Copyright, Russ Sprinkle, 1998.
English Department
Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio
Contact at: sprinkle@glasscity.net

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KATE CHOPIN'S THE AWAKENING: A CRITICAL RECEPTION

      The late nineteenth century was a tumultuous time for the United States. The social, scientific, and cultural landscape of the country was undergoing radical changes. Darwin's theories of evolution and natural selection had called into question established views concerning humankind's origins (theories in which Kate Chopin had more than a passing interest); urbanization and restoration of the country following the Civil War ushered men and women into a new social identity; and, perhaps most importantly, the women's rights movement had been gathering momentum since 1848, when the first woman's rights conference was held in Seneca Fall, New York.
       What this means is that for almost 50 years before Chopin published The Awakening, society had been engaged in a struggle over social ideologies and equal rights issues. As a result of this struggle, women as a whole had, to a certain extent, already experienced mobilization and emancipation from their socioeconomic fetters. For the first time in America, women began to bring the heretofore private issues of home and family into the public arena.
       Mari Jo Buhle notes that women during the post-Civil War era "regularly participated in the marketplace, gained their own sources of support, and broke once and for all with humiliating forms of financial dependency on men" (51). Women "at all levels of society were active in attempts to better their lot, and the 'New Woman,' the late nineteenth-century equivalent of the 'liberated woman,' was much on the public mind" (Culley 117). In mid-1899, nearly a half-century after the women's movement officially had begun, the cultural and social soil seemed fertile for the literary introduction of Kate Chopin's fictional character, Edna Pontellier.
      Choked by the cloistering, moralistic garb of the Victorian era, yet willing to give up everything--even her own life--for the freedom of unencumbered individuality, Edna Pontellier epitomized the consummate New Woman of the late nineteenth century. She embodied the social ideals for which women of that era were striving. She was individualistic--a maverick; she was passionate; she was courageous and intrepid--she was the definitive persona which thousands of women during the late nineteenth century exalted as a role model. This, combined with the fact that Chopin was already an established author, seemed an indicator that The Awakening was destined for success. One month before Chopin's novel was published, Lucy Monroe reviewed The Awakening for the March 1899, issue of Book News. Monroe's review praises Chopin's work as a "remarkable novel" and applauds it as "subtle and a brilliant kind of art" (Toth 329). Monroe further depicts the novel as "so keen in its analysis of character, so subtle in its presentation of emotional effects that it seems to reveal life as well as represent it" (Toth 328). Monroe's was a glowing review indeed, and undoubtedly heightened the mounting anticipation with which Chopin, her colleagues, and her publisher eagerly awaited the release of The Awakening.
      Although Monroe was the chief reader and literary editor for Chopin's publisher and undoubtedly had a vested interest in the success of The Awakening, her favorable review nonetheless undoubtedly hyped the unveiling of what Chopin expected to be a tremendous boost to her literary career.
      After Herbert S. Stone & Company published The Awakening on April 22, 1899, Chopin anxiously awaited the response of critics; unfortunately, while Chopin anticipated a warm reception in the days following the novel's release, critics were already sharpening the literary knives with which they would dissect both the amoral disposition of Edna Pontellier and the prurient theme of The Awakening.
      During the weeks immediately following its release, critics roundly condemned Chopin's novel . Despite Monroe's pre-publishing promotion and the mounting momentum of the women's movement, both Chopin and The Awakening were bombarded with an onslaught of unfavorable reviews. Most critics regarded the novel as vulgar, unwholesome, unholy, and a misappropriation of Chopin's exceptional literary talent. Many reviewers regarded the novel's aggrandizement of sexual impurity as immoral, and thus they condemned the novel's theme.
      That Chopin was already a successful and popular writer further fueled the awkward consternation with which critics viewed The Awakening. In fact, because of Chopin's success with her earlier works, "Bayou Folk," "At Fault," and "A Night in Acadie," critics expected more of what Chopin was known for as a regionalist writer--realism and local color. They expected to read a novel rich in descriptive language, colorful characters, and the sights and sounds of Louisiana Creole life. Instead of local color, however, critics were shocked and dismayed at Edna Pontellier's behavior and considered Chopin's novel morbid and lacking literary value. In most cases, critics were at a loss to explain the reasons why an artist with Chopin's undisputed literary talent would contribute to what one reviewer called "the overworked field of sex fiction" (Seyersted 219).
      Because Chopin's earlier works had met with substantial success, however, most critics acknowledged Chopin's gifted writing style while at the same time utterly condemning The Awakening's theme. For example, in the May 4, 1899, issue of the Mirror, Francis Porcher writes, "And so, because we admire Kate Chopin's other work immensely and delight in her ever-growing fame and are proud that she is 'one-of-us St. Louisans,' one dislikes to acknowledge a wish that she had not written her novel" (Culley 145).
      In addition to her role as critic, Porcher was also a published writer in her own right. She shared an interest with Chopin in the work of the French novelist, Guy de Maupassant; Porcher, however, "believed firmly in a writer's responsibility to avoid 'morally diseased' characters and 'adult sin' " (Toth 339). Porcher concludes her critique saying that the novel "leaves one sick of human nature" (Culley 146).
      Appearing just twelve days after The Awakening was released, Porcher's review set the pace for the avalanche of unfavorable reviews that sounded what appeared to be the death knell for both The Awakening and Chopin's literary career. Most critics didn't pull any punches in their condemnation of Edna Pontellier, the theme of The Awakening, and, occasionally, even Chopin. The strongest critics couched their enmity toward the novel within a religious and Biblical framework. Using words like "sin," "temptation," "unholy," "grace," and "repent" to describe Edna's plight, critics stood united and inflexible in their devotion to religious and moral conservatism.
      For example, the May 13, 1899, edition of the Daily Globe-Democrat calls Edna's suicide "a prayer for deliverance from the evils that beset her, all of her own creating" (Culley 146). The May 20, 1899, issue of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch calls Edna's an "unholy passion" (Culley 148). And the June 4, 1899, edition of Literature says that Edna "is one who has drifted from all right moorings, and has not the grace to repent" (Culley 151-2). Considering the restrictive and suffocating role which Chopin ascribes to religion and the Church in Edna's life (not to mention the blatant departure from traditional views on sexuality), one can readily see why critics of the late nineteenth century might interpret Chopin's novel as an attack on morality and religious values. Perhaps the most vehement objection to the novel's anti-religious implications comes from the June 18, 1899, issue of the New Orleans Times Democrat. Glaringly apparent in this review is the adamant moral and religious code which prevailed during the late nineteenth century and the fastidiousness with which critics strove to uphold it.

