Is the Awakening a feminist text or not?

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"The Awakening" is widely thought of as one of the first overtly feminist novels. Published in 1899, it was censored for content and considered too smutty for public reading. The protagonist, Edna Pontellier, slowly comes to understand her role as expected by societal norms of the era, and rebels against that role; she has an affair and learns to appreciate her own beauty without concern for outside judgment. She ultimately allows herself to drown in the same ocean where she first learned to swim, feeling that no one in her life can understand her choice, because they are bound by their own prejudices.

In the sense that Edna refuses to be controlled by societal (masculine) norms, the book is considered feminist. At one point, her husband has her examined by a doctor, as her actions indicate mental illness to his 19th century mind. The doctor advises that she be "allowed" to continue until her rebellion has run its course; his private assumption that she is having an affair, and his decision not to mention it, is more progressive than his assumption that she will eventually return to "normal" as defined by society.

Edna's ultimate suicide by drowning is specifically not judged by the text; her choice is left to the reader to analyze. She makes her choice of her own free will, without being influenced by her role as a woman in society, but it is also a choice made out of desperation, one she sees as a last resort. She doesn't see her life as worth living for her own sake, but instead as a burden, a life for others to enjoy.

In the end of the book, she considers her newly awakened state:

There was no one thing in the world that she desired. There was no human being whom she wanted near her except Robert; and she even realized that the day would come when he, too, and the thought of him would melt out of her existence, leaving her alone. The children appeared before her like antagonists who had overcome her; who had overpowered and sought to drag her into the soul's slavery for the rest of her days. But she knew a way to elude them.

It may be the remnants of her upbringing that make suicide seem a better option. Instead of making any positive changes to her life, or even talking with her family about her new outlook (which, in her defense, they would likely be unable to comprehend) she removes herself from the equation entirely.

In the end, it is up to the reader to declare Edna's actions as specifically feminist or not. Literary opinion is mostly agreed that the major themes of the novel -- rebellion against societal norms and refusal of submission -- are feminist in nature, but analysis of the resolution may be more vague.


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