Is The Awakening an example of realism or naturalism?

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Though there are elements of naturalism in The Awakening, it is largely a realist novel. It portrays the limitations placed on women in late nineteenth-century middle-class society.

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Though it can be argued that The Awakening is both a realist and naturalist novel, the book as a whole contains elements more closely associated with realism. Naturalism depicts nature as a force indifferent to, and therefore usually malevolent towards, humankind because it simply does not assign us any special, protected status. Nature plays a more benign and less ironized role in this novel than in a typical naturalist novel of the type Hardy or Zola wrote, helping to awaken Edna to her selfhood and sensuous potential as a human being. It does not crush her.

The novel concentrates on society, but not in a social Darwinist or "survival of the fittest" way. It attempts to realistically portray what it is like to be an affluent but oppressed woman in New Orleans society around the turn of the twentieth century, showing Edna's rebellion against being expected to fulfill the roles of wife and mother, to which she is ill suited. It critiques the expectation that women completely subordinate themselves to the needs of others and critiques the kind of society Edna came from in Kentucky that encouraged women to repress their emotions.

The novel offers no romantic solutions to Edna's dilemma of having obligations to her young sons yet wanting to be free: there is little satisfaction in Edna's choice of suicide. At the same time, nature seems more in sympathy with Edna's desires than malevolent or indifferent. At the novel's end, the sea curls itself around Edna like a serpent (which is not, in the iconography of this novel, a bad thing), and she finds the "touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace."

Nature is in a seeming sympathy with Edna as she dies. Her lack of options are realistically portrayed, with suicide seeming to her the only answer. This puts the novel in line with such realist fiction as Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina.

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