It gives one a distinct shock to see Edna's crude mental operation, of which we are compelled to judge chiefly by results-- characterized as 'perhaps more wisdom than the Holy Ghost is usually pleased to vouchsafe to any woman.' The assumption that such a course as that pursued by Edna has any sort of divine sanction cannot be too strongly protested against. In a civilized society the right of the individual to indulge all his caprices is, and must be, subject to many restrictive clauses, and it cannot for a moment be admitted that a woman who has willingly accepted the love and devotion of a man, even without an equal love on her part--who has become his wife and the mother of his children--has not incurred a moral obligation which peremptorily forbids her from wantonly severing her relations with him, and entering openly upon the independent existence of an unmarried woman. (Culley 150)

As apparent through the tone of this reviewer, Puritan morality was, to a large degree, responsible for much of the resistance against Chopin's novel. It was the plumb line against which the value of Edna Pontellier, The Awakening, and Chopin herself were evaluated. Lois K. Holland notes that in response to the religious and social turbulence of the late nineteenth century, "Puritan morality became a rigid stronghold... imposing its repressive influence on artistic endeavors as well as on practical aspects of life" (7). Indeed, as women began to unite and organize as part of the women's suffrage movement, both the liberal and conservative elements dug their heels in for a battle that would ultimately end in victory for the suffragists in 1920, but only by one vote.
      In addition to religion, Puritan morality in the late nineteenth century also showed itself in other ways. According to Toth, other novels of the time were successful because "all were considered 'healthy,' with 'kindly sentiment,' suitable for a young person to read; and all promoted the traditional values that Kate Chopin, in The Awakening, had questioned" (Toth 357). In other words, literature in the late nineteenth century was deemed valuable if it proved beneficial--or appropriate--for young people or if it contained a moral lesson of some sort.
      Other reviewers confirmed this moralistic criterion by referencing the unwholesome impact of The Awakening and its negative effect on the youth. For example, the May 21, 1899 issue of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch printed a review of The Awakening calling it "too strong drink for moral babes. . ." and that it "should be labeled 'poison'" (Toth 355). Charles L. Deyo, a journalist and friend of Chopin's, also refers to the impact on children as a literary acid test. He notes that "...everybody knows that the young person's understanding should be scrupulously respected" (Culley 147). Finally, William Dean Howells, a widely respected critic and editor for Harper's and Atlantic, also argued that American authors should avoid "certain facts of life which are not usually talked of before young people, and especially young ladies" (Toth 278).
      What distressed critics was not that Chopin published a steamy and controversial novel which was inappropriate for young people, for that type of literature was available in plenty. Rather, what sparked their fury was that Chopin was an established author and respected member of the higher echelons of society. Critics took offense that Chopin condoned (or at least did not condemn) Edna's immoral behavior. Holland notes that, "The awakening of a respectable woman to her sensual nature might have been acceptable in 1899 if the author had condemned her" (48).
      Although Chopin appears to condemn Edna by selecting a method popular in nineteenth century literature to "punish" Edna--that of drowning--neither Edna nor Chopin demonstrate any outward signs of remorse or shame at Edna's infidelity and social deviance. Chopin's lack of remorse concerning Edna's behavior especially stirred the religious ire of critics. For example, a review in the June 25, 1899, edition of the Los Angeles Sunday Times says the following:

