Author: Kate Chopin

eNotator: Gayle Birrell


The eNotated The Awakening

The Awakening, published in 1899, stands in American literature as one of the earliest novels to embrace a female character with authenticity and grace. Set in New Orleans and Acadiana (French Louisiana region) with richly lyrical prose, author Kate Chopin weaves a provocative narrative infused with the people, geography, culture, and social attitudes of an era and place that is unique in the American landscape. Over the last century, the book has enjoyed a vast readership and has become a classic of study in educational systems, as well as a subject of wide-ranging criticism.

The eNotated The Awakening appeals to audiences of diverse backgrounds:
  • The inquisitive reader of historic fiction who wishes to gain deeper insight into the Creole culture. 
  • A high school student who seeks literary perceptions that extend beyond typical academic critiques. 
  • The retiree who has taken up gardening and reading, and falls in love with Chopin’s description of the southern landscape. 
  • The feminist searching for classic literature in which a female character is portrayed with sensitivity and courage. 
  • The curious cook who delights in trying new cuisines such as the Creole dishes Chopin’s characters enjoy. 
  • A young adult who finds strength in Edna Pontellier’s independence and wants to better understand the context of the character’s behavior. 
  • The commuter who resolves to read more classics, loads his tablet for the bus ride to work, and wants to make his own connections about the story instead of reading academic treatises. 
  • A working mother who, in the precious time she has to read, can escape to a different place and time and learn something new in each short chapter. 
  • The culture hound looking for context between the literary, musical, and artistic realms. 
  • The reader on the hunt for 19th century literary realism. 
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About Kate Chopin

The Awakening is still stirring up controversy. Over a century after its publication in 1899, critics continue to speak out about Edna Pontellier, Kate Chopin’s tenderly-characterized young woman striving to live an authentic life. To some, she is maligned as a narcissist. To others, Edna is branded as brazen. Many readers find fault in the character for not putting her children above all else. Countless others celebrate her independence. Edna evokes complex feelings within every individual who reads her story. She is like you; she is like me. And through the wonderful manner in which real life mysteriously unites with fiction, we find ourselves connected.

Kate Chopin’s naturalist style brings human nature to the fore. These characters are the real thing; of a certain era, a community, a culture. They dream. They love. They cook. They grow helpless in the presence of beautiful women. They also make mistakes. If you are Edna, you are ruled by your emotions. As such, you disappoint your husband. You enjoy an occasional game of vingt-et-un. And, if the spirit and the mood collide, you throw a vase against the hearth. Occasionally, you linger in the hammock on the porch late in the evening, nibbled by mosquitos. You tell your little boys the fairies will fix it all right. You get infatuated with inappropriate people. You quarrel with your father. You sob at the quivering love notes of Isolde’s song. You go to visit friends when they need you. You try to remember to treat yourself with kindness, so you can treat the world the same way.

Like each of us, Edna is human. Audacious. Vulnerable.

At the time The Awakening was first published, American women did not yet have the right to vote. It was unthinkable for a female writer to portray a woman’s passions and ambitions. Even most male writers of the era were careful. (Walt Whitman’s final edition of Leaves of Grass, published in 1891, was termed “undeniably morbid” and “unfit for repetition.”)

But Chopin dared to present the character Edna Pontellier, who would “give myself where I choose.” Reviewers battered the book over and over. It faded from notice until the feminist movement of the 1970s helped shed light on what is now considered a masterpiece.

Gayle Birrell


About eNotator Gayle Birrell

Gayle Birrell spent her youth in the Ohio River valley country near where Edna Pontellier of The Awakening grew up. The middle child of five, Gayle and her identical twin were referred to as The Girls by their family, which offered no distinction between she and her sister’s separate identities. “I got to navigate a twin’s rather freaky status in the world. I often felt set apart from others, which of course drove me even closer to my twin.”

The need to escape and express herself creatively became recurrent themes in Gayle’s childhood. She discovered the wonder of the printed page and immersed herself in books. Withdrawing into other peoples’ worlds brought delight, beauty, ugliness, tenderness and humor as she read about experiences that were different from her fundamentalist Christian upbringing. Like Edna, she was enchanted and mystified by people outside her sheltered realm. It seemed a natural fit that she would choose English as her major when she later attended a small liberal arts college in the Midwest.

But it was not until her twenties, when an unwise marriage—and what she wryly describes as the gift and curse of motherhood—created a series of painful events that led to Gayle’s own awakening: the emergence of her authentic self. She realized what qualities she wanted in her life—beauty, kindness, joy and generosity—and began to surround herself with nurturing influences.

Over the years, despite repeating a daily mantra of “grace and gratitude,” things haven’t always gone so well. That’s when Gayle reminds herself, “My idealistically cynical eyes give me a perspective that doesn’t always reveal what I expect. But I’ll still keep my Groucho glasses stashed in the glove compartment of my Beetle!”

Gayle remains faithful to the great loves that sustain her—her husband and creative expression. Today, she and her husband divide their time between city life and their live-aboard sailboat on the Salish Sea. When people ask her, “What do you do?” she knows just what to tell them: “Follow my heart.”


Reviews

Care, Discernment and Sensitivity Given to Beloved Classic
By Gloria Dahlquist
5.0 out of 5 stars

Ms. Birrell's eNotated "The Awakening" by Kate Chopin offers a sun-dappled pathway into a fuller understanding and appreciation of the loved classic. The text hyperlinks take the reader to explanations of setting, historical maps, photographs of flora, recipes, artists of the era, paintings, Creole terminology and charming personal recollections stimulated by the author's personal experiencing of the timeless story. The links are neither distracting nor overdone and are chosen with obvious care, discernment and sensitivity to the reader's experience. Ms. Birrell artfully leaves some "linking" opportunities undone so that a bit of mystery remains if the reader wishes to go further into their own scholarship. The notating is not overly academic and remains respectful of both the novel and the reader. I highly recommend this book for a delightful read or re-read of this famously controversial novel.

(From Amazon/Kindle September 21, 2013)

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Adds rich context to a great book
By Karen Story
5.0 out of 5 stars

The author's well-chosen notations include maps, period art, cultural tidbits, and definitions, and add rich context to this great book. In addition, her introduction is worth reading in and of itself.

When I first read this book I had little sense of the time and place that Chopin was writing about. Reading the e-notated version gave me a much better understanding of Edna Pontellier's world. I'd recommend the e-notated version for any reader, but it would be especially valuable for book groups and students.

(From Amazon/Kindle September 28, 2013)