Literature as Design History: A Study of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening
Presented by: William Riehm, Robin Anita White
The study of literature and writers can serve as a tool for design history research. A familiar example, Edith Wharton, the chronicler of New York society, left her mark on the interior design academy with the 1897 publication of The Decoration of Houses, which has become a seminal work in design theory and an important piece of American interior design history (Al Shihabi 2015). Kate Chopin’s 1899 novel, The Awakening, contemporaneous with The Decoration of Houses, has yet to be analyzed within design studies. This analysis shows that The Awakening reveals Chopin's keen awareness of the design trends and movements of her time, and shows how her understanding of design is interwoven in this seminal piece of American literature. The Awakening, although studied at length under many literary lenses, resists easy classification, having characteristics that are radically modern, protofeminist, and southern gothic. The Awakening challenges social norms of the time and tells the story of protagonist Edna Pontellier’s journey to independence and self-awareness in 1890s Creole Louisiana. An outsider, Edna Pontellier hails from Kentucky, but finds herself entrenched in Creole culture through marriage. Beginning at a vacation home on the Louisiana Gulf Coast, Edna’s journey of self-awareness parallels changes in setting, from vacation home to a dignified New Orleans city home, through various acquaintances’ apartments, a home renovation, and a final move into a “pigeon house” artist studio. Through a detailed analysis of the text, this paper investigates Chopin’s masterful description of interiors, unpacking her imagery to reveal a better understanding of Victorian excess and exoticism, American traditionalism, and the aesthetic movement. For example: “The Pontelliers possessed a very charming home on Esplanade Street in New Orleans . . .The house was painted a dazzling white; the outside shutters, or jalousies, were green. . . Within doors the appointments were perfect after the conventional type. The softest carpets and rugs covered the floors; rich and tasteful draperies hung at doors and windows. There were paintings, selected with judgment and discrimination, upon the walls. The cut glass, the silver, the heavy damask which daily appeared upon the table were the envy of many women whose husbands were less generous than Mr. Pontellier.” (Chopin 1972, 83) Here Chopin places Edna in a conservatively white home with a richly decorated yet conventional Victorian interior (fig. 1). It is in this setting where Edna’s transition from a married woman confined in a highly structured culture into a more independent and self-determined artist begins. Chopin uses aesthetic movement descriptions for Edna’s new artist’s studios. When Edna throws her own birthday dinner to celebrate her “moving on,” Chopin describes an aesthetic movement visual feast. Chopin’s skillful understanding of interior design is revealed in subtleties as well. Worn images of Victorian exoticism place the reader in the Creole milieu (fig. 2), and a soft nostalgic description of a rustic Acadian cottage bedroom surround Edna as she first feels her innerself (fig. 3). In one of Chopin’s most insightful, prescient descriptions, Mr. Pontellier mounts a home renovation effort to give the appearance that all is well at home, a contemporary reader can clearly see the similarity to the much studied renovation of Irving Place by Elsie DeWolfe (fig. 4) (Sparke 2005). In conclusion, this study shows through literary analysis, design theory, and related images that Kate Chopin was versed in the interior design trends of her time. She uses them to visually move her reader through the story of Edna Pontellier's radical journey to self-awareness and uses design to support a story that challenged the norms of her time. The Awakening serves as a document of design history, giving insight and context to a current understanding of design theory.
- Al Shihabi, Diane V. "American Beaux-Arts Architects and The Decoration of Houses: Elucidating French Academic Influences for a Seminal Literary Work." Journal of Interior Design 40, no. 3 (2015): 39-60.
- Chopin, Kate. The Awakening.  1972. New York: Avon Books.
- Wharton, Edith, and Ogden Codman.  1978. The Decoration of Houses. New York : Norton.
- Sparke, Penny. 2005. Elsie de Wolfe: The Birth of Modern Interior Decoration. New York: Acanthus Press.