leaves his note in the pigeon house abandoning Edna, she instinctively returns to Grand Isle, which represents the sight of her original “awakening” and the realization that she was an individual with some power and control. Robert was the person who helped in a way to achieve this. Edna feels that Robert clearly does not love her enough to risk everything, society etc, and thus Edna realizes that she is truly alone. Edna’s change in attitude towards society during the progression of this novel meant that her attitude toward domestic life has also changed as a result. She no longer believes herself to be tied to Leonce, or remain a part of his property. This idea shocks Robert, who has not achieved this same sense of enlightenment, and cannot see beyond the rules that their society enforces. Her flight from the French Quarter and her return to the Island signal the end of something, as this was where the novel began with a new way of looking at life and a regeneration of sorts. It is fitting that she returns to the starting point of this journey. The reader is left to assume that she drowns herself.
Key to the important locations mentioned in The Awakening:
- Grand Isle
- Cheniere Caminada
- Grand Terre Islands
- Carondolet Street-Not in the French Quarter, this is where Leonce Pontellier works
- Esplanade Avenue-Where the Pontelliers live
- Chartres Street-Madame LeBrun’s house
- Bienville Street-Where Mademoiselle Reisz used to live, probably along the stretch of street closer to Tremé than the French Quarter, since Edna says she lives “some distance away” and discovers when she goes there that “the house was occupied by a respectable family of mulattoes who had chambres garnies to let” (58).
- Fair Grounds Race Course and Slots-the races that she attends with Alcee Arobin. Edna would probably have taken the streetcar the length of Esplanade Avenue, and walked from there.
- Robert E Lee Blvd and Lakeshore Drive-roughly the modern site of Shell Road, where Alcee Arobin takes Edna for a drive.
- 514 Chartres Street-Although the location of Adele Ratignolle’s apartment is unknown, Chopin describes them living in the apartments about a drug store which Monsieur Ratignolle owned. The drug store showed on the map is a short distance from Edna Pontellier’s house, and is in the heart of the French Quarter.
1) An image of a typical Creole house on Cheniere Caminada. This house is similar to that of Madame Antoine’s, Edna rests here after leaving the Church service.
2) Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church on Cheniere Caminada. The photograph was taken in 1891, eight years before The Awakening was published. Kate Chopin spent time on the island and would have attended church here during vacations.
3) Custom Google Map, March 2013