The Awakening Historical and Social Context
by Kate Chopin

The Awakening book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Download The Awakening Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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.

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

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...

(The entire section is 2,177 words.)