Teaching The Awakening + One Speed Writing Exercise


I’ve been teaching Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) in the Intro to Writing About Literature course for two years, and I’ve found it fits a shorter paper assignment better than it does a research paper (you can read my writing prompt for the short paper here). However, this semester I taught Chopin immediately after the long research paper project and needed to get students’ gears turning fast to produce a short paper before our (very late) Spring Break. To do this, I drew from my background in Creative Writing and asked them to bring their laptops to class for a “speed writing” exercise.

I ask students to take out their laptops or writing utensils and to prepare for in-class writing time. I let them know that the rounds will get shorter and shorter, but this won’t be graded. You could have them swap with a partner in the “10 Minutes to Share” period, or ask them to pick their own favorites from A-D or E-H. They should know this up front, however, because some students will treat this as a personal exploratory essay and might choose to withhold details if they are expected to share with another classmate. Then, I take out my timer!

25 Minutes of Writing (Timed Rounds)

  • A) 7 min: Write a Bio Poem about Edna Pontellier, or Leonce Pontellier [show on projector]
  • B) 5 min: You are a marriage counselor, meeting with the Pontelliers. What advice would you give Edna, and what would advice would you give Leonce?
  • C) 3 min: What does Mademoiselle Reisz mean by “the courageous soul” (63)?
  • D) 3 min: Do you think Edna is committing suicide at the end of the novel? Why or why not?
  • E) 2 min: What does “awakening” mean?
  • F) 1 min: What does the ocean symbolize?
  • G) 1 min: What do the birds symbolize?
  • H) 3 min: What is the “stream of thought”?*

10 Minutes to Share

Students choose their favorite sentence from what they wrote in A-D, and their favorite from E-H, mark them and then swap with a partner. The partner also circles/highlights one sentence from A-D, and one from E-H, that s/he likes the best. I recommend they choose sentences that are really strong, and that they think are good ideas that could go somewhere. If pressed for time, you could skip the partnered work. Or, if you have extra time, you could go around the room and ask each to share a favorite. This can give you an opportunity to point out what kind of idea leads to a paper or thesis statement about the text, which I found happening in our group discussion. Students reported back that this part was extremely helpful!

10 Minutes for Free Writing

Starting with one of the favorite sentences the student or his/her partner liked best, they free write with the aim to answer this question: “What is the outward life that conforms, the inward life that questions? What does that mean to you? To Edna?” If you don’t choose to go around the room and share in the “10 Minutes to Share” period, you might do that after this free-write.

*Pairing: “The Stream of Thought” from Principles of Psychology

IMG_20160424_134418I work a great deal with William James’s The Principles of Psychology (1890) as well as his other writings, and I can’t seem to teach The Awakening without talking about psychology and habits of mind or the plasticity of the brain when we talk about the stream of consciousness. [Side Note: I’m also adamant that the ending of the book is like a Modernist painting and we can’t assume that Edna Pontellier dies (if you read it closely, she could be waking up, perhaps rescued from shore). I use this kind of close reading to help my students understand that our stream of thought is often not continuous, it can have breaks (like when we go to sleep) or lead us astray (like when our memories fail).] The chapter on the Stream of Thought in Principles is a particularly good one to teach alongside Chopin’s novel.

For one thing, James’s book came out in 1890, just nine years before Chopin’s novel. Although we don’t know that Chopin was an avid student of psychology, we do know that James’s text is representative of the theory of mind at the time and gives us a glimpse into late 19th Century thought. So I still find it useful, and I explain this to my students. Secondly, the chapter is rich with metaphors: 1. the obvious “stream” relates to the ocean in the book and Edna’s self-awareness; 2. James’s comparison of thought to the flights and perches of birds opens up the metaphor of birds in cages and in flight in the novel (women aren’t “Angels of the House”; rather, they’re birds in cages); and 3. James refers to the rhythm of thought and the fact that an absence or gap in thinking is intensely felt–it may be an absence, but it is not absent of feeling–which corresponds well to Edna’s experience of music but to have no images come to mind. Students can get frustrated with Edna for not taking more initiative in the novel, but this conversation helps to demonstrate how difficult it is to break out of ingrained habits of mind. (This connects well to Dickinson’s “The Brain Within It’s Groove,” too.)

While covering The Awakening in class, we arrive at a moment when defining what “awakening” means becomes extremely important. There are many literal moments in which Edna falls asleep or cannot go to sleep, different moods when she is inside or outside, and a lot of moments in which words cannot express what she feels. I ask students to take out their phones and we do a Google definition search. As students look up more words that come up in the definition, Google leads us on a wild goose chase because “awareness” and “consciousness” appear within the definitions of the other words, bringing us full circle back to whatever “awakeness” is. I deliberately trouble this definition; students, then, become the literary detectives, searching for a better answer to satisfy them. Also, it’s fun to have a teacher ASK students to take their phones out in class…it’s a rare thing, but cell phones are really mini research devices.

After we finished going over the book, I asked students to read James’s “Stream of Thought” for the next class and to try to find parallels. The chapter is easy to find on the internet in PDF form, and the writing is straightforward and easy for them to read on their own. I ask them to point to passages that remind them of The Awakening, and I make sure we hit on the three I listed above. Most of them have taken an introductory psychology class, and they bring in their knowledge to the discussion. Importantly, this gives me an opportunity to demonstrate what NOT to do: not to clinicize a reading of Edna Pontellier or try to “diagnose” her, because that’s not literary analysis. This provides useful background, too, for when we get to Sylvia Plath’s poetry, which I’ll talk about next post…

Happy Teaching!

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