The Awakening: A novel that has earned its place in literary history

Book review: Kate Chopin’s writing was praised by critics, but its moral tone was denounced by many

Kate Chopin’s  concept of female sexual desire was too much for patriarchal critics to take.

Kate Chopin’s concept of female sexual desire was too much for patriarchal critics to take.

 

Kate Chopin (1850-1904) was raised mainly by women and was encouraged to be independent and self-sufficient. Her husband died when she was 31 and she took up writing a few years later. As a short-story writer, she deeply admired Maupassant and has been compared to him in terms of style and accomplishment. The chief significance of The Awakening is probably down to its place in literary history. 

The story is simple enough: Edna Pontellier is dissatisfied with her role as a society wife and mother, though she cannot say why. While on holiday on Grand Isle, the music of a pianist and the company of a young man awaken something in her and cause her to long for more. Returning home, she embarks on a series of social and sexual actions that lead to some fulfilment but also a tragic end.

Chopin first touched on tensions caused by sexual relations within marriage in her first novel, At Fault (1890). But The Awakening shows a greater sureness of touch combined with delicate restraint. Although the writing was praised by critics, many strongly denounced the moral tone with scandalised indignation – the concept of female sexual desire was too much for patriarchal critics to take. 

The hostile reception bewildered Chopin, who responded with dignity – and not a little irony: “Having a group of people at my disposal, I thought it might be entertaining [to myself] to throw them together and see what would happen. I never dreamed of Mrs Pontellier making such a mess of things and working out her own damnation as she did. If I had had the slightest intimation of such a thing, I would have excluded her from the company. But when I found out what she was up to, the play was half over and it was then too late.” 

This revealing response shows that character development would proceed without any artificial authorial intrusion.

Chopin wrote no more novels and The Awakening virtually disappeared until resurrected in the late 1960s. Today it’s regarded as a classic and perhaps the greatest early feminist work of the American South.

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