The Awakening by Kate Chopin
Kate Chopin’s Awakening became a novel, which provoked heated debates among critics and ordinary readers. This novel outrun its time and gave contemporary readers perspective of the future. There are two main approaches of critics of the novel. Some specialists believe that Awakening is a feminist text. In this reading Edna’s awakening becomes a discovering of her female side, which was suppressed during the centuries. Using this approach suicide is regarded as a highest manifestation of her freedom and stepping away from social norms and regulations. Another group of critics apply naturalistic reading of the novel. If we use this approach Edna’s awakening becomes a descent into insanity. Freedom Edna struggles for becomes too hard burned for her. She becomes not ready emotionally to embrace this freedom and finally it kills her.
Nancy Walker in her critical essay “Feminist or Naturalist” makes an attempt to find main driving motives, which influence the protagonist. She believes that emotional immaturity does not let Edna to enjoy her desired freedom. She can not behave alike a grown up person and turns to suicide as means to escape hardships and problems of adult life. Taking off clothes at the end of the novel Edna makes an attempt to approach the state of a child, or even fetus. This gesture discloses her attempt to become child and regain her innocence after all new realizations she came through on the island. When Edna reaches the point of no return, she comes back to her childhood memories again. “She looked into the distance, and the old terror flamed up for an instant, then sank again. Edna heard her father’s voice and her sister Margaret’s. She heard the barking of an old dog that was chained to the sycamore tree. The spurs of the cavalry officer clanged as he walked across the porch. There was the hum of bees, and the musky odor of pinks filled the air” (Chopin 109) Walker believes that Edna is not able to take conscious decision. She is guided by her instincts and destiny. As Walker states: “evidence of this lack of command over her own feelings and actions continues to accumulate throughout the novel” (Walker 255). Edna is not fully aware of things, which happen to her. She is completely occupied experiencing different emotions. She is pored into her memories and feelings and not always makes distinction between reality around her. World of past and presents are mixed up for her and she lives in this mixed world driven by chance and destiny. Edna’s emotional awakening is not accompanies by her mental awakening: “in giving herself over to emotion, Edna has allowed her decisions to be made below the conscious level, and she gives little thought to the consequences” (Walker 256). Even Edna’s suicide becomes not a conscious act. She is passive even in this final step. As notices Walker, “she does nothing to stop it” (Walker 256).
I believe that naturalistic approach to certain extend reflects driving motives, which impact the protagonist. Characterizing herself Edna speaks about her childhood and immaturity. As Edna describes herself in the beginning of the novel: “I was a little unthinking child in those days, just following a misleading impulse without question” (Chopin 17). She often feels the same way during the entire novel even being grown up. Same depiction can be found in later descriptions of the novel. Childhood memories about meadow in Kentucky are connected with the impressions of growing up woman, who faces the ocean. The readers can find many parallels between grown up Edna and little girl from her childhood.
Female liberation is another important aspect, underlined by many critics. Margaret Culley in her criticism of Awakening sheds light to the important issues, which Kate Chopin studies in her novel (Culley, 1976). Culley states that by the time the novel was written women starting fighting for their rights: “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). Kate created her works almost half of the century after female struggle began but her works and themes described became very important step in this struggle. By the time when Kate Chopin published her Awakening society was greatly concerned with the question of social inequality and struggle for equal rights. At the times when the novel was written women’s right were significantly limited. Women did not have a right to “sign any legal contract,. . . institute a lawsuit, appear in court, hold public office, or make a donation to a living person” (Culley 120). Chopin’s Edna, who leaves her husband to have an independent life and looks for her own identity became a real breakthrough for the time described. Culley gives interesting facts, which help to understand the position of the women in the society described. This attitude is perfectly reflected in the list of persons, who did not have right to witness. This lists includes: “1. Women of any age whatsoever. 2. Male children who have not attained the age of sixteen years complete. 3. Persons who are insane, deaf, dumb or blind. 4. Persons whom the criminal laws declare incapable of exercising civil functions” (Culley 120). Such an attitude put women in one line with children and disabled people. It is hard to imagine worse degree of limitation created by the society. This facts help to understand the meaning and importance of Chopin’s novel. Women treated as a property of men get their own will, thoughts and desires in Chopin’s novel.
I believe that Edna Pontellier, Chopin’s main character became a reflection of the spirit of her time. At the same time this woman outrun thoughts and ideas of women of the future. “Kate Chopin was a woman whose feminist viewpoints were far ahead of her time, which of course garnered her more than her share of criticism” (Inge 51).
