The Awakening is a novel by American novelist Kate Chopin about a woman’s transformation from an obedient, traditional wife and mother into a self-realized, sexually liberated and independent woman. Despite the book’s place in the current literary canon (it’s now a classic), when The Awakening was published in 1899 it received awful reviews. While reviewers acknowledged Chopin’s masterful literary technique, they were absolutely shocked with the protagonist’s independence and sexual liberation. This makes sense when you consider that women were not fully considered people at this time: Louisiana law still held that wives were the property of their husbands. Not surprisingly, The Awakening was "re-discovered" in the early 1970’s (right around Second Wave feminism) and is now celebrated as a masterful insight into the mores of late nineteenth century society.
Nowadays, Edna would be an artist – you know, paint always under her fingernails. She’d dig smocked dresses and the skinny jeans trend. Not to mention sexual liberation. But in The Awakening, Edna drowns. And that, more than anything else, tells you why you should care. Victorian society never gave Edna a real shot at personal fulfillment. Edna wants to be human, which, let’s face it, who doesn’t?
But what does it mean to be human anyway? Most obviously for Edna, it means not being Mr. Pontellier’s possession. So being human equals not being an object. For Edna at least, being human means the right to independence regardless of societal restrictions.
Obviously, the notion of the individual versus society has lived on until this day. Even though our society may be more accepting than Edna’s, individual choices frequently come into conflict with societal expectations. For instance, maybe you really want to be a stay-at-home dad, but everyone else in your life disagrees. Or you want to work as a photographer instead of as a lawyer. Edna would say: go for it.