Kate Chopin, The Awakening
Study Guides on Works and Writers
(Chicago: Herbert S. Stone, 1899)
Katherine O’Flaherty was born on 8 February 1850, in St. Louis and grew up in a slave-owning Southern family dominated by women. Her father, an Irish-Catholic immigrant, died in a railway accident when she was five, and she spent the remainder of her childhood surrounded by her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, all of whom were widows. It is this unconventional lifestyle and fierce independence that scholars claim influenced her best-known and most controversial work, The Awakening. Published on the cusp of a new century and at the crossroads of a progressively changing nation, The Awakening, originally subtitled “A Solitary Soul,” dealt unabashedly with marital and maternal oppression as well as infidelity to the extent that even women’s-rights reformers did not quite know what to make of such female sexual freedom. Interestingly, though, Chopin’s marriage to Oscar Chopin, whom she wed in 1870, in no way seemed an unhappy union, although biographers disagree as to how to characterize her marriage and her reaction to the six children she bore in the span of nine years.
Twelve years after their marriage, Oscar died of malaria, leaving Kate in charge of his cotton business in Louisiana. Shortly afterward, she sold the business, paid off their debt, and returned with her children to St. Louis. Chopin began publishing short stories in such well-known periodicals as the Atlantic Monthly, Century, and Vogue about the Creole culture in Louisiana that established her reputation as a local colorist. Drawing on quaint language and specific customs mined from her memories of years spent in Louisiana and summering in Grand Isle, Chopin appealed to a wide readership, as can be seen in her first story collection, Bayou Folk (1894), which had a guaranteed publisher and was well received. However, within this vein of Regionalist writing appear complex issues, specifically as they pertain to women’s roles and needs. At the center of this emerges The Awakening. Following its publication and controversial reception, Chopin wrote little. Her publisher canceled her third short-story collection, A Vocation and a Voice, likely because of the poor sales of The Awakening. Chopin died in 1904 of a cerebral hemorrhage.
Upon its release on 2 April 1899, The Awakening was met with scathing reviews. The St. Louis Republic labeled the novel “poison” and “too strong a drink for moral babes.” Willa Cather in the Pittsburgh Leader called the novel “trite and sordid,” demonstrating that women, as well as men, objected to its subject. Although it was never technically banned, it was censored. The novel received almost no critical attention until scholars such as Cyrille Arnavon (who in 1953 translated the novel into French), Warner Berthoff, Larzer Ziff, Edmund Wilson, George Arms, Louis Leary, and Per Seyersted contributed to a revival of Chopin’s work. Seyersted’s Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography was published in 1969 at the beginning of the second feminist wave. From the 1970s onward The Awakening has attracted a great deal of critical attention. There have been four biographies of Kate Chopin, but the best is the most recent, Unveiling Kate Chopin (1999) by Emily Toth, which is crucial in placing the novel within its appropriate historical framework. Unlike the other biographers, Toth takes a feminist approach, depicting a more unconventional woman who flouted social expectations.
The Awakening depicts a female protagonist, Edna Pontellier, who embarks upon a journey of self-discovery while vacationing for the summer in Grand Isle. While her husband Leonce travels back and forth to New Orleans on business, Edna befriends Adele Ratignolle (the ultimate mother-woman), Mademoiselle Reisz (an unmarried musician), and Robert Lebrun (the bachelor son of the resort owner). She learns how to swim, which unleashes a sensuality that facilitates her later affair with Alcee. Moving out of her husband’s mansion, Edna establishes her own residence at the “pigeon house,” where she takes up painting and man ages to earn a small income. After a romantic tryst with Robert, she is called to assist Adele in childbirth. After witnessing this “scene [of] torture,” she returns home to find that Robert has left her a goodbye note. Upset and bewildered, she removes her clothes, and swims out into the Gulf of Mexico until she drowns.
TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION AND RESEARCH
- 1. The novel may be located at the intersection of several important literary movements, including local color, Romanticism, Realism, Naturalism, Impressionism, and modernism. Chopin’s accurate portrayal of Creole culture speaks to its regional character, while the ambiguous ending, absence of a narrative point of view, and lack of linear plot point to modernism. The unifying symbol of water and use of light and color with blurred scenes conform to the tenets of Impressionism. What is even more apparent is the tension between Romanticism and Realism. The romantic elements seem obvious with references to Edna’s romantic sensibility and overwrought imagination (for example, the cavalry officer, the tragedian, her reading of Emerson, and the romantic piano compositions by Mademoiselle Reisz and Adele). Yet, there are just as many elements of Realism in the text. After Edna witnesses Adele in childbirth, for example, she comments to Dr. Mandalet that she does not wish to “remain a dupe to illusions” for the rest of her life.
- 2. Chopin was greatly influenced by French writers, particularly Charles Baudelaire, Gustave Flaubert, and Guy de Maupassant, whose short stories she translated from French. The subtitle of The Awakening, “A Solitary Soul,” is perhaps an allusion to Maupassant’s “Solitude” (1895). Edna not only reads Emerson, but she also reads the Goncourt brothers. The theory of literary Naturalism is central to Chopin’s message. Chopin was greatly influenced by the works of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer, and she appropriated their theories within a specific social context. This influence can be witnessed in a particularly potent scene where Dr. Mandalet says to Edna (regarding motherhood), “It seems to be a provision of Nature, a decoy to secure mothers for the race.” In 1899 there was no reliable method of birth control, so Edna was, indeed, biologically trapped.
- 3. Many of the thematic elements are identified in the opening chapter. Feminist critics have been quick to associate the caged parrot in the first scene with Edna’s plight as an oppressed woman who attempts to escape her “cage of domesticity.” Edna does escape briefly by committing adultery and moving out of her house, but she ultimately fails. We can perhaps see the fate of such transgressive behavior in the falling bird Edna witnesses before her final swim, which recalls the myth of Icarus. When Mademoiselle Reisz feels Edna’s shoulder blades, the implication is that Edna is not strong enough to maintain her flight and will plummet. Although Edna awakens to her limitations, in the process she undergoes four types of awakenings: psychological, emotional, intellectual, and sexual. All of these awakenings speak to the emerging New Woman at the fin de siecle, a figure the patri archal establishment excoriates. Both Adele and Mademoiselle Reisz serve as alternative female models for Edna: whereas Adele epitomizes the True Woman (she is covered head to toe in white throughout the narrative), Reisz signifies the emerging New Woman.
- 4. Nature symbols play an important role in how to read the novel. Water, as an archetypal symbol for baptism, represents both death and rebirth. It is the Gulf where Edna feels most alive and awakens to her sensuality and this same body of water contributes to her death. Such imagery becomes problematic in light of the novel’s ending which concludes but does not resolve. The manner in which Chopin closes her novel deserves careful consideration. Questions students should ask are: how are we to understand Edna’s final swim? Is it triumphant or an indication of defeat? If we read the final scene as redolent of Walt Whitman, then Edna’s drowning is life-affirming because it points to a rebirth. Edna’s steps are regressive: the water recalls the womb and Edna recollects her childhood. This scene presages Freud, whose Studies in Hysteria (1895; translated, 1909) and The Interpretation of Dreams (1900; translated, 1913) were contemporaneous with The Awakening. Edna’s last swim could be seen as a step toward a new beginning. Conversely, we could also read the ending as indicative of self-annihilation and defeat. Along these lines, Edna’s regressive behavior is a sign of arrested development, her loss of her mother at an early age contributing to her immaturity and her threatened sense of self. Students should also consider the role of race in the novel since a quadroon cares for Edna’s children, but she is never given a name.
