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.
The End of August is an independent film version of The Awakening.
The Grand Isle is a film version of The Awakening, starring Kelly McGillis (from Top Gun) as Edna.
A Re-Awakening is a PBS documentary on Kate Chopin.
A photo of Kate Chopin as a young woman.
Kate Chopin, the Mother
This is a photo of Kate Chopin with her first four children, taken around 1877.
A poster of Kate Chopin with a photo and some biographical information.
A paperback book cover with an impressionist painting.
Another book cover with another painting.
The original 1899 book cover.
This one feature a caged bird.
A chronology of key events in Kate Chopin’s life.
A collection of Chopin’s works and links to other Chopin-related sites.
A list of excellent links for those looking to do in-depth academic research on Kate Chopin or The Awakening (includes a select list of criticism).
Keira Knightley as Edna
No, Keira Knightly didn't really star as Edna in The Awakening. This is just a fake trailer, but it's a pretty good one.