Kate Chopin: “The Awakening”

See image credit below.

See image credit below.

Kate Chopin initially made her literary name as a writer of “local color fiction.” Writers around the United States were focusing careful attention on the customs, dialects, folkways, and geography of distinct regions in the U.S. For example, Sarah Orne Jewett focused on life in coastal Maine, perhaps most famously in The Country of the Pointed Firs, and her literary heir, Willa Cather, took the local color impulse further in her fully realized novels, such as My Ántonia, O Pioneers!, and The Song of the Lark.

Chopin was particularly adept at crafting local color fiction, and she published two volumes of sketches and short stories set in the Cajun bayous of Louisiana. Though she was born and raised in my hometown of St. Louis and though she would return to the Lou after her husband died, she lived with her husband first in New Orleans, then in a rural Louisiana parish. It was there in Cloutierville in Nachitoches Parish that she found the inspiration for her short fiction. You can learn about the Chopins’ home, now designated as a National Historic Landmark, and follow in the footsteps of the Literary Traveler, Linda McGovern, as she visits Cloutierville.

In 1899, Chopin took what she had learned about local color writing and used it to create The Awakening, a novel set in New Orleans and nearby Grand Isle – a place of summer retreat for the wives and children of wealthy New Orleans businessmen. A woman’s retelling of Gustave Flaubert’s 1857 novel, Madame Bovary, Chopin’s The Awakening teeters on the edge between the nineteenth century and the twentieth.

The novel’s heroine, Edna Pontellier, has been raised to be a good New Orleans wife, with the tacit assumption that she’ll simply don her duties like the proper dresses she wears and become like her friend, Madame Ratignolle, whom Edna calls one of the “mother women.”

But Edna doesn’t assume the mantle of respectable wife and doting mother as easily as her society tells her she should. Instead, she dips a toe in the burgeoning possibilities of the twentieth century. Actually, she dips more than a toe. After tentative beginnings, she learns to swim and plunges into the Gulf of Mexico headlong.

Her twentieth-century role model is Mademoiselle Reisz, an unmarried pianist who has dedicated her life to her music.

As Edna “awakens” throughout the novel, the question is constantly posed: can she fly above convention, or is she, as Mademoiselle Reisz says, a bird with a broken wing, hampered by the expectations of her society?

The similarities between Madame Bovary and The Awakening are striking. In Chopin’s novel, the heroine Emma is renamed Edna; other character names are echoed as well. Both Emma Bovary and Edna Pontellier commit adultery, and to make matters worse, in Chopin’s novel, the heroine’s downfall – or “sin” – is that she commits adultery solely for passion, rather than for love. Each novel ends with the heroine’s demise.

But where Emma Bovary is a shallow child-woman lost in Romantic fantasies, there is more depth to Edna Pontellier. Her deepest desire is to be an artist. She recoils from the identity of the “mother-woman,” which she sees so fully realized in her friend Madame Ratignolle. Edna does not want to be bound by her children, by motherhood. At the same time, she is drawn to her asexual friend, Mademoiselle Reisz. She loves the fact that Mademoiselle Reisz has devoted her entire life to music, and she dreams that she, too, could make a life of her art, her painting.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of The Awakening is how to read what is undeniably an ambiguous ending. It often makes me think of the ending to the film Thelma & Louise. At first, we’re cheering as Thelma and Louise drive off the cliff: they’re liberated, they’re free, they’re triumphant. But almost instantly, we’re devastated: for in that moment of triumph, they also die.

So too with the ending of The Awakening. Edna has finally learned to swim – “she wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before.” She does so naked, stripped of all social conventions and mores. She is free and triumphant at last. But it’s also true that she has swum out past the point of no return: she’s dead. She is the bird with the broken wing, the woman who could not succeed in breaking free of convention.

What happened to Kate Chopin herself is telling. By any measure and at any time, The Awakening would be considered a bold novel. That it was published in 1899 is nearly unbelievable. It is no surprise, then, to learn that Chopin came in for sharp criticism. Newspaper reviews around the country were immediately and unmistakably harsh. The St. Louis Republic deemed the novel “poison” and “too strong a drink for moral babes,” and the Chicago Times Herald chastised her for entering “the overworked field of sex fiction.”

What caused the outrage about the book? Edna’s bold, unconventional choices, including an extramarital affair with someone she did not love. But worse than that was the fact that Chopin, as author, did not punish or condemn her character for the affair.

The vitriolic reviews were one thing. But what was much more devastating to Chopin was the resounding silence she was met with immediately and permanently from upper-crust St. Louis society, of which she had been a mainstay. Chopin had hosted a famous and well-loved “salon” – Thursday afternoon soirees that gathered the literary, artistic, cultural, and intellectual luminaries of her time. She was also the first woman in St. Louis to become a professional fiction writer.

Chopin’s prominence meant nothing, however, when The Awakening was published. Quite literally, no one ever darkened her doorway again.

So strong was the response against The Awakening that it caused her publisher to pull the contract on her forthcoming collection of stories, A Vocation and a Voice (which was finally published posthumously decades later). Chopin wrote nothing further between the publishing of The Awakening in 1899 and her death after a hot August day at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904.

After her death, Kate Chopin – the writer once heralded for her ability to capture the essence of Cajun culture – fell into nearly complete literary obscurity. It would take a Norwegian scholar, Per Seyersted, to rediscover her work in the 1960s and convince an American publisher to reissue her work.

Now The Awakening is taught in college classrooms across the country and is included in its entirety in the venerated Norton Anthology of American Literature.

Ready to learn more about Chopin? Of course, you’ll want to start by reading The Awakening – either in a free, online version or in an inexpensive Dover Thrift Edition. Per Seyersted edited an outstanding volume, The Complete Works of Kate Chopin, and Emily Toth has written the definitive biography, Unveiling Kate Chopin. For my take on Toth’s biography, visit the American Literature website, and for more of my thoughts on The Awakening, read the first chapter of my 1994 book, A Southern Weave of Women: Fiction of the Contemporary South. If you still haven’t had enough of Chopin’s work, you might want to take a look at Kate Chopin’s Private Papers, co-edited by Seyersted and Toth. In addition, the Kate Chopin International Society has a useful website. PBS has a transcript of its great documentary, Kate Chopin: A Re-Awakening, and Literary Traveler Linda McGovern takes you to Grand Isle, the setting of The Awakening. Finally, if you want to see just how far Chopin could take her depiction of passion, read her posthumously published story “The Storm,” in which the two characters get swept away by the power of a raucous thunderstorm.

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Listen:Listen as I read the scene where Edna Pontellier learns to swim.


Image Credit: Kate Chopin, 1894, public domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kate_Chopin.jpg.