The Awakening | Study Guide

Kate Chopin

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The Awakening | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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When Kate Chopin's The Awakening was published in 1899, it was condemned as vulgar and morally outrageous. Now, it is considered an essential work of early American feminist literature.

Set around the end of the 19th century, The Awakening tells the story of a married woman in search of personal freedom and fulfillment outside the narrow bounds set by Louisiana Creole culture. Condemned for its frank depictions of female sexuality, adultery, and passion, Chopin's second novel essentially ended her once-prolific literary career. It was widely scorned by critics and, according to some accounts, even led to Chopin being ostracized by her own community.

Deeply hurt by the reaction to The Awakening, Chopin wrote very little in the remaining five years of her life. For decades after her death, she was largely forgotten, except for her "local color" works about the Deep South. Only after a Norwegian scholar rediscovered Chopin in the 1960s did she finally begin to receive recognition for The Awakening's exploration of feminist themes, as well as for its rich detail, imagery, and narrative voice.

1. Early reviewers called The Awakening "poison."

Chopin's portrayal of adultery and female sexuality in The Awakening caused quite a stir among early critics. One reviewer from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch called the novel "poison" and "too strong a drink for moral babes." Others called it "not a pleasant story" and "an essentially vulgar story." The Congregationalist said that though Chopin's novel is a "brilliant" piece of writing, "We cannot commend it."

2. The Awakening was so controversial that Chopin had difficulty publishing stories after its release.

Chopin enjoyed a prolific literary career before The Awakening, but all that changed after the novel's controversial publication. In her hometown, St. Louis, The Awakening was banned from the public library and Chopin herself was banned from the Fine Arts Club. According to her son, the criticism of her novel left hurt her deeply and left her brokenhearted. In the five remaining years of her life, Chopin wrote only a handful of short stories, and very few of them were published.

3. The Awakening was originally titled A Solitary Soul.

It is not known why the title was changed to The Awakening, but an article in an 1899 St. Louis newspaper suggests that it was changed by the publisher. Some readers have wondered how the title change might have affected the book's reception. One blogger speculated that titling the novel A Solitary Soul "might have generated more pity towards Edna and her 'abnormal' feelings by painting her in a more vulnerable light."

4. Chopin's personal experiences of Creole culture influenced The Awakening.

The Awakening and many of Chopin's other works feature Creole characters, who were descended from Spanish and French (and sometimes black) people. Drawing on her own cultural heritage and experiences, she detailed Creole mannerisms, dialect, and customs in her work. Both her mother and her husband were from prominent French Creole families. She also lived in New Orleans and Cloutierville, Louisiana, where she was able to absorb much information about Creole culture.

Louisiana Creole culture was rich and unique. Creoles brought many customs and traditions (as well as wines, books, and clothing) over from France. Music and art were huge parts of the culture. Creoles were usually devout Catholics and socially conservative. They lived close to other Creoles and married only other Creoles. Their strict social mores and appreciation of art and music can be seen in many of Chopin's works.

5. The Awakening was challenged by a library patron who was offended by the book's cover.

In 2011 a library patron in Oconee County, Georgia, asked librarians to remove a copy of The Awakening from a display. This person was offended because the book's cover featured a painting of a woman with a bare chest. Ironically, the display was a Banned Books Week exhibit. It was set up specifically to recognize works which had been subject to censorship in the past.

6. The Awakening has been subject to comparison with Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House.

Like The Awakening, the play A Doll's House—written by Norwegian realist poet and playwright Henrik Ibsen—sparked controversy for featuring a female protagonist who abandons her husband and children in search of self-fulfillment. The critic William P. Warnken examined the parallels between the two works, pointing out that in A Doll's House, "infantilization of women in marriage provoked extensive discussion and analysis."

7. Chopin was the first woman from St. Louis to become a professional fiction writer.

Her first novel, At Fault, was published in 1890 and followed by two short story collections in 1894 and 1897. By the time The Awakening was published in 1899, Chopin was well known locally and nationally, having already published more than one hundred stories and essays.

Additionally, she happened to be one of the first residents of St. Louis to own a telephone.

8. Like the character Edna, Chopin was skeptical of religion.

Chopin's early life was marked by tragedy: her father died when she was five, her sisters died in infancy, and her brothers died in their early 20s. She was the only child in her family to survive past 25. One writer notes that "these unhappy incidents combined to create a strong skepticism of religion in Chopin." In The Awakening, Edna finds religion suffocating and oppressive. At one point, the narrator describes how "a feeling of oppression and drowsiness" overcomes Edna during a church service.

9. Chopin's writing style was influenced by the French writer Guy de Maupassant.

One critic notes that her "psychological realism, her emphasis on character rather than plot, her striving for economy and unity, and her distinct amorality" were clearly influenced by Guy de Maupassant, a 19th-century French writer who is considered one of the fathers of the modern short story. Chopin herself openly expressed admiration for the writer:

I read his stories and marvelled at them. Here was life, not fiction...Here was a man who had escaped from tradition and authority, who had entered into himself and looked out upon life through his own being and with his own eyes; and who, in a direct and simple way, told us what he saw.

10. Chopin nearly faded into obscurity until she was rediscovered in the 1960s.

Chopin died five years after the disastrously received publication of The Awakening, and she was soon forgotten. The few critics who wrote about her focused on the regional aspects of her work, often failing to even mention The Awakening at all. It wasn't until the Norwegian literary critic Per Seyersted's 1969 publication of Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography that Chopin began to receive widespread notice for the literary quality and feminist themes of her works. Seyersted called her "the first woman writer in her country to accept passion as a legitimate subject for serious, outspoken fiction."

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