Critical Overview

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Critics condemned The Awakening when it was first published in 1899. They criticized Chopin's frank treatment of such moral issues as extramarital affairs and female sexuality. Good literature simply did not discuss women's emotions. It ignored the fact that women have the same impulses as men. For Edna to admit, even to herself, that she was sexually aroused, was shocking. For her to actually engage in an affair was scandalous.

Critics also denounced Chopin's seeming acceptance of Edna's search for personal freedom. They were appalled at the choices Edna made to acquire her freedom. Women were expected to accept their station in life and to repress any feelings they might have that could be considered nonconformist. Edna not only disliked her role in life, she also blatantly refused to continue it. Readers naturally sided with Leonce when Edna refused to have sex with him. When Edna moved out of the house, readers criticized her for abandoning her children.

Critics felt Chopin was overstepping her rights to discuss Edna's thoughts and improprieties so objectively. They felt that Chopin should have punished Edna in some way. The public, too, took offense at Edna's passion and adultery and virtually cheered her ultimate suicide. Women who wanted to keep their social standing lived within the rules of society. While men could have affairs and still be respected, society despised women who did. Edna could have had her thoughts if she had kept them to herself. For Edna to openly air them and to act upon them was a moral outrage. The public disapproved not only of the character, but of the author who could write so dispassionately about such improper behavior. As a result, Chopin's hometown library removed the book from its shelves, and the St. Louis Fine Arts Club banned Chopin from its membership.

The Awakening remained unnoticed for several years after the commotion it initially caused. In the 1930s, however, the book came back into the limelight when literary critics changed their minds about it. An intense look at the work revealed its positive elements. The researcher who first studied it appreciated Chopin's attention to literary form—particularly her mastery of form and theme. Chopin's composition has a poetic unity to it that comes from her application of symbolic imagery to plot. An example of this is Chopin's use of the sea—as a symbol of life and death as well as the site for the main action in the plot.

Since this first new look at the work, other critics have applauded Chopin's use of psychological realism, symbolic imagery, and sensual themes. For example, Per Seyersted stated that Chopin was the first female to write about sex in an intelligent, realistic and nonjudgmental way. Other critics agree that Chopin used sex in The Awakening not to moralize, but to reveal certain psychological characteristics of her characters. Characters become real people with real emotions as a result of the way Chopin dealt with their sexuality This attribute raised the book above the "sex fiction" that one critic accused Chopin of writing, according to Margo Culley who edited the second edition of Chopin's The Awakening. The book's form, style, characterization, and symbolism contribute to both its early opposition as well as to its acclaimed acceptance today.

The Awakening has taken on a new significance since the advent of the women's movement. Literary debates have raged over the significance of Pontellier's awakening, her suicide, and the conflict between motherhood and career for women in the nineteenth century. Many critics feel that Edna's suicide was an independent victory over society's limitations. Others feel that she killed herself because she felt defeated by society and did not want to disgrace her children.

Women's issues were still too new in the late 1800s for the book to have any impact at the time it was published. Feminists since the 1940s and 1950s, however, have recognized the book as an important contribution to the understanding of women's changing roles in an evolving society. Chopin was in tune to women's issues and in a broader sense interested in universal human nature. Through her characters, she explored the relationship between, self and society.

Particularly aware of the conflicts women face—due in part to her French background and her female perspective—Chopin shared with her readers a view of women in American society that differed from other writers of her day. Her characters often held unconventional attitudes toward themselves and society's rules. These characters tried to fit into society and, at the same time, remain true to themselves. Edna Pontellier is no exception. She represents women in society both past and present. She joins other of Chopin's female protagonists in forming a basis for dialogue about a society that once devalued female sensuality and independence.

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