What might feminist criticism say about "The Awakening" by Kate Chopin?

Expert Answers
huntress eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"The Awakening" is an excellent example of how "dangerous" and "subversive" good literature is. Due to its overtly feminist notions, it was widely condemned by literary critics upon its release in 1899.

Our protagonist, Edna Pontellier, is married with children, but falls in love with a younger man, Robert. The idea that a woman--particularly a married woman--is entitled to passion was, in and of itself, horrifying to many of Chopin's contemporaries.

Note, first, that she is "Mrs. Pontellier" at the beginning of the novella, slowly and subtly transforming into simply "Edna" at the end, a woman and person in her own right, not the property of her husband, as is suggested by the appellation "Mrs. Pontellier."

As her husband goes about his business, sometimes going to New York for business, Edna is left to care for their two sons in New Orleans. She is influenced by Adèle Ratignolle, a Creole woman who is married with children and encourages Edna to conform to society's expectations; on the other hand, Edna's best friend is a nonconformist, Mademoiselle Reisz, a recitalist who is unmarried without children, who is living with the sort of freedom Edna so desires.

By chapter 22, Edna's husband, Léonce, has become concerned enough about her behavior to seek the advice of a doctor, who is initially surprised, as he had just seen "Mrs. Pontellier" the week before and she seemed "the picture of health." Léonce struggles to explain what seems wrong: she hasn't been doing the housework and "she hasn't been associating with any one. She has abandoned her Tuesdays at home, has thrown over all her acquaintances, and goes tramping about by herself, moping in the street-cars, getting in after dark." In other words, she has become disturbingly independent--which (amusingly) leads her to believe that she is ill. When the doctor recommends he send her to a wedding to be around people, Léonce responds with some exasperation that that's just the problem: "She won't go to the marriage. She says a wedding is one of the most lamentable spectacles on earth." Considering that he's discussing his wife, who in 19th century America was the property of her husband and whose social role was marriage, childbearing, and maintenance of the domestic sphere, the actions of Chopin's heroine here puts "dangerous" ideas into the heads of women everywhere--that they are their own persons, independent of their husbands, and (egads!) that perhaps marriage is not the end-all be-all of a woman's existence.