Part of the beauty in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening lies in its utterly languid quality.
In fact, much of the language leads readers to see it as plot-driven, romantic enjoyment: “It did not strike her as in the least grotesque that she should be making of Robert the object of conversation and leading her husband to speak of him. The sentiment which she entertained for Robert in no way resembled that which she felt for her husband, or had ever felt, or ever expected to feel” (Chopin).
But, we feminist scholars, of course, also recognize how crucial the text is to feminist theory and women’s and gender studies, but perhaps it has become so embraced because it is a novel in which one can easily sink into. Teaching the novel at both the high school and university level seems to be making a comeback, and that is encouraging when so many fear that women’s issues are still so hard to show as crucial.
The common belief is that Chopin’s novel was roundly criticized upon publication in 1899 because of its subject matter of what some deemed to be excused adultery. In reality, a quick web search reveals that reviews were mixed. Nonetheless, the novel was largely forgotten until, according to katechopin.org, Norwegian scholar Per Seyersted helped propel the novel back into public consciousness around 1969, coinciding with the apex of Second Wave Feminism and the resulting curricular updates and launches of women’s studies program.
By the time I was in undergrad in the 1990s, The Awakening was not only a part of the canon but fertile ground for academic inquiry, as noted feminist scholars such as Sandra Gilbert and Emily Toth had shown just how relevant the text is and why. And so many of us savored it all.
Chopin, not surprisingly, given her own background, helps readers explore what the prescribed role of women was at the time (think of the remnants of Cult of True Womanhood) and what the real role of women should and could be. She describes issues of sexuality, self actualization, motherhood and religion.
Indeed, Chopin illustrates to readers how to more practically interpret the whore-virgin dichotomy with her depiction of the mother-woman Madame Adele Ratignolle, the artist-woman Mademoiselle Reisz, and the woman caught between the two, our protaganist Mrs. Edna Pontellier. Although other characters may see Adele as very motherly, Mlle. Reisz as old and lonely, and Edna as flighty, we 21st century readers can see them as women we would encounter – and like – in our own lives.
This seemingly simplistic reading is as important as understanding the more complex feminist themes as reader empathy (or at the very least, understanding) with the characters can lead to a better understanding of why feminist thought is still necessary.
Moreover, Chopin cleverly includes a chapter that shows Edna essentially being “reborn” but not without some keen criticisms of organized religion. When Edna and Robert travel to a nearby island to attend Mass, Edna is overcome, claustrophobic, exhausted in the church. Robert takes her to a friend’s home to rest. She awakens from a nap to bath (baptism) and feast on bread and wine (the Eucharist) – and also continues on her journey of realization and action of removing herself from her life as a repressed wife and mother and moving toward her true love of Robert and her desires to be an artist.
Although Chopin never proclaimed to be a feminist nor is she considered a “feminist writer,” she certainly presents women as a crucial part of the fabric of society. She herself was raised by women and found herself a business owner and single mother after her husband’s untimely death. She wrote to support her family, and certainly was a precursor of the #workingmom.
Some readers have attempted to equate Edna Pontellier with Chopin, but Edna made much different choices for much different reasons. Edna was unfulfilled, confused, immature. And unfortunately, her society prevented her from fulfilling her desires, clearing her confusion and ultimately growing into a truly adult woman.
Modern readers see Edna as a casualty of societal constraints on women, making The Awakening certainly worth either revisiting or discovering, as the buzzy media (http://mentalfloss.com/article/527341/15-facts-about-kate-chopins-awakening) as well as a new Norton edition (http://books.wwnorton.com/books/webad.aspx?id=4294995281) underscore.
You can find more background at https://www.katechopin.org/the-awakening/.
Suzanne Sanders is a volunteer at the Women’s Museum of California and teaches copyediting at University of California, San Diego Extension. While an English professor at Wilbur Wright College in Chicago, she developed the college’s women’s and gender studies program and curriculum. She facilitated a roundtable discussion on teaching women’s and gender studies at the community college level at the National Women’s Studies Association conference in 2015.