Tuesday, March 22, 2011


Few novels can compete with The Awakening for generating critical responses so diverse as to seem uninspired by the same books. Published in Chicago in 1899 by Herbert Stone & Co. and selling for $1.50 a copy, the novel received the critical attention appropriately due a writer already acclaimed for her successful short stories.

At one extreme was the prepublication commentary of Lucy Monroe, a reviewer for the publisher, who praised the author's literary brilliance and promised that the novel would leave the reader with "the impression of being at the very heart of things" (Norton Critical Edition: The Awakening, 1994, 161). Another reviewer reacted as if she had been personally damaged by the novel's effect: "One would fain beg the gods . for sleep unending rather than to know what an ugly, cruel, loathsome monster Passion can be when .. it ... finally awakens" (Frances Porcher, ibid, 162). The St. Louis Post-Dispatch (May 20, 1899) praised the "complete mastery ... apparent on every page" and empathized with the heroine whose husband regarded her "as a bit of decorative furniture" (ibid, 164). The Chicago Times-Herald Gune 1, 1899) dismissed the book as "sex fiction" (ibid, 166).

Within these extremes was a range of mixed responses, generally more positive about Chopin's writing skills and more negative to the point of disgust and alarm about the character and behavior of her heroine. One novel reaction deserves special mention: Writing in 1909, Percival Pollard presumptuously claimed that Edna was not a credible human being. The issue of Edna's relative "awakeness," he opined, "would be an interesting question for students of sleep¬walking"; later he escalated his disdain with this mocking tone: "Ah, these married women, who have never, by some strange chance, had the flaming torch applied, how they do flash out when the right moment comes!" (Their Day in Court, Neale Publishing, 41-45). Although friends and many readers rallied in her support, Kate Chopin was troubled by the novel's unequal reception and dismayed by the damage it brought to her reputation. In the July 1899 edition of Book News she offered a tongue-in-cheek defense of her heroine:
I never dreamed of Mrs. Pontellier making such a mess of things and working out her own damnation as she did. If I had had the slightest intimation of such a thing [,] I would have excluded her from the company. But when I found out what she was up to, the play was half over and it was then too late. (Quoted in Critical Essays on Kate Chopin, Alice Hall Petry, ed., G. K. Hall & Co., 11.)

What resources did Kate Chopin draw upon to have so confidentially and clairvoyantly presented this betrayal of a woman in existential crisis and then not retract it after hearing her heroine maligned and disbelieved by so many? No evidence exists suggesting the story was autobiographical. After her husband died early and unexpectedly in 1882, she began her writing career, became a prominent member of the social and literary circles in St. Louis, and was rumored to have enjoyed a romantic fling with a younger male resembling her character Alcee Arobin. In 1894 she wrote:

If it were possible for my husband . . . to come back to earth, I feel that I would unhesitatingly give up everything that has come into my life since [then] . . . and join my existence again with [his]. (Quoted in Toth, Unveiling, 162.)

Biographers tell us that Chopin descended from eccentric and strong-willed women. She certainly displayed wit and imaginative thinking. To the question-4s Love Divine?— asked of prominent women by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1898, Chopin, a true novelist, gave an unconventional response highlighting the mysteries of love: It is as difficult to distinguish between the divine love and the natural, animal love, as it is to explain just why we love at all. (Quoted in Walker, Kate Chopin, 2001, 114)

Another clue to Chopin's (and Edna's) sensibility is a remark the author recorded in which she vows never to "fall into the useless degrading life of most married ladies" (Kate Chopin's Personal Papers, eds. Toth and Seyersted, 1998, 102).

Chopin conceived of Edna's story during the decade of Darwin and Huxley, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (and other "uppity women")—all in their way challenging the notion of a fixed and final truth. But despite these encouraging influences, the prevailing Victorian code for female behavior was too entrenched to condone a "shocking" display of female eroticism or to give center stage to a woman in the throes of self-liberation. After the first rush of attention and commentary, the novel went out of print. Chopin scholar Emily Toth has debunked the persistent myth that the book had been banned from the St. Louis library, but it did fall into such obscurity that it was not listed in Robert Spiller's 1948 edition of the Literary History of the United States, although other Chopin works were included.

French scholar Cyrille Arnavon's 1953 translation of The Awakening and Per Seyersted's 1969 biography revived interest in Chopin and her novel. The feminist movement in the sixties elevated Chopin's stature; since then, her work has achieved its prominent place in the American literature canon.

Published at the turn of the century, The Awakening is a fictional embodiment of the struggles that were ahead for women. Chopin scholar Joyce Dyer writes:

Chopin decides there will be no easy answers for Edna, just as there would be no easy answers for the women of the twentieth century who followed her. (The Awakening: A Novel of Beginnings, 1993, 17) Showing how far appreciation of Chopin has come, Peggy Skaggs praises The Awakening for demonstrating "that unless one's inner person is integral with one's outer roles and relationships a fully satisfying life cannot be achieved" (Kate Chopin, Twayne's, Indiana University, Bloomington, 1985).

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