Autobiographical details add creditability to the novel. There are certain parallels between Chopin’s’ own life and life of her protagonist. As notices Toth in her comments to the novel Chopin makes an attempt to create a new image of woman, who “was finally freed from constant pregnancy and able to listen much more to her own needs” (Toth 116-7). Torch also believes that Edna’s liberation after leaving her husband can be connected to the liberation of the author after the death of her husband. Same like the protagonist of the novel, Chopin decided to stay alone: “obviously she preferred her freedom, her writing, and her solitude” (Toth 119).
Monroe, Chopin’s literary editor, believes Awakening to be a “remarkable novel” and “subtle and a brilliant kind of art” (Toth 329). Monroe stressed out Chopin’s rare ability to create lively and realistic characters. Her story not only reflects the spirit of the epoch but also shows people is such a way that everybody believes that these characters are alive. Monroe believes that the novel is: “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). I agree that Chopin depicted real people in real situation and her realism makes her works close to her readers. At the same time I believe that all her characters are outstanding personalities with rich inner worlds, feelings and emotions. Chopin’s characters live in the present and in the future at the same time. Her characters share thoughts and feelings of their contemporaries, but at the same time they reflect ideas of the future. This makes Chopin’s characters both, close and understandable to her readers and at the same time makes them outstanding personalities.
Along with positive opinions on the novel there were those, who regarded the novel like a moral degradation. Right after the novel was published some critics gave very sharp response to the novel. The novel got many critical reviews. Critics blames the author for creating a vulgar and unwholesome piece of writing. Many blames were dedicated to the immorality of the novel. Some critics believed that immoral nature of the novel can have negative impact on the readers. In St. Louis Post-Dispatch review critics gave very sharp remarks about the novel calling it “too strong drink for moral babes” (Toth 355).
For example, Porcher, a writer and publisher, did not believe Chopin had moral right to speak so directly and frankly on the prohibited topics. Porcher “believed firmly in a writer’s responsibility to avoid ‘morally diseased’ characters and ‘adult sin’ ” (Toth 339). Moreover, Porcher believed that novel served no other purpose but demonstrating evil and sick human nature. Such an opinion from publisher and literary critic reflects great effect novel had not only on ordinary readers but also on people of art.
I believe that such a position was conditioned by inability of some critics to perceive new themes and motifs of the novel. Such a reaction of critics in not surprising since many themes of the novel contradict values system of the contemporary society.
Chopin’s depiction of religion became a subject of loud debates and great controversy. Some of them even view Awakening as an attack on religious and moral values of the contemporary society. Edna’s attitude to religion and role religion played in her life contradict all conventional norms, which existed at the time in the society. Critics labelled Edna as “unholy passion” and called her suicide “a prayer for deliverance from the evils that beset her, all of her own creating” (Culley 148). Such an attitude was to great extend determined by Puritan morals, which controlled all spheres of life in the nineteenth century. “Puritan morality became a rigid stronghold… imposing its repressive influence on artistic endeavours as well as on practical aspects of life” (Toth 119).
Limitations of time are very vividly illustrated in the opinions of those, who criticized Chopin’s novel. Chopin outrun her time. It is not surprising that Puritan and man-dominated society could not perceive ideas, express by Kate Chopin in her novel. Negative feedback only underlines the meaning of this literary work, to my mind. The most progressive ideas were always rejected in the beginning and ideas, expressed by Chopin in her Awakening could be fully understood only many years later after the novel was published.
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening and Selected Short Stories. New York: Bantam Books 1988.
Culley, Margaret, ed. The Awakening: An Authoritative Text Context Criticism. New York: Norton, 1976.
Inge, Tonette Bond. “Kate Chopin. American Women Writers: Bibliographical Essays.” Eds. Maurice Duke, Jackson R. Bryer and M. Thomas Inge: Greenwood, Westport, CT Pagination: 47-69, 1983.
Culley, Margo, ed. A Norton Critical Edition: Kate Chopin: The Awakening. New York: W.W. Norton, 1994.
Toth, Emily. “A New Biographical Approach.” A Norton Critical Edition: Kate Chopin: The Awakening. Ed. Margo Culley. New York: W.W. Norton, 1994. 113-119.
Walker, Nancy. “Feminist or Naturalist.” A Norton Critical Edition: Kate Chopin: The Awakening. Ed. Margo Culley. New York: W.W. Norton, 1994. 252-257.
Wolkenfeld, Suzanne. “Edna’s Suicide: The Problem of the One and the Many.” A Norton Critical Edition: Kate Chopin: The Awakening. Ed. Margo Culley. New York: W.W. Norton, 1994. 241-247.