Realism and Its Use in The Awakening: Realism is a movement in art and literature which started in France in the mid-19th century. It sought to portray what was actual, or real in life, rooting out the fantastical, mythical elements that adorned other literature. Many scholars see realism as a pendulum-like swing away from Romanticism and its idealistic, grandiose approach. Characters in realist literature are not kings and queens or gods and goddesses. They are normal people, going about their everyday lives and dealing with everyday victories and failures. Characters in realist novels are concerned with work, marriage, and family.
- The Awakening is exemplary of realist literature in the way it attends to the ordinariness of Edna and Léonce’s lives. We observe them navigating what to serve for dinner, discussing why Edna must stay home on Tuesdays to receive guests, and negotiating their sex life.
- As a realist novel, The Awakening focuses on ordinary characters with personal failings. Their actions are narrated objectively, without any pedantic criticism, and so readers are invited to observe and understand, rather than judge, the characters.
The Awakening’s Reception and Publication History: Critics and the general public denounced Kate Chopin’s themes surrounding free will, sex, and modern women’s search for self. Acceptable fiction in the nineteenth century did not deal with women’s feelings, women’s extramarital affairs, and women’s sexuality, all of which were considered taboo subjects. Yet Chopin’s interest in the lives of women was part of a broader social upheaval. In 1899, when the novel was published, the controversial women’s movement was on the rise. Many women sought to live as individuals, not as merely as “mother-women.” Chopin describes mother-women as women “who idolized their children, worshipped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels.” Edna’s search for personal fulfillment reveals the inner desires and experiences of an entire generation of women.
- In The Awakening, Chopin did not punish Edna for her pursuing her desires for independence and self-expression, but rather related her thoughts and actions objectively. Because The Awakening does not hold Edna in moral judgment for her thoughts, words, and deeds, the novel was largely rejected by critics and readers, alike.
- The Awakening was published during a time when society had clear expectations of who and what a woman should be. Chief among a woman’s duties were homemaking, child-bearing and raising, and grace and refinement in the social arts. Edna’s ultimate rejection of the socially acceptable roles for women made The Awakening unpopular when it was first published. Libraries removed the book from their shelves. The St. Louis Fine Arts Club in Chopin’s hometown removed her from its rolls. Feminists since the 1930s, however, have recognized The Awakening as an important work that illustrates the need for a renewed vision of the roles of modern women.
Literary Allusions: Kate Chopin makes allusions to classic literary sources in order to illustrate the changes Edna undergoes as she awakens throughout the novel.
- In chapter 25, one of the minor characters attends a “Dante reading” instead of spending the day at the races. In Dante’s epic poem, The Divine Comedy, a middle-aged man experiences a spiritual awakening. His journey takes him from hell to purgatory to heaven. This allusion frames the journey that Edna has begun.
- In chapter 39, Chopin alludes to the birth story of Venus , Roman goddess of love and beauty. Mariequita listens to a description of a dinner party Edna threw and thinks to herself that “Venus rising from the foam could have presented no...
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- more enchanting a spectacle” than Edna sitting at the head of the table in all her finery. This allusion illustrates Edna’s incomparable beauty as well as the figurative rebirth she undergoes.
Musical Allusions: In addition to literary allusions, Chopin alludes to several pieces of music and opera, whose styles and stories weigh meaningfully on the events of Edna’s life.
- In chapter 9, Mlle. Reisz plays the Preludes of Chopin during the party on Grand Isle, triggering the beginning of Edna’s awakening. Later, in a more private setting, Mlle. Reisz plays Chopin’s Impromptu for Edna. Chopin’s piano works are emotionally stirring and often mercurial, offering tremendous contrasts in tone and mood.
- Other musical allusions used in the novel include Franz von Suppé’s 1854 overture to the play The Poet and the Peasant, Louis Joseph Ferdinand Herold’s 1831 opera Zampa, and Richard Wagner’s 1857 opera Tristan und Isolde. Wagner’s opera, with its tale of doomed love, is particularly thematically relevant. Fittingly, Mlle. Reisz plays Isolde’s theme as Edna learns that Robert has left Louisiana for Mexico.