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The Awakening: An Overview

(Novels for Students)

Published in 1899, Kate Chopin's novel The Awakening is considered to be one of the cornerstone texts of both American realism and the feminist movement. Modern critics praise The Awakening for its daring treatment of traditional gender roles as they were defined at the turn of the century, and for its exploration of a woman's search for self-fulfillment. However, when Chopin's novel first appeared, it met with harsh criticism. Reviewers objected to the unwholesome content of the novel, and although many considered the writing style outstanding, most critics dismissed the book as trash because they perceived its protagonist as an immoral woman. One reviewer, commenting on Edna Pontellier's lack of moral substance, remarked in Public Opinion that "we are well satisfied when she drowns herself."

The harsh reviews that The Awakening received have led to a common misconception concerning the effect of its critical reception. The first biography of Kate Chopin by priest Daniel Rankin, reports that Chopin was shunned by society and that The Awakening was banned by many libraries, including those in her native St. Louis. These reports circulated widely for several decades, and until 1990, were accepted as factual accounts. Emily Toth's authoritative biography of Chopin, which appeared in 1990 and was subsequently nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, refutes Rankin's claims. Toth offers evidence that although The Awakening was reviled in some circles, the book was never officially banned, nor was it removed from library shelves during Chopin's lifetime. While Chopin lost a pre-existing contract for a collection of short fiction which would have appeared after The Awakening, Chopin was not a social outcast as a result of writing the controversial novel.

Despite the fallacies surrounding the initial publication of Chopin's novel, the mixed critical reception that the novel received led Chopin's publishers to allow it to pass out of print soon after its initial publication. From 1906, the date of the second printing of the novel, until 1969, when Norwegian scholar Per Seyersted began studying Chopin's fiction and produced a volume of the writer's Complete Works, only a few of Chopin's short stories remained in print. The appearance of Seyersted's biography precipitated scholarly study of Chopin's texts, and much of this study has focused on The Awakening Feminist critics, in particular, have looked at The Awakening with renewed interest, and have successfully included Chopin's works in the core group of texts that constitute the basis of American literature. Since Chopin's rediscovery in 1969, her writings have remained in print continuously and have gained popularity at a rapid rate. When Chopin's works began to be reprinted, they represented a marginal example of the Southern local color school. Three decades later, The Awakening is a classic of American literature that is read more frequently than Herman Melville's Moby Dick.

In The Awakening, Chopin adopts the point-of-view of a third-person, omniscient narrator. The narrator primarily reports the thoughts, actions, and feelings of both the main character, Edna Pontellier, and occasionally of some minor characters, such as Leonce Pontellier and Robert Lebrun . An important departure from this point-of-view occurs in chapter six, when the author pointedly intrudes into the novel. It is at this point that the reader is introduced to the internal turmoil that is the source of Edna's unrest and which causes her to act "capriciously." Chopin interjects her own voice into the narrative to tell the reader that Edna is discovering her "relations as an individual to the world within and about her" and that she is experiencing the dawning of a light which "showing the way, forbids it." Chopin takes great pains to assure that the reader does not miss the importance of this "beginning of things" that is taking place inside Edna's head, as it represents Edna's first steps on the road toward self-discovery and away from the restrictions...

(The entire section is 6,771 words.)