The Awakening

The Awakening Summary and Analysis of Chapters 4-6

Chapter IV:


Mr. Pontellier cannot explain exactly what made him angry at his wife that one night. He senses that it has something more to do with her attitude than with her actual behavior. For example, whenever his children injure themselves, instead of immediately rushing to Mrs. Pontellier for comfort, they pick themselves and go on as before. The children seem, in Mr. Pontellier's eyes, almost abnormally independent, and treat their quadroon nurse as a nuisance.

The problem seems to be that Mrs. Pontellier is not a mother-woman: she is not one of the "women who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it as holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels." The narrator describes as the perfect example of a mother-woman a neighbor named Adéle Ratignolle, who represents the epitome of idealized femininity. She is voluptuously and romantically beautiful, sews elaborate clothes for her children, and is constantly pregnant.

In this chapter, Edna. Pontellier dutifully visits her friend to learn how to sew winter undergarments for her children, but is bored despite Robert's presence. Robert accidentally hints that Madame Ratignolle might be pregnant again, and Mrs. Pontellier begins to reflect about how her Creole neighbors are so much more upfront and unrestrained than she is used to. They treat each other as extensions of one big family and feel free in discussing matters of a sexual nature, although in reality they behave very chastely. In contrast, Mrs. Pontellier frequently becomes embarrassed by her friends' topics of conversations and books.


The beginning of this chapter is written in free indirect discourse: the omniscient narrator looks into Mr. Pontellier's head and writes from his point of view, while still maintaining a seemingly neutral tone. Thus, when the narrator asserts that Mrs. Pontellier is not a mother-woman, the reader should treat the statement as Mr. Pontellier's judgement and should look to see what other interpretations are possible.

Mrs. Pontellier does not devote all her energy to her husband and her children, and in Mr. Pontellier's eyes, this makes her an imperfect wife and mother. Their children are able to take care of themselves on a minute-by-minute basis, which indicates to him that she is occupying herself with other concerns and that constant child surveillance is not a wholly fulfilling occupation for her. In other words, Mrs. Pontellier wants more than to be a mother.

Although this passage is spoken from Mr. Pontellier's point of view, the narrator fails to validate Mr. Pontellier's opinion. The description of Madame Ratignolle, for example, suggests that perfect woman-mothers do not really exist‹that they are idealizations of femininity that no mere woman can actually live up to. Madame Ratignolle is described in unrealistically glowing terms, much like that used in Petrarchan love sonnets: "the spun-gold hair that comb nor confining pin could restrain; the blue eyes that were like nothing but sapphires; two lips that pouted, that were so red one could only think of cherries or some other delicious crimson fruit in looking at them." No woman can really look like this, and the imaginary, mythic quality of the description implies that no woman can actually be the perfect woman-mother‹devoted to husband and children and nothing else‹that Mr. Pontellier (and others like him) so desires.

The second half of the chapter describes Mrs. Pontellier's unfamiliarity with Creole culture, a theme that will be further developed in the following chapter. Even though her neighbors are extremely friendly to her, Mrs. Pontellier can never be one of them. Not only does she fail to understand their unspoken rules and conventions, but she has not been exposed to the same carefree, sensuous summer environment that they grew up in. In other words, setting plays as important a role in rendering Mrs. Pontellier an outsider as does social upbringing.

This passage not only establishes Mrs. Pontellier as an outsider to Creole culture, but it also indicates how tied to convention she is at the beginning of the summer. Mrs. Pontellier is a respectable upper-middle class woman well acquainted with sexual and social norms, and she finds it difficult to break them at first. Though not completely immersed in her role as wife and mother, she does not completely reject her duties, and neither is she a wanton sexual renegade. She is simply a young woman faced with everyday choices, as will become clearer in the rest of the novel.

Chapter V:


While Madame Ratignolle continues to sew, Mrs. Pontellier and Robert smile and speak to each other in an intimate, friendly matter. The narrator describes their relationship as one of unremarkable and one-sided adoration. Like he had for the past eleven years, Robert had devoted himself to a beautiful woman and followed her around like a puppy dog. He had trailed after Madame Ratignolle before, and the two laugh a little about how innocent his worship and professions of love are. He describes how passionate he was, and Mrs. Pontellier is glad that he does not adopt such an exaggerated tone with her.

