The initial reviews of Kate Chopin’s 1899 novel The Awakening were mixed. Those that were negative, however, tended to say more about the societal norms at the time than the artistic merits of the book itself.
Some took issue with the book’s protagonist, Edna Pontellier, a married mother of two in her mid to late 20’s spending the summer in Grand Isle, who “suddenly finds herself falling in love with a young man,” says Loyola University Professor of English, Emerita, Dr. Barbara Ewell.
“It startles her and surprises her,” says Ewell. “She doesn’t quite know what’s going on, so she then becomes quite discontent with her life. But what are you going to do? You’re married, you’ve got two kids, you got a husband, you’re living in basically a Catholic community. Divorce is not really an option.”
Some critics said, “Oh God, Kate Chopin is such a wonderful writer, but she doesn’t really seem to give this woman much punishment for her clearly, and I hesitate to say immoral, but yeah, they did say that, for her immoral behavior?’”
Chopin’s response was characteristically defiant. A ‘Retraction,’ as she wryly titled the following, was published in a national magazine a month after The Awakening’s publication:
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 figured out what she was up to, the play was half-over, and it was then too late.
“Now if you really believe that’s an apology, then I don’t think you understand much about tone,” says Ewell.
Like Pontellier, Chopin was a bit of an outsider to New Orleans and its culture. Born and raised in St. Louis, she married Oscar Chopin and moved to New Orleans in 1869, and the two had several children while Oscar worked as a cotton broker.
When the cotton business went bad in the late 1870’s, the family moved to Oscar’s hometown of Cloutierville in Natchitoches Parish. He died in 1882, and she and her six young children moved to St. Louis. But soon, her mother would die.
“So she’s kind of alone,” says Ewell. She’s been writing – experimenting with a variety of subject matter – but is having little success getting published. She has an income from the properties in Louisiana, and she begins to focus her stories on that time in her life and the people of Acadiana.
Family magazines popular at the time started gobbling up these stories, and as a shrewd businesswoman, she continued on that track, becoming fairly well-known and successfully publishing a collection of stories called Bayou Folk in 1894.
The Awakening would come out in what would end up being fairly late in Chopin’s career, as she died in St. Louis in 1904. Pretty soon it went out of print, as do most of her stories, Ewell says.
“A few short stories stick around, so she has a reputation throughout the early 20th century as a local color writer of Louisiana,” Ewell says. But Chopin and The Awakening would roar back into the zeitgeist in the late 60’s and early 70’s on the wave of the women’s movement.
Redbook, which used to publish cult novels, printed the entire novel in 1972. “It was a revelation to women in mid-20th century,” says Ewell. “As Kate Chopin’s biographer Emily Thoth has said, ’what we wanted to know was how did Kate Chopin know all of that a hundred years ago?’ Well sort of naïve on our part, but she did tap into many of the issues that were obviously important to women in the late 19th century but coming to the forefront in the mid-20th century as well.”
And judging from the headlines of today, we’re in another moment of heightened awareness of the issues women face, or, as Ewell says, “a re-awareness, if I can make up a word.”
So what would Chopin make of the current environment for women?
“I think she would be appalled,” says Ewell, “not least because it’s appalling but because there has been in some ways so little progress.”
On one hand, “many of the issues that Kate Chopin was interested in were about the limits on women’s lives and many of those limits have in fact expanded, so we’re nowhere nearly as confined,” Ewell says.
“On the other hand, that we still run into limits that are based solely on our gender, on the chromosomes that we happen to have, I think in many ways she would find that pretty depressing.”
You can learn more about Kate Chopin in Ewell’s book, Kate Chopin.