When it was published in 1899, The Awakening was considered vulgar by most critics. The inferior social status of women was firmly entrenched, especially in the South. An accompanying concept was the assumed moral superiority of women, at least in sexual matters. Upper-class ladies such as Edna Pontellier were ornaments, displays of their husband’s wealth. A book that challenged the traditional roles of women was likely to be controversial. The public was not ready to accept a liberated woman, even if she did commit suicide in the end. Kate Chopin disappeared from the literary world when her book was critically attacked and banned from libraries. Not all critics gave negative reviews. Willa Cather, later a famous novelist herself, praised The Awakening. Cather acclaimed the style of Chopin and also compared the protagonist to Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina, heroines of classic European fiction. From the mid-twentieth century on, critics, especially feminists, have raised the status of the novel to an American masterpiece. It has been celebrated as an important literary document in the history of women’s rights and as an artistic success.
Chopin tells Edna’s story without comment; the action and dialogue present ambiguities. Various schools of criticism have interpreted The Awakening from diverse views. Feminist critics have promoted it as a neglected text that should rightly be placed among the outstanding novels of the nineteenth century. It presents the plight of a woman who cannot accept the idea of being limited to a socially defined role. Edna rejects the economic and social success that her marriage to Léonce gives her in favor of working out her own destiny. She prefers to define her role actively rather than to be a passive object. Her awakening is sexual in part, but it is also a search for creativity, as suggested by her attempt to paint. She seeks the advice of the only artist she knows—Mademoiselle Reisz. She reads Emerson, the voice of individualism. From these sources, she gains the courage to challenge the authority of her husband. In her fight for independence, Edna becomes a threat to the values of a society.
Feminist critics also recognize other elements of the book relating to psychoanalytic theory, mythology, linguistics, and cultural studies. Critics from different fields saw it as naturalistic, an extended work of local color, or as a conflict between Creole and American cultures. A major emphasis, however, was the consideration of the novel as a work of art, which often involved an examination of patterns of imagery that tie the novel together.
One example is how Chopin uses birds to help define Edna’s situation. On the first page, the caged parrot suggests her feeling of being trapped by traditions. The mockingbird, on the other side of Madame Lebrun’s door, further illustrates her passive role, in which a voice of her own is not expected. Edna, however, speaks for herself by moving out of Léonce’s house into what she calls her pigeon-house, suggestive of both a dependent domestic bird and a wild bird that has found its own nest. The advice that Edna gets from the pianist includes a reference to a bird that will have wings strong enough to fly above traditions and prejudices. Also, when the pianist plays for Edna, the latter envisions a naked man looking toward a distant bird in “hopeless resignation.” Finally when Edna decides on suicide as a final act of free will, she watches a broken-winged bird descend into the sea. Edna breaks free from her cage, but she flounders in an alien environment. The story of her brief flight, however, has become a celebrated novel.