- 5. Although The Awakening is clearly concerned with female proscription, Chopin was never intimately involved with the suffragist movement and took very little interest in any organized feminist groups. What can we make of such radical feminism? One way to understand this is to note that Chopin seemed more concerned with the individual than with society and social movements. Her character’s condition was not merely a female conflict, but a human one (race withstanding, obviously). Clearly, Chopin knew that marital happiness was possible. After all, she presents Adele as happy in her mother-woman role. Yet, Edna cannot find happiness as a wife and mother or as a solitary artist, and so the conflict becomes less about the external world and more about Edna’s internal self.
- 6. Students reading The Awakening for the first time are encouraged to consult Margo Culley’s Norton Critical Edition (1994). Its critical apparatus will open the door to further study. Kate Chopin’s The Awakening: A Sourcebook, edited by Janet Beer and Elizabeth Nolan (London & New York: Routledge, 2004), is an excellent resource tool that includes a contextual overview, contemporary documents, a critical history, illustrations, and modern criticism. Because the extensive scholarship on Chopin can be daunting, students will appreciate this condensed version of significant criticism and key passages on the text. The website of the Kate Chopin International Society (http://www.katechopin. org/society.shtml) may also be helpful to students.
The Awakening: An Authorative Text, Biographical and Historical Contexts, Criticism, second edition, edited by Margo Culley (New York: Norton, 1994).
Originally published in 1976.
Marlene Springer, Edith Wharton and Kate Chopin: A Reference Guide (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1976).
A good overview of critical work on Chopin up and through 1976. Includes both primary and secondary sources.
Suzanne Disheroon Green and David J. Caudle, Kate Chopin: An Annotated Bibliography of Critical Works (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999).
An excellent book that is clearly organized and provides annotations for Chopin scholarship between 1979 and 1999. It also includes two biblio-critical essays and a critical introduction by Emily Toth.
Per Seyersted, Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980).
A useful analysis with a checklist of archival sources. Seyersted presents a less radical Chopin than does Toth.
Emily Toth, Kate Chopin (New York: Morrow, 1990).
Thorough depiction of Chopin’s early and latter years. Toth asserts that The Awakening accurately depicts a feminist consciousness during the late nineteenth century.
Toth, Unveiling Kate Chopin (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999). Explores Chopin’s life as a daughter, mother, and wife whose unconventional ways reveal a vastly different person from the one portrayed by Seyersted. Although there is no documented proof, Toth makes a strong case that the widowed Chopin had an affair with a married man who likely was the model for Alcee.
George Arms, “Kate Chopin’s The Awakening in the Perspective of Her Literary Career,” in Essays on American Literature in Honor of Jay B. Hubbell, edited by Clarence Gohdes (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1967), pp. 215-228.
Pioneering essay, published two years before Seyersted’s biography, that explores Chopin’s many literary achievements. Although the essay does not delve into Chopin’s personal life, this groundbreaking work paved the way for later Chopin studies.
Phillip Barrish, “The Awakening’s Signifying ‘Mexicanist’ Presence,” Studies in American Fiction, 28 (Spring 2000): 65-76.
A much overdue analysis of the role of ethnicity in Chopin’s novel, specifically as it pertains to the construction of gender and identity.
Nicole Camastra, “Venerable Sonority in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening,” American Literary Realism, 40 (Winter 2008): 154-166.
A provocative discussion that examines the composer Frederic Chopin’s influence on Kate Chopin’s novel and the romantic elements that resonate.
Lewis Leary, “Kate Chopin and Walt Whitman,” Walt Whitman Review, 16 (December 1970): 120-121.
Examines Walt Whitman’s influence on Chopin, particularly “Song of Myself” and “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.”
Ryu-Chung Eun, “The Negro as a Serious Subject in Kate Chopin’s Fiction,” Journal of English Language and Literature, 36 (1990): 659-678.
Argues that Chopin’s dispassionate treatment of race reveals a great sensitivity to the topic and allows for a realistic depiction of Creole culture.