It is true that the woman in the book who wanted her own way comes to an untimely end in the effort to get what she wants, or rather, in the effort to gratify every whim that moves her capricious soul, but there are sentences here and there throughout the book that indicate the author's desire to hint her belief that her heroine had the right of the matter and that if the woman had only been able to make other people 'understand' things as she did she would not have had to drown herself in the blue waters of the Mexican Gulf. (Culley 152)


Critics invariably agreed that the actions of Edna were iniquitous. They condemned Edna's infidelity and self-centered narcissism as reprehensible. But what especially invoked their wrath was that Chopin seemed to approve of Edna's behavior.
      In a literary sense, critics viewed Chopin as the responsible genitor of Edna. As author of The Awakening (originally titled "A Solitary Soul"), Chopin had the final say on what actions Edna did or did not take. Thus, critics relegated to Chopin the responsibility to "discipline" Edna as a mother would discipline a wayward child, the same way other authors of the same time period "disciplined" their froward and malcontent characters to assuage the moral and religious elements. When Chopin failed to effectively reprimand Edna according to the religious, moral, and literary conventions of the era, critics reacted. Had Chopin acquiesced to at least a few of the cultural and social mores still prevalent in the late nineteenth century, critics might have tolerated Edna's wanton ways with a sense of forgiveness and clemency. To their indignation, however, Chopin was willing to do no such thing.
      By concluding the novel with Edna's drowning, Chopin gives the appearance of punishing Edna without really doing so. Most critics were able to read between the lines and decipher that Chopin was not really punishing Edna, but rather confirming Edna's freedom and, in fact, thumbing her nose at the traditional values of the lifestyle Chopin saw as restrictive and repressive. In what has become a well-known response to the attack on her novel, Chopin insinuates that Edna and the rest of the novel's characters were simply beyond Chopin's control:

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. (Culley 158)

Intended as a "retraction," Chopin's comments appeared in the July issue of Book News, some three months after critics had ravaged The Awakening. Perceived as a coy display of literary helplessness, Chopin's comments didn't fare well with critics. In fact, they provoked their hostility even further, for only four months after publication, The Awakening had been condemned nation wide by reviewers who agreed that it was "unwholesome" (Holland 42). In fairness, a few critics did print an occasional less-than-scything review of The Awakening. Although these critics didn't wholly condemn the novel, they didn't praise it either. These reviewers simply recorded synopses of the novel's theme and withheld moral judgment. For example, the April 1899, issue of The Book Buyer reported that The Awakening "is said to be analytical and fine-spun, and of peculiar interest to women" (Toth 329). The March 25, 1899, issue of the St. Louis Republic praised the style of the book saying only that The Awakening "is the work of an artist who can suggest more than one side of her subject with a single line" (Toth 329). Charles L. Deyo, in one of The Awakening's few positive reviews, lauded Chopin's style and defended Edna as a victim of ignorance in the May 20, 1899, issue of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

It is not a tragedy, for it lacks the high motive of tragedy. The woman, not quite brave enough, declines to a lower plane and does not commit a sin ennobled by love. But it is terribly tragic. Compassion, not pity, is excited, for pity is for those who sin, and Edna Pontellier only offended--weakly, passively, vainly offended. (Culley 147)

