It's no big shocker that The Awakening garnered some truly abysmal reviews when it was first published.
Picture this: you're a literary critic in the last decade of the 19th Century. You're a dude, because you have a) a job as b) a literary critic. You're sure of a few concrete truths: that men like yourself are the superior sex, that women are too malleable and weak-minded to be independent, that becoming a wife and mother is the #1 dream of 100% of the fairer sex, that dudes are cursed with sexual appetites, and that ladies have only chaste romance on the mind.
These are the facts—at least as far as you, or any of the bros in your literary critic circle, are concerned.
And then you open The Awakening, a book that challenges all of this. Kate Chopin's novel follows Edna Pontellier's transformation from an obedient, traditional wife and mother into a self-realized, sexually liberated and independent woman. And what's more, Edna enjoys this transformation. She starts neglecting her household duties and likes it. She admits that her world doesn't revolve around her children and likes it. She moves out of the house she shares with her husband and likes it. She has steamy sex with a man she isn't married to—or even in love with—and likes it.
If you had been reviewing this book when it first came out in 1899, you would have picked your jaw up off the floor, loosened your starched collar to avoid fainting, paced the room until your blood pressure returned to normal. And then you would have picked up your pen and written a truly scathing review.
Luckily for us—if not the critics who gave The Awakening the 19th Century equivalent of a one-star rating on Goodreads—times have changed. Gone are corsets, voting restrictions, obligatory "honor thy husband" marriage vows, and laws condemning divorce. Gone are stringent societal views about women enjoying painting, music, swimming and—yes—having a rockin' good time in the sack with whomever they please. And gone is the idea that The Awakening is a bad novel.
Instead, Kate Chopin's masterpiece is heralded as just that: a masterpiece. The Awakening was "re-discovered" in the early 1970’s (right around Second Wave feminism came on the scene) and is now celebrated as giving up brilliant insights into the mores of late 19th Century society. It's taught in classrooms across the country, in American Lit and Gender Studies courses alike.
And, more importantly, it's enjoyed by women who might share a thing or two with Edna Pontellier, be it an enjoyment of swimming, a realization that they're not a "mother-woman," or just an appreciation for smooching a good-looking fling.
It's not often we're at a loss when answering the question "Why Should I Care"? We're Lit nerds: we know you exactly why you should care about everything from Othello(one word: racism) to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child(three words: nostalgia's dark side).
But there are so many reasons to care about The Awakening that it's kind of like counting grains of sand at the beach.
You could care about this novel because, every once in a while, it's good to breathe a sigh of relief and say "Hey! The world is often terrible, but at least we don't live in the Victorian Era!" Or, you could care because it shows us what life before legal and easy divorce was like. Or, because Kate Chopin delivers some stunning insights into life lived abiding to super-strict gender roles. Or even because The Awakening portrays just that: the story of someone waking up to their identity...which is something we can all get behind.
But we think the #1 reason to read (or even re-read) this novel is contained in the following passage:
In short, Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother-woman. The mother-women seemed to prevail that summer at Grand Isle. It was easy to know them, fluttering about with extended, protecting wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened their precious brood. They were women who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels. (4.3)
Because the "mother-woman" role is one of those pernicious myths that exists even today.
We as a society tend to think—even in the enlightened era of the 21st Century, that women should and ought to become mothers, and that motherhood is a defining feature of womanhood. We've gotten pretty good at breaking down a whole lot of other myths: that women can't be artists, or athletes, or soldiers, or unmarried.
But society seems a little stuck with the idea that women are all eager for babies.
Some women, just like some men, don't want kids. It doesn't make them—as society seems to imagine—less feminine, caring, selfless, nurturing, or loving. It just means that they're not too excited about being moms. They want other things out of life. And that's 100% a-okay.
Hopefully one day, in the not so distant future, this "all women want a bajillion babies" belief will seem like a relic of a long-ago past, confined to the dustbin of history along with the belief that smoking is good for your lungs and that "hysteria" is a thing. But for now, unfortunately, the prejudice exists.
