Cracking the Code: Language and The Awakening


We dive into language with a unit called “Breaking Free”, which focuses on feminist literature. Because high school students are saturated in the literature of “dead white guys”, this unit is meant to immerse them in the feminine perspective. Before The Awakening, we study The Story of an Hour and Desiree’s Baby. In addition, we read The Cult of Domesticity and True Womanhood, which drives an entire class period of discussion. Students become outraged and mock the text. It is always one of the most lively discussions of the year and I just ask them what they think.

Because a student’s entire understanding of the novella hinges on his or her reading of the first chapter and all of the clues that Chopin embeds , I read the first chapter in class and ask students to mark up the text as I read. Much of the time, this just becomes circled names and actions. Next, I ask them to go back and look at it through the lens of How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas Forster, which they read over the summer. They get a little closer to the text and pick up on Chopin’s nuances– a primary symbol, characterization, and colors.

Finally, I give them a chart on the feminine and masculine traits as presented in literature. I remind them or tell them who Dionysus and Apollo are and we delve back into the text, coming up with much richer discussion. After this, they have most the keys that they need to unlock the text.


Matriarchal Attitude of Consciousness(Feminine Archetype) Patriarchal Attitude of Consciousness(Masculine Archetype)
Symbols moon; lunar; Dionysus; dark; natural symbolism, imagery compatible with nature processes sun; solar; Apollo; light; anti-natural symbolism, imagery incompatible with nature processes or at least artificial or mechanical
Cosmology priority of matter; world comes into existence through birth, procreation (primacy of genetic principal) priority of spirit; world comes into existence through non-physical means, creation (devaluation of genetic principal)
Psychology primacy of unconscious; importance of emotion, intuitive, non-rational forces; consciousness viewed as “moonlike”—generated out of unconscious and dependent upon it. (light of moon can’t be seen without darkness) primacy of consciousness; importance of rational, intellectual, logical forces; consciousness viewed as “sunlike”—independent of and master of unconscious (darkness can’t be seen in light of sun)
Spirit embodied (soul cannot exist without body); rebirth independent of and superior to matter (soul seeks release from body); immortality
Relationship with Nature union with and respect for nature; tendency toward methods of lifestyle and worship that activate and celebrate the senses (eating, drinking, singing, dancing, etc.) conquest and control of nature; tendency toward methods of lifestyle and worship that suppress or reject the senses (asceticism, meditation, fasting, prohibition of sex, etc.)
Values qualities associated with feminine archetype (EROS)—static and cyclical, receptive and passive, relating, communal and synthetic qualities associated with masculine archetype (LOGOS)—dynamic and linear (progressive), active and forward thrusting, individualistic, separatist, and analytic
Symbolize and Identify with world of nature, life, matter, instincts, urges; birth, death, sex; all elements and forces which weaken reason and conscious control (drugs, alcohol, sleep, dreams); all entities which are regarded as natural and emotional spiritual phenomena, law morality, tradition, convention; all contents capable of conscious realization; things invested with “sacred” might and right; all entities which are regarded as rational, spiritual, and ideological (political, social, and economic institutions)

Download this chart as a PDF below

Essential Clues Established in Chapter 1:

1. The Caged Parrot – The first image of the book is a caged bird. This observation usually comes out in the second reading of the text. Students catch Chopin hinting at a lack of freedom. Though, they may not be sure who or what needs to be free, they can readily see it as ominous, as the bird is shouting the equivalent of “Get out!” in French. Students begin looking for flight imagery and metaphors and explore the idea of freedom as presented in the novel.

2. Eye Glasses– This symbol comes straight from their reading of How to Read Literature Like a Professor. On the second reading, students notice that Mr. Pontellier can’t see things that may be obvious to others. He seems to just be skimming the surface in his understanding of his wife. He holds Edna’s rings and give them back to her when she is done swimming. This jewelry is a sign of his possession of her. His use of eye glasses suggests that he doesn’t see a problem with this view. Students, then, begin to look for ways in which he is myopic or short-sighted.

3. Apollonian versus Dionysian Imagery – This is a major motif throughout the novella. At the beginning, Edna is “burnt beyond recognition” (Chopin 1) and carrying an umbrella to block the sun. Students, from their first introduction to Edna, see her as a possession of her husband. She is “a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage” (Chopin 2) at the hands of a male influence. As Edna begins to awaken to herself, she begins to take on more Apollonian imagery and does not shrink from the sun. In fact, she embodies it at her “last supper” with her gold dress and shimmering diamonds. Apollonian and Dionysian imagery becomes a safety zone in discussion, as students can spot this trend when they may be floundering for things to talk about.

4. Names – Usually, I have at least one student in my class who takes French and picks up on the fact that “Pont” means “bridge” in French. So, Pontellier means one who bridges. This one is a little harder and students may need help with cognates—Ponte (Italian) or Puente (Spanish). So, students can begin to question the gap being bridged and the connection to the cage at the outset.

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