Mrs. Pontellier decides to sketch Madame Ratignolle, who is looking particularly Madonna-like, and Robert comes to sit next to her. He tries to cuddle a little with her, but she repeatedly and unsuccessfully pushes him away. Mrs. Pontellier crumples up her drawing when it's finished, and her children come up to her to get some candy and soon run away again. Madame Ratignolle has a fainting spell and is revived by her friends, although Mrs. Pontellier wonders if Madame Ratignolle might have been faking. Madame Ratignolle walks back home, and her children run enthusiastically to meet her. Robert convinces Mrs. Pontellier to go swimming with him in the ocean.


The narrator establishes that Robert and Mrs. Pontellier's friendship, though close, is not unusual in the context of Creole society, and particularly in the context of Robert's past. Though Robert speaks openly of his passion for Madame Ratignolle and other summertime flames, he is not successful in his pursuits because he does not intend to be. He often follows married women around and never intends to seduce them, though he may do their bidding and speak loudly and dramatically of his undying love for them. This passage builds on the theme introduced in the previous chapter: that of the distinction in Creole society between sexual openness in conversation and rigid chastity in reality.

Madame Ratignolle does not take Robert even the slightest bit seriously. When the possibility of her husband becoming jealous comes up, she just laughs. For one thing, Creole men apparently never get jealous, and for another, Robert and Madame Ratignolle's relationship fits seamlessly into the Creole social order. In following married women around and making them feel beautiful and desirable, Robert is playing into the Creole myth of the woman-mother‹the perfect, idealized woman who has eyes only for her husband and children. In such a society, Robert cannot pose any significant threat to the husband of his "beloved."

As an outsider, Mrs. Pontellier does not fully understand the meaning of such relationships and does not know how much of Robert's adoration is specific to her and how much is said simply to amuse her. She prefers that Robert not adopt the same attitude towards her as he does towards Madame Ratignolle because she would not be able to correctly interpret it. When Robert tries to cuddle with her, she considers it an annoyance and pushes him away. Her decision to do so may or may not have been the correct response, but the point of the incident is that for Mrs. Pontellier, each interaction with Robert will be a new experience that she will have to interpret on her own.

In the second half of the chapter, Mrs. Pontellier is further contrasted with Madame Ratignolle, the perfect woman-mother. While Mrs. Pontellier's children only come to her for candy and show no desire to play with her, Madame Ratignolle's children run to her and hang on to her excitedly when she appears. Furthermore, Madame Ratignolle's fainting spell highlights her fragility and dependence on others and calls attention to her pregnancy. Madame Ratignolle is adored by her offspring and is the perfect symbol of fertility and motherhood. Mrs. Pontellier's decision to draw her reflects an awareness of the vitality, complacency, and calm that Madame Ratignolle represents.

Chapter VI:


In this brief chapter, Mrs. Pontellier wonders why she first refused to go to the beach with Robert, then went anyway. The narrator describes a light beginning to dawn in Mrs. Pontellier, a light that makes her recognize that she has a place in the world, and hence, a responsibility to act within it. She is naturally very confused at first, and as she walks in the water, the sensuous ocean seduces her and embraces her with its sound.


This chapter is written in a mystical tone; it represents the beginning of Mrs. Pontellier's awakening. Mrs. Pontellier is not specifically being awakened to sexual desire, although sexual desire and Robert's presence certainly do play a role. In this passage, she is beginning to realize that she is an autonomous agent and that what she does affects other people in the world. At the same time, she is subject to the constraints of society and to the expectations of other people. The narrator implies that not every woman goes through the same kind of awakening that Edna is going through: most women lead sheltered lives focused around family and home. However, even though Edna experiences a great deal of confusion and turmoil, her awakening is a positive thing, opening her up to a world of possibility.

Edna's awakening occurs in the ocean, which is personified as having a seductive voice and an enveloping embrace. Water often has a symbolic meaning in literature: the baptism of Jesus and John (as well as numerous other people) occurred in the Jordan River, and Venus/Aphrodite emerged, fully-formed, from the ocean. Similarly, Edna undergoes a spiritual rebirth in the ocean; she emerges with a new wisdom and an enhanced perspective that will leave her changed forever. However, since the ocean is also described in such sensuous terms, we can expect that Edna's awakening will not be purely intellectual, but also sexual. The ocean is seducing her into new knowledge that she will later associate with the summer heat, the lapping waves, and Robert's company.