Context

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 315

Kate Chopin’s The Awakening has become one of the classics of feminist literature because of its theme of sexual awakening and a woman’s right to freedom of choice in matters of love. Feminists believe that the sexual repression of women, which is still common throughout the world, is a necessary precondition of the political repression and economic exploitation of women that are also still found on every continent of the globe. Feminists believe that until women have control of their own bodies, they cannot hope to have control of their own lives.

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Chopin was ahead of her time. Her novel The Awakening met with critical abuse and public denunciation. A reviewer writing for the magazine Public Opinion in 1899 stated that he was “well satisfied” with Edna’s suicide because she deserved to die for her immoral behavior. Chopin never wrote another novel and gradually gave up writing altogether. During the early part of the twentieth century, she had become virtually forgotten. Then the very qualities that had caused her to be condemned as an evil influence brought her to the attention of a few critics who saw that Chopin had created a minor masterpiece of feminist literature.

Currently, The Awakening is enjoying great popularity and is available in many different editions. The rediscovery of this novel has revived interest in Chopin’s other writings. Several biographies have been published, along with a number of full-length critical studies. The Awakening is assigned as required reading in many women’s studies and literature courses. Because of the renewed interest in her groundbreaking novel, Chopin is also being read in translation in many foreign countries, including France and Japan. She is one of the few writers to have had the good fortune to be figuratively brought back from the dead, and her work is exerting a considerable influence on women’s literature and feminism in general.

Background

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Last Updated on June 4, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 414

Kate Chopin grew up in violent, turbulent times. She came from a slaveholding family in a city that was a major center for slave trade. There was constant fighting in St. Louis over secession. The Civil War began in 1861 when she was 11 years old, and she and everyone she knew lived in constant terror. There were times when she was confined to her home because of the fighting in the street. She learned to be self-sufficient from an early age.

After the Civil War ended, a period of strong activism among St. Louis women began. There were many outspoken suffragists, and other women who were beginning to question the path of marriage and motherhood. Susan B. Anthony was traveling and speaking extensively about equality and women’s rights. By the 1890s there were many “New Women” making their way in St. Louis. These were single women who became doctors, lawyers, and journalists.

Additionally, the works of Darwin, Spencer, and Huxley were transforming intellectual thought. People were beginning to question things they had always held as truth, including definitions of morality. Finally, the Industrial Revolution was well under way, and the whole world was changing. The Awakening was published in 1899, just at the turn of the century, and there was constant tension between tradition and movement, old and new.

The majority of the reviews for The Awakening were unfavorable. Although her writing was praised, the book was described as “unhealthy,” “unwholesome,” “unpleasant,” and “a dangerous specimen of sex fiction.” Despite the fact that many women had begun to write novels with daring themes by the time The Awakening was published, for example, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, even novels with the most radical themes still tended to promote traditional values and have traditional resolutions. Even some of the most radical women still thought that sexual passion was immoral and unhealthy for women. So it is no surprise that even amidst the incredible changes, for women and the country as a whole Kate Chopin was censured for the choices made by her protagonist, Edna Pontellier. Edna’s passion was described by one reviewer as an “ugly, cruel, loathsome monster.”

Kate Chopin, herself, and through Edna Pontellier, questioned the traditional idea of woman as wife and mother, without passion and without her own mind. The Awakening depicts the powerful “cage of convention” and the futility both Kate and Edna felt in trying to live a life of freedom.

 

Historical Context

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Last Updated on June 4, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 600

Creole Society

Kate Chopin lived in, and generally wrote about, life in the South. In The Awakening, she wrote specifically about Creole society in northern Louisiana. Creoles saw themselves as different from Anglo-Americans and maintained cultural traditions passed down from their French and Spanish ancestors. They enjoyed gambling, entertainment, and social gatherings and spent a great deal of time in these activities. The Creoles seldom accepted outsiders to their social circles and felt that newcomers should live by their rules. Men dominated the households and expected their women to provide them with well-kept homes and many children to carry on the family name. Women responded by bearing children and refining their social talents. While the Creole men caroused, their women kept well-run houses and perfected their accomplishments in music, art, and conversation. Such refined women enhanced their husbands' social status.

The Beginnings of the Women's Movement

The 1800s saw a change in the status of women. Chopin's character, Edna Pontellier, illustrates the independent nature that women began recognizing in themselves. Edna felt that there was more to life than living in her husband's shadow and stifling her own desires and dreams. Women of the time felt the same way. As early as 1848, women gathered in New York State to begin addressing issues of equality. ©2000-2004 eNotes. This first convention of women set the groundwork for the women's rights movement. Women's groups continued to organize to educate women about social and political issues and to allow a forum for women's discussions. While women did not gain the right to vote until 1920, these pioneering efforts gained a voice in society that would not be quieted. Edna's actions in The Awakening reflect the times and the emotions felt by the many women who sought personal freedom.

