The Awakening tells the story of Edna Pontellier and the changes that occur in her thinking and lifestyle as the result of a summer romance. At the start of the story, Edna is a young mother of two and the wife of a successful New Orleans businessman. While the family is vacationing at a seaside resort, Edna becomes acquainted with Robert Lebrun, a younger man who pays special attention to her. Moonlit walks and intimate conversations with Robert spark feelings that Edna has forgotten. When she returns to the city, Edna throws off the trappings of her old life—devotion to family, attention to societal expectations, and adherence to tradition—to explore independence in love, life, and sexual fulfillment.
While this plot is common by today’s standards, it caused a huge commotion when Herbert S. Stone and Company published The Awakening in 1899. The book was removed from library shelves in Kate Chopin’s hometown of St. Louis, and the St. Louis Fine Arts Club expelled Chopin from its membership. Although there was some praise for the novel’s artistry and insight, critics generally denounced Chopin for her failure to condemn Edna’s actions and for allowing Edna to make her final choice in life.
As evidenced by the many reprints of the book, modern critics appreciate Chopin’s skill and artistry—particularly her use of psychological realism, symbolic imagery, and sensual themes. The feminist movement lauds Chopin’s portrayal of Edna and the restraints tradition places on women.