When first published in 1899, The Awakening shocked readers with its honest treatment of female marital infidelity. Audiences accustomed to the pieties of late Victorian romantic fiction were taken aback by Chopin’s daring portrayal of a woman trapped in a stifling marriage, who seeks and finds passionate physical love outside the confines of her domestic situation.
Aside from its unusually frank treatment of a then-controversial subject, the novel is widely admired today for its literary qualities. Edmund Wilson characterized it as a work “quite uninhibited and beautifully written, which anticipates D. H. Lawrence in its treatment of infidelity.” Although the theme of marital infidelity no longer shocks, few novels have plumbed the psychology of a woman involved in an illicit relationship with the perception, artistry, and honesty that Kate Chopin brought to The Awakening.
The Awakening is a short, yet potent novel. It it paints a compelling portrait of a women who is unable to lead a satisfactory life due to the rigid beliefs of society. The summary in a way misrepresents the novel by suggesting that it is Edna’s marriage alone that is constricting, when it is in fact the entirety of social norms at the time.
Edna, as an upper middle class women, has just two choices. She can be a mother, as is expected of her, or she can strike out on her own as an artist. Edna experiences both options and must decide how, or if, she can exist as an individual. I think this is why the novel is still popular today and is considered a classic – everyone can identify with feeling like an outsider. That and the masterfully subtle narration that never directly reveals anything.
In 1899, when The Awakening was published, it was met with disgust and was then buried for 70 years. It’s fascinating and also sad how today no one bats an eye about a novel in which a women cheats on her husband and certainly not one in which a women shows independence but back then, it was considered obscene. Because Edna could not possibly have been the only women at that time to feel this way.
Though a great novel in and of itself, The Awakening is important as an honest representation of history.