Literary Criticism

Chopin's editors tolerated her daring themes and characters' actions more than did the critics and general public. Chopin wrote about life as it really was and did not shy away from subjects that were considered taboo. The characters in Chopin's short stories and novels often demonstrated the "dual lives" that women of the 1800s lived. In a time when women's roles were changing, Chopin's characters found themselves questioning conformity and duty versus freedom and personal identity.

Kate Chopin, herself, exemplified the spirit of the women's movement during the 1800s. While she was married to a wealthy Southern businessman, she defied tradition by assisting her husband with his business, taking walks by herself through the streets of New Orleans, and smoking cigarettes. Her blatant disregard for society's expectations peaked in The Awakening. Her character, Edna Pontellier, thinks and acts in many ways like Kate Chopin did. Edna thinks about herself as separate from her family and society. She challenges the role society has forced upon her and courageously turns her back on it.

Critics denounced Chopin for allowing Edna Pontellier the freedom to refuse conformity. They also criticized Chopin's seeming sympathy for her character. The outcry demonstrated that the literary world was not ready for the realism Chopin's novel portrayed. Even though women's roles in the real world were changing, Chopin's frank treatment of female sexuality, social impropriety, and personal freedom shook the literary world. Critics condemned the novel. Libraries removed it from their shelves. In spite of the freer climate initiated by the women's movement, the St. Louis Fine Arts Club removed Kate Chopin from their rolls. Chopin continued to write, however, and to allow her characters to stretch beyond the confining boundaries set by society. Today's critics recognize her artistry and applaud her realistic approach that helps define society in the late nineteenth century.

Social Sensitivity

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 684

The Awakening has taken on a new significance since the advent of the women's movement. Literary debates have raged over the significance of Edna 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 sensitive 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.

The nineteenth century, in particular, saw a change in the status of women. Chopin's character, Edna Pontellier, illustrates the independent nature that women began recognizing in themselves. Edna felt that there was more to life than living in her husband's shadow and stifling her own desires and dreams. Women of the time felt the same way. As early as 1848, women gathered in New York state to begin addressing issues of equality. This first convention of women set the groundwork for the women's rights movement. Women's groups continued to organize to educate women about social and political issues and to allow a forum for women's discussions. While women did not gain the right to vote until 1920, these pioneering efforts gained a voice in society that would not be quieted. Edna's actions in The Awakening reflect the times and the emotions felt by the many women who sought personal freedom.

Chopin's editors tolerated her daring themes and characters' actions more than did the critics and general public. Chopin wrote about life as it really was and did not shy away from subjects that were considered taboo. The characters in Chopin's short stories and novels often demonstrated the "dual lives" that women of the 1800s lived. In a time when women's roles were changing, Chopin's characters found themselves questioning conformity and duty versus freedom and personal identity.

Kate Chopin, herself, exemplified the spirit of the women's movement during the 1800s. While she was married to a wealthy Southern businessman, she defied tradition by assisting her husband with his business, taking walks by herself through the streets of New Orleans, and smoking cigarettes. Her blatant disregard for society's expectations peaked in The Awakening. Her character, Edna Pontellier, thinks and acts in many ways like Kate Chopin did. Edna thinks about herself as separate from her family and society. She challenges the role society has forced upon her and courageously turns her back on it.

Critics denounced Chopin for allowing Edna Pontellier the freedom to refuse to conform. They also criticized Chopin's seeming sympathy for her character. The outcry demonstrated that the literary world was not ready for the realism Chopin's novel portrayed. Even though women's roles in the real world were changing, Chopin's frank treatment of female sexuality, social impropriety, and personal freedom shook the literary world. Critics condemned the novel. Libraries removed it from their shelves. Chopin continued to write, however, and to allow her characters to stretch beyond the confining boundaries set by society. Today's critics recognize her artistry and applaud her realistic approach that gives insight into society in the late nineteenth century.

Compare and Contrast

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Last Updated on June 4, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 164

1890s: The women's movement begins to gain a foothold on American society. However, women still do not have the right to vote, and women's issues were not part of the political platform.

Today: Women have had the right to vote since the passage of the Twenty-second Amendment to the Constitution in 1920.

1890s: According to the law, a married woman's property belonged to her husband, even if she had inherited land before being wed. If she later divorced her husband, the land would still be legally his.

Today: Women have equal legal rights to property, and divorce cases usually conclude with at least half—if not more—of a couple's possessions going to the wife.

1890s: Advice columns for women had their beginning. With the advent of Dorothy Dix's column in 1895, advice columns appeared in newspapers and provided a forum for discussion of women's issues.

Today: Not only do publishing companies print women's columns in newspapers, but they also dedicate entire magazines to women's issues.

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