Do you agree that Kate Chopin's novel The Awakening was ahead of its time?

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Among literary works written during a given historical period, usually only a few achieve enduring recognition. While numerous authors may address similar topics, some write more skillfully than others or create especially memorable characters. Occasionally a work achieves little success in its own time but is rediscovered by subsequent generations. Such cases may both cause the work to be referred to as “ahead of its time.” This often means that the themes, characters, or lot resonate with events that are common in the reader’s day and do not match the reader’s idea of the early period.

When Kate Chopin was writing, there was already an established tradition of female fiction writers although this was not a common profession for women. Although she died younger than Edith Wharton or Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the three women were born in the 1850s-60s, and all figured in the production of fiction with strong female characters who defy social conventions.

In terms of the accepted social norms of her day, it was extremely difficult for a woman to seek or obtain a divorce. One reason was that employment opportunities were limited and most women had little or no property of their own, so few women could support themselves. Some women did take steps to leave their homes and negotiated long-term separations, especially if the husband had a mistress but wished to provide for the children he had with his wife.

The Awakening was also shocking in its day for its apparent, though veiled, sexual content. The married Edna is portrayed as having one affair and wanting to have another Although Chopin uses euphemisms for sexual activity, such as water motifs (waves, swimming), those conventions would have been recognized as synonyms for sexual passion. Outside of pornography, explicit sexual content was rare in men’s writing as well until the 1920s, when James Joyce’s Ulysses broke numerous taboos and was banned in the United States. While criticized because of Edna’s behavior, The Awakening was not banned.

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This question is an interesting one because the events in the story are probably, sadly, typical of many women who lived during all times and ages, but Kate Chopin's internal exploration of Edna's dissatisfaction is somewhat ahead of its time. The publication of The Awakening took place in 1899, and though feminism was yet to become the movement it is today, some women writers did discuss the rights of women. Mary Wollstonecraft wrote The Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792, for example, and other women like Anne Bradstreet and Jane Addams also expressed their beliefs in equality at different points in history.

Though the political ideas present in The Awakening had been in existence for many years, Chopin's deeply personal expression of Edna's unhappiness with a life of domesticity is unusual and, I believe, ahead of its time. The details of Edna's emotions and her psychological experience are surprisingly poignant for their accurate rendition of a woman trapped by patriarchal expectations.

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