The fact that Kate Chopin's novel addresses this myth head-on—as it does with so many other myths about what it is to be a woman—is a testament to just how radical and ahead of its time The Awakening was.
When the book opens, Edna Pontellier is an obedient wife and mother vacationing at Grand Isle with her family. Everything seems hunky-dory: it's a beautiful vacation spot, the kiddos are cute, the husband is attentive, and Edna is getting hit on in a pretty harmless manner by a dude named Robert Lebrun.
Edna gradually develops some feelings for Robert, but the whole beachside community treats the crush as a pretty innocent way to pass the time. Edna has some hobbies other than flirting with Robert, though: she's learning how to paint, how to swim, and she's spending time with her pregnant friend Adele.
Adele is someone that Edna thinks of as naturally maternal: she loves babies, her hubby, and knitting. Edna, however, isn't like that. She yearns for independence. Her husband notices this before he goes back to the city to get some work done—he's a little rude and caddish and questions whether Edna's a good mom.
Edna spends a day at the beach, learning how to really swim. When she comes out of the water, there's an unspoken realization that Robert and her flirtation has become something a little more than a harmless crush. There are now some real-deal feelings on the line.
They spend a few days together doing nothing more than hanging out—the closest they get to smooching is Robert touching her dress. (Yowza.) Out of seemingly nowhere, however, Robert leaves for an extended trip to Mexico. Edna's miffed that he didn't tell her about his impending vacay plans—and, what's more, she gets pretty depressed by his absence.
The summer ends, and Edna returns to her home of New Orleans. She starts acting in a way her husband thinks of as deeply odd—instead of doing housework, she starts painting obsessively, and instead of taking visitors like a respectable housewife, she goes to the house of a mildly eccentric woman to hear her play the piano. The piano music soothes her lovesick soul.
Hubby Pontellier goes so far as to ask a doctor about his wife's weird behavior. He's a little disturbed by this sudden independence. But other guys in the neighborhood, like Robert's young brother Victor, think that Edna's looking pretty good these days. Another dude who notices how suddenly foxy Edna's become is Alcee Arobin, the local playboy. He takes Edna on dates to the horse races.
Mr. Pontellier's doctor gives Edna the all-clear—she's not sick at all. In fact, she's got a lot of color in her cheeks. Hmm: could that be because of the fact that Alcee Arobin is giving Edna a whole lot of (not so subtle) attention?
Yes, yes it could be. In fact, once Mr. Pontellier goes off to New York on business (and the Pontellier kiddos go off to the countryside for a visit) Alcee and Edna start getting it on. Edna doesn't love Alcee—she's actually still head over heels with Robert, although he's in Mexico—but she's having the first truly exciting sex of her life.
This confuses her a bit. All the things that she had taken as gospel: that a woman wants to devote all of herself to her kids and husband, and that sex without love = unsatisfying sex, turn out to be false. Edna's in a bit of a flummox: she's feeling real passion for the first time in her life, but she's also feeling real pain. She moves into a house of her own around the corner from her husband's house, claiming absolute independence.
The sudden return of Robert throws a spanner in the works. They make out passionately, and pledge their mutual love for one another. In fact, Robert says he wants to marry her.
Great, huh? This should be a happy ending, right?
Not so much. Once Robert starts talking about wedding bells, Edna panics a little. She realizes that what she wants is to belong to herself, rather than being a wifely appendage to another husband. They start to talk it out, but a message arrives that Adele (Edna's pregnant, motherly BFF) is delivering her baby. Edna has to run off, but asks Robert to stick around so they can finish their conversation about love and/or marriage.
But when Edna returns, Robert's gone. He's left a note saying that although he loves her—in fact, because he loves her—he's got to split.
Edna, heartbroken and confused, returns to Grand Isle. She knows that she now exists outside of society and tradition, and feels the loneliness of her rebellion. She decides to go for a swim, even though the early-spring water is far too cold. While she's far from the shore, her legs and arms grow weak. Contemplating her life and loves, she presumably drowns.