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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.