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Laura Amy Schlitz

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The Awakening

The Awakening

Author: Kate Chopin

Year: 1899

Famous for: A free-thinking leading lady who refused to be caged by society's expectations. A beginning and an ending at the ocean.

Main character: Edna Pontellier: Victorian society sneered at her desire for self-expression; today, we celebrate it.

The scoop:

In The Awakening, main character Edna Pontellier isn’t a teenager, but she still feels like no one gets her. That’s because she’s a woman living in the Victorian Era. She’s property, not an individual. She has a predetermined role to fill in society; she’s not supposed to think or act for herself.

So Edna rebels. Not with blue hair or multiple piercings. She rebels with art. And by taking control of her body and her sexuality. She turns her back on convention and refuses to be caged by her roles as wife and mother.

Of course, this doesn’t go over too well with Edna’s husband, or with the polite society of New Orleans, Louisiana, where the Pontelliers make their home. Edna feels alone at the beginning of The Awakening–when she’s coming to terms with who she is–but she’s even more isolated by the end of the story once she’s asserted her freedom and individuality.

Not the cheeriest message, to be sure, but one that still resonates more than a hundred years later: Independence, Kate Chopin seems to be saying, leads to solitude.

The Awakening : Context and Resources

Harper's Bazar cover, April, 1899 | 60second Recap

The Feminine Ideal: Here’s the cover of Harper’s Bazar from April 1899. The Awakening was published that same month.

Kate Chopin’s second and final novel is regarded as an artistic masterpiece and a cultural landmark. It’s hailed as a milestone in feminist thought, and praised as a daring literary achievement.

But when The Awakening was first published in April of 1899, critics called it “morbid,” “sordid,” “poison.” Within a few months, Chopin’s publisher had cancelled plans to print a collection of her short stories. Kate Chopin’s 12-year literary career was effectively over.

Here’s what those critics said about The Awakening shortly after its publication by Herbert S. Stone & Co. of Chicago. (Even a young Willa Cather, who would come to be regarded as one of the 20th century’s great feminist writers, piled on. Here’s what she wrote.)

Themes in Kate Chopin’s writings

Kate Chopin worked on The Awakening in 1897, completing her manuscript in January of 1898. She wrote the densely narrated story quickly, perhaps because she built it around a theme she’d explored since the publication of her first novel, At Fault, in 1890: The struggle of women to reconcile their desires with the demands of a society run by men.

Here’s an overview of scholarly inquiry into Chopin’s stories and essays. It identifies 15 major categories of academic interest, from late 19th-century gender struggles, to the effect of “scandalous” literature (like The Awakening or The Scarlet Letter) on popular culture.

From Republican Motherhood to “The New Woman”: Kate Chopin Rides the Wave

When Chopin launched her authorial career in the late 1880s, the prevailing culture of “Republican Motherhood” held that “well-bred” American women should tend to home and hearth, rearing children to become sturdy citizens of the Republic.

By the time Chopin began work on The Awakening, a new phrase had come into vogue: “The New Woman.” It described those women who sought to redefine themselves and their role in society. The idea of “The New Woman” helped fortify the suffrage movement, but its practical effects began rippling throughout daily life long before women were granted the right to vote.

For example, here’s an overview of changes in divorce laws of that time. Until the mid-19th century, women in most states could not divorce their husbands because of statutes classifying women as their husbands’ property. The elimination of those statutes cleared a path that eventually led to universal voting rights. In the meantime, there was a changing face of fashion as “The New Woman” sculpted the contours of feminine style.

Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, first edition | 60second Recap

Another example of pioneering “realist” fiction:
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.
Check out the 60second Recap video study guide.

From Romanticism to Realism: Chopin’s Chasm

Kate Chopin’s career spanned a revolution in American culture. The Awakening may have helped accelerate elements of that revolution. Yet its publication damaged her career, and may have ended it.

“The New Woman” suggested a new era, but American literature of the 1890s remained in the grip of Republican Motherhood. Respectable authors wrote stories reinforcing Republican Motherhood norms of middle-class virtue. As a rule, they created female characters who were married, or virginal if unmarried, or punished if not virginal. This idealized representation of  Victorian values was a signature of “Romanticism” in late 19th-century American culture.

But Kate Chopin’s protagonist, Edna Pontellier, rejected her role as wife, fled her duty as a mother, had an affair, and committed suicide. Moreover, Chopin wrote about Edna’s thoughts and feelings without judgment, without condemnation, and without moralizing.

Chopin’s “realist” neutrality about Edna’s scandalous thoughts and deeds was, in many respects, as sharp a rebuke to prevailing social convention as the thoughts and deeds she described. By the 1920s, such realist (and closely related “naturalist”) narratives had displaced Romanticism and had begun dominate American literature. But that came too late for Kate Chopin, who is said to have been shattered by the vociferousness of the attacks on her and her work after The Awakening‘s publication. She died of a cerebral hemorrhage, in 1904. She was 54 years old.

Here’s an explanation of the differences between Romanticism, Realism, and Naturalism in American literature.


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