Kate Chopin's groundbreaking novel The Awakening is revered for its realism and regularly included in academic reading lists. Set in the late 19th century, its story follows Edna Pontellier, a wife and mother whose flirtation with a young bachelor leads her to desire more from life. This premise elicited widespread scorn when the book was published in 1899—and its author never could have predicted its rocky road to critical acclaim.
1. THE AWAKENING WAS CHOPIN'S SECOND NOVEL.
Her first novel At Fault, privately published in 1890, centered on a Creole widow named Thérèse Lafirme, who unexpectedly finds love with a dashing divorcé. From there, Chopin began writing for well-known magazines, and published more than 100 short stories and essays in Atlantic Monthly, Vogue, The Century Magazine, and The Youth's Companion. Her next two books, both short story collections, were Bayou Folk (published in 1894) and A Night in Acadie (1897). The Awakening, her second novel, was published on April 22, 1899.
2. CHOPIN WAS INSPIRED BY THE WRITING OF GUY DE MAUPASSANT.
The French short story writer is known for his masterpieces of realism. One of his most famous stories, "Boule de Suif," follows the journey of a prostitute during the Franco-Prussian War. Of Maupassant's influence on her work, Chopin said:
"I read his stories and marveled at them. Here was life, not fiction; for where were the plots, the old-fashioned mechanism and stage-trapping that in a vague, unthinkable way I had fancied were essential to the art of story-making. 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."
3. CHOPIN SET MANY OF HER STORIES IN LOUISIANA, INCLUDING THE AWAKENING.
She set At Fault and portions of The Awakening in New Orleans, where Chopin spent many years as a young wife and mother. Chopin reflected the Creole heritage of the area in her characters. Many of her short stories were set in the central Louisiana town of Natchitoches, where she later resided.
4. THE AWAKENING IS CONSIDERED ONE OF THE FIRST FEMINIST WORKS IN AMERICAN LITERATURE.
Chopin's novel arrived during the feminist movement's first wave, when women fought for the right to vote and for increased autonomy. The Awakening's heroine, Edna Pontellier, challenged society's expectations for women by daring to explore romance outside her marriage and gratification outside of motherhood.
5. CHOPIN STRUGGLED AFTER THE DEATH OF HER HUSBAND.
When The Awakening was published, she was a 49-year-old widow who had raised six children. Her husband, Oscar Chopin, had died of malaria in 1882, when Kate was 32. According to biographer Emily Toth, "For a while, the widow Kate ran his business and flirted outrageously with local men." Two years later, she sold the business (a general store and plantation) and moved to St. Louis to be closer to her mother. There, Chopin's obstetrician and family friend, Dr. Frederick Kolbenheyer, suggested writing might pull her out of a growing depression. She found a new passion and purpose.
6. CHOPIN BECAME A RESPECTED WRITER OF REGIONAL STORIES.
Ahead of The Awakening's debut, Chopin was at the height of her popularity. Critics praised both of her short story collections, and heralded A Night in Acadie as "a string of little jewels." She was celebrated for her observations and ability to capture "local color." Posthumously, her works would continue to be revered as grand examples of American realism at the turn of the century. This literary movement depicted the everyday lives of ordinary, contemporary people with keen and humane observations.
7. THE AWAKENING EARNED NEGATIVE REVIEWS ...
Chopin's story of self-discovery and suicide boldly challenged the gender roles of Victorian society. Critics denounced the novel as "morbid," "feeble," and "vulgar." "Miss Kate Chopin is another clever woman, but she has put her cleverness to a very bad use in writing The Awakening," sniffed an anonymous reviewer in the Providence Sunday Journal. "The purport of the story can hardly be described in language fit for publication. We are fain to believe that Miss Chopin did not herself realize what she was doing when she wrote it."
The Los Angeles Sunday Times scolded, "It is rather difficult to decide whether Mrs. Kate Chopin, the author of The Awakening, tried in that novel merely to make an intimate, analytical study of the character of a selfish, capricious woman, or whether she wanted to preach the doctrine of the right of the individual to have what he wants, no matter whether or not it may be good for him."
