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Kate Chopin: The Awakening

When first published The Awakening caused a huge furore because it dared to suggest that a married woman and mother could possibly have little interest in her children and, at the same time, be sexually interested in men other than her husband. Even her first biographer, Father Daniel Rankin, passed over the book with some disgust, saying it reflected the current erotic morbidity. Willa Cather compared Edna Pontellier to Emma Bovary and hoped that, next time, Chopin”will devote that flexible, iridescent style of hers to a better cause.” It was banned in various cities and her publishers refused to publish any more of her work. Since the 1960s, as mores have changed, the novel has been recognised as a first class work of art.

The story is simple. Edna Pontellier is 28 years old. Her husband, Leonce, runs a brokerage house in New Orleans. They have two sons. Most of the initial action takes place in La Chênière Caminada, based on the now destroyed New Orleans resort of Grande Isle. Edna is not interested in her sons but she is interested in a young neighbour, Robert Lebrun, with whom she flirts. Robert is only interested in flirting and soon leaves for Mexico. Edna is distraught and soon becomes depressed. Her husband does not know why but the family doctor has worked it out. Leonce goes to New York on business, while their sons are sent to stay with their grandparents. Edna then starts an affair with Alcee Arobin. She moves to a smaller house and takes up painting. Robert returns but leaves because they cannot be lovers, as she is married. She finally drowns herself.

What makes this novel so interesting is that it shows a woman discovering her independence not economically but sexually. This is, of course, a complete rejection of the standard perception of the role of women in the South. Her husband and her friends try, in vain, to make her aware of her”social obligations” but she has no time for them and no interest in them. This is no conscious, overt rebellion that we might find in a contemporary novel but, rather, a gradual awakening, to use Chopin’s own word, to herself as an independent being.

Publishing history

First published in 1899 by Herbert S. Stone & Co, Chicago