The Awakening is considered by many to be an American classic and a forerunner of modern feminist literature. Yet when it was published in 1899, it received more negative criticism than positive, leading author Kate Chopin to dedicate her talents to writing short stories exclusively for the remainder of her life. Given that most journalists and literary critics in the late 19th century were men, the chilly reception shouldn’t be surprising.
The Awakening is about a married woman named Edna Pontellier who, while spending her summer on Grand Isle in Louisiana with her husband and two children, forms an attachment to a young man named Robert LeBrun. Robert’s flirtations with Edna are considered harmless by just about everyone, including Edna’s husband Léonce. Once their feelings start to hint at something more intimate, though, Robert abruptly flees to Mexico, citing a business opportunity, leaving Edna desolate. “Robert’s going had some way taken the brightness, the color, the meaning out of everything. The conditions of her life were in no way changed, but her whole existence was dulled, like a faded garment which seems to be no longer worth wearing.”
Once back at home in New Orleans, Edna starts to explore her feelings and comes to the conclusion that her existence up to now has been pretty pointless. As Chopin writes, “A certain light was beginning to dawn dimly within her;–the light which, showing the way, forbids it.” She begins to care less and less about running her household which was the
number one only job a respectable woman had back then. Her husband is scandalized when she decides to go out one day, without any excuse or explanation, instead of staying home receiving visitors per her normal routine. She takes up painting and becomes quite accomplished. She acts so peculiar, in fact, that her husband consults a doctor, who tells Léonce to just lighten up a bit because women are mysterious creatures after all and everything will turn out fine. Secretly, the doctor worries that maybe Edna is having an affair.
19th century medical professional, probably
When Léonce has to go out to New York on business, he sends the children to his mother’s house, leaving Edna to do some more soul searching. Yearning for independence, Edna decides to move into a small house of her own, one that she can pay for with her own money. She also has a bit of a romantic dalliance with a guy named Alcée, who is easy on the eyes and free with his affections, if you know what I mean.
At the height of her play for independence, Robert returns and they confess their passion for each other. But while Edna is ready to make Robert her lover, consequences be damned, Robert is stuck on finding an honorable way to make Edna his wife, to get Mr. Pontellier to set her free. Edna’s like, “Whoa, there, I’m nobody’s possession, and you’re a moron if you think so.” Robert’s like, “Well, how else could we be together?”
In the midst of these discussions, Edna is called away to help her best friend, who has gone into labor. When she returns home, Robert has left, leaving her a note that says, essentially, “I’m leaving because I don’t want to turn you into a ruined woman. Love ya!” When she realizes that not even Robert understands and that she can never truly be free, she returns to Grand Isle and swims out into the water until exhaustion and the waves overtake her. “She thought of Léonce and the children. They were a part of her life. But they need not have thought that they could possess her, body and soul.”
This is a sad, lovely novel. Not only does it paint the portrait of a woman longing to be free, it offers a beautiful insight into grief; in this case, not the grief of losing a loved one, though Edna does lose Robert, but the grief of tasting a better life and having it snatched away. It also describes depression in a way that surprised me for a book 100+ years old: “There were days when she was unhappy, she did not know why,–when it did not seem worth while to be glad or sorry, to be alive or dead; when life appeared to her like a grotesque pandemonium and humanity like worms struggling blindly toward inevitable annihilation. She could not work on such a day, nor weave fancies to stir her pulses and warm her blood.”
With all this to absorb, critics of the day chose to focus on the fact that the novel involved <gasp> sex! Here’s a smattering of criticisms from various sources:
From the Chicago Times-Herald: “[I]t was not necessary for a writer of so great refinement and poetic grace to enter the overworked field of sex fiction.”
From Literature: “One cannot refrain from regret that so beautiful a style and so much refinement of taste have been spent by Miss Chopin on an essentially vulgar story.”
From the New Orleans Times-Democrat: “A woman of twenty-eight, a wife and twice a mother who in pondering upon her relations to the world about her, fails to perceive that the relation of a mother to her children is far more important than the gratification of a passion which experience has taught her is, by its very nature, evanescent, can hardly be said to be fully awake.”
Chopin’s response, I hope
Nevertheless, The Awakening did receive some positive reviews and has endured to become a feminist classic. And yet, I fear it’s still misunderstood. People may read Edna as cold and unmotherly, even though Edna says she would give her life for her children, just not her soul. She’s not, as Chopin describes in an early chapter, a “mother woman. . . . They were women who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels.”
So she’s not the type of woman who would, say, leave a lame-ass review on Amazon of a novel she’s never read because her stupid kid didn’t like it:
Actual review of The Awakening that I found on Amazon. Thanks for your insightful comments, lharper!