Perhaps harshest of all was Public Opinion's review, which celebrated Edna's eventual drowning. "If the author had secured our sympathy for this unpleasant person it would not have been a small victory, but we are well satisfied when Mrs. Pontellier deliberately swims out to her death in the waters of the gulf," the critic wrote.
8. ... BUT EVEN CRITICS WHO WERE UNNERVED BY CHOPIN'S PLOT PRAISED HER CRAFT.
Frances Porcher, reviewing for The Mirror, lamented that Chopin's novel ultimately left her feeling "sick of human nature," but wrote, "there is no fault to find with the telling of the story; there are no blemishes in its art."
L. Deyo of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch acknowledged The Awakening's subversive elements, but argued that its artistry superseded its shock value. "The theme is difficult, but it is handled with a cunning craft," Deyo wrote. "The work is more than unusual. It is unique. The integrity of its art is that of well-knit individuality at one with itself, with nothing superfluous to weaken the impression of a perfect whole."
9. THE OUTCRY WOUNDED CHOPIN—AND HER CAREER.
Despite all the praise her short stories had earned, the critical response to The Awakening crushed Chopin's spirits. The St. Louis Fine Arts Club, which she sought to join, barred her admission because of the scandal. She wrote more short stories but struggled to find publishers. Toth argues that Chopin's challenge to society's patriarchal status quo in The Awakening "went too far: Edna's sensuality was too much for the male gatekeepers."
10. THE AWAKENING WAS CHOPIN'S LAST NOVEL.
Five years after its publication, the St. Louis-born author died after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage while she was visiting the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair.
11. FOR DECADES, IT SEEMED THAT THE AWAKENING WOULD BE FORGOTTEN.
Following her death, critics and readers remembered her most often for her short stories. Her legacy remained that of a "local colorist"; the regional elements of her short stories were valued more highly than The Awakening's theme of female empowerment.
12. APPRECIATION FOR THE AWAKENING GREW IN THE MID-20TH CENTURY.
By the early 1960s, second-wave feminism was changing the way Americans viewed women and society at large. In 1969, Per Seyersted, a scholar of American literature, secured Chopin's literary legacy by publishing the first edition of her collected works. He also wrote Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography. The former allowed generations of readers to discover her writing, while the latter reconsidered The Awakening, and celebrated "its courageous realism." Both books kicked off a reevaluation of Chopin and her once-notorious novel.
13. THE AWAKENING HAS BEEN BANNED—BUT ONLY ONCE.
Though book jackets like to claim that it's been banned, historians have found of only one verified instance when The Awakening was pulled from library shelves. A popular story claims that a library in Chopin's hometown of St. Louis removed the novel. But in all her research, Toth could not verify this. However, The New York Times reported The Awakening was banned from a public library in Evanston, Illinois in 1902. And its placement was challenged at Georgia's Oconee County Library in 2010. That incident wasn't related to the controversial content of the novel, but to its cover showing a painting of a semi-nude woman, which upset a library patron.
14. THE AWAKENING IS CONSIDERED A CLASSIC.
Contemporary critics and academics recognize that Chopin was ahead of her time by almost 100 years. In Awakenings: The Story of the Kate Chopin Revival, editor and Chopin authority Bernard Koloski summarized the incredible journey of The Awakening's rise to the American literature canon:
"No other American book was so maligned, neglected for so long, and then embraced so quickly and with such enthusiasm as Kate Chopin's 1899 novel The Awakening. And none has been so thoroughly redeemed as The Awakening. Thought vulgar, morbid, and disturbing in Chopin's time, it has for the past quarter of a century been seen as sensitive, passionate, and inspiring. Forgotten for two generations, it is today known by countless people in dozens of countries, and Kate Chopin has become among the most widely read of classic American authors."
15. BECAUSE OF THE AWAKENING, CHOPIN'S WORK CAN BE READ AROUND THE WORLD.
Her writings have been translated into many other languages, including, according to the Kate Chopin International Society, "Albanian, Arabic, Chinese, Czech, Danish, Dutch, French, Galician, German, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Malayalam, Polish, Portuguese, Serbian, Spanish, Swedish, Turkish, and Vietnamese."