Deyo postures against Chopin's critics and defends Edna's actions by vilifying Leonce Pontellier, portraying Edna as a victim--"a poor, helpless offender" (Culley 148)--and ascribing to Edna's circumstances the responsibility for her actions. Unfortunately, as with Lucy Monroe's review, Deyo's review was also tainted by self-interest and bias (Toth 342).
      Despite the swirling social atmosphere surrounding the reception of Chopin's novel, many people in the United States--and especially the media--were not ready in 1899 to face the social, religious, and moral implications of The Awakening. However, if Chopin's novel were to have been published just 20 years later, when the women's movement experienced a revival in its momentum, The Awakening might have been met with overwhelming acceptance. But, as history notes, Chopin's novel fell into relative obscurity after only a few short years.
      In 1899, when the novel was published, Chopin earned $102 in royalties (Toth 367). However, in 1900 Chopin "collected a total of $49.77 in royalties from "Bayou Folk," "A Night in Acadie," and The Awakening" (Toth 374). It was clear that although the social, cultural, and scientific climates of the country were changing, the general public was not ready to embrace the strong theme of The Awakening. In fact, interest in The Awakening lay dormant for thirty years after it was published. Since that time, however, the novel has been aroused from its literary slumber on several occasions.
      Ironically, the first to revive Chopin's work following its banishment into obscurity was Daniel S. Rankin, a Roman Catholic priest. In 1932 he published Kate Chopin and her Creole Stories, the first book-length work on Chopin (Skaggs 5). Although Dorothy Anne Dondore praised Chopin two years earlier saying that she "unveiled the tumults of a woman's soul," Rankin is credited as the first serious revivalist of Chopin's work (5).
      After Rankin briefly revived The Awakening in the 1930's, the spotlight of literary interest wouldn't shine again on Chopin's work until 1953, when Cyrille Arnavon wrote a serious essay to introduce his translation of The Awakening into French. This again ignited a spark of interest in Chopin's work, but it was extinguished almost immediately (Skaggs 5). In 1969, however, almost three-quarters of a century after The Awakening was published in 1899 (and Chopin's subsequent death in 1904), Chopin's novel began its hearty ascent into literary distinction. Per Seyersted, one of Chopin's biographers, published Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography and The Complete Works of Kate Chopin. Seyersted's books helped land the work of the late novelist on the literary map. They depicted the complete range of Chopin's artistry, and brought to the burgeoning field of feminist literature a new champion in Edna Pontellier.
      Just as the social context and cultural confinements of the late nineteenth century worked against Chopin's unique and advanced artistry, the liberal and progressive social culture of the late 1960's worked in its favor. In 1969 the literary community was ready--even hungry--to embrace the theme that Chopin had so eloquently articulated seventy years earlier. What was held in the field of literature as amoral and without literary value in 1899 was considered artistic and noble in 1969. Thus, Chopin's novel began to receive the acclaim it had been so vehemently denied nearly three-quarters of a century earlier.
      As Chopin's popularity spread like wildfire, her novel also served as ammunition in the fight to bring insight and awareness to women's issues. Indeed, as feminist literature struggled to fashion itself into an accepted and legitimate genre, the works of numerous women writers suddenly emerged from the past to carry the banner of women's issues. Over the past few decades the study of women writers has been characterized by "scholarship devoted to the discovery, republication, and reappraisal of 'lost' or undervalued writers and their work. From Rebecca Harding Davis and Kate Chopin through Zora Neale Hurston and Mina Loy. . . reputations have been reborn or remade and a female countercanon has come into being, out of components that were largely unavailable even a dozen years ago" (Robinson 156). Indeed, as long as social and cultural forces continue to play upon the definition and content of the literary canon, forgotten and obscure works from the past will continue to be unearthed as tools for the propagation of specific social and cultural causes.
      Since the resurrection of Chopin's novel in 1969, countless classrooms across the United States have found in The Awakening a superb example of the transcendent New Woman. Bernard Koloski, in the preface of his anthology, notes that The Awakening has become "one of the most often taught of all American novels" (ix). A compilation of teaching approaches to Chopin's novel, Koloski's anthology reflects the versatility of The Awakening in terms of literary study. He notes that Kate Chopin and the recent re-emergence of The Awakening have helped "satisfy Americans' suddenly discovered hunger for a classic woman writer who addresses some of contemporary women's concerns" (ix).
      Included in the Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, Chopin's novel captures the essence of the struggle for freedom, equality, and independence in which women have been formally engaged for almost 150 years. Consequently, The Awakening has earned its long-awaited accolades in the world of literature. Perhaps as much a testimony to the influence of changing social contexts on literary criticism as the deftness of Chopin's writing, The Awakening has nevertheless found its way into the canon. Indeed, in light of the novel's continuing widespread success and growing use in the classroom, the message in Chopin's novel will undoubtedly be carried well into the twenty-first century.


Works Cited

Buhle, Mari Jo. Women and American Socialism, 1870-1920. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1981.
Culley, Margaret, ed. The Awakening: An Authoritative Text Context Criticism. New York: Norton, 1976. Koloski, Bernard, ed. Preface. Approaches to Teaching Chopin's The Awakening. By Koloski. New York: MLA, 1988. Robinson, Lillian. "Treason Our Text: Feminist Challenges to the Literary Canon." Falling into Theory: Conflicting Views on Reading Literature. ed. David H. Richter. Boston: Bedford, 1994. Seyersted, Per. A Kate Chopin Miscellany. Natchitoches: Northwestern State UP, 1979. Toth, Emily. Kate Chopin. New York: Morrow, 1990.