While its perennial placement on AP tests and college literature class exams suggests a dry work that won’t appeal to most people, I find The Awakening, an 1899 novel by Kate Chopin, to be a very readable novel. To be sure, it’s a book that is beloved by English professors and literary critics, who have praised it for its ahead-of-its-time feminism. However, despite the novel’s setting in New Orleans in the late 1800s and its high-brow reputation, The Awakening is an engrossing read, because the main character’s struggles to find herself are still relevant to readers today.
The novel begins with its heroine, Edna Pontellier, on vacation with her husband and children at a Gulf Coast resort, where she falls in love with another man who recoils from the obvious tragedies of their future together. Edna returns to New Orleans, and the narrative follows her gradual transformation from cowed wife and mother to a self-actualized, independent woman. However, feminine independence in the American South in the late 1800s wasn’t exactly a celebrated virtue, and the novel comes to a conclusion that nevertheless underscores a certain kind of freedom—even though it’s terribly tragic.
Kate Chopin herself also serves as an example of feminist strength. A young widow who found some success as a writer, she penned several short stories that were widely read in the 1890s. This string of successes, however, ended with The Awakening, which scandalized readers and was condemned by the press. One rumor suggested that a St. Louis library near Chopin’s house banned the book shortly after its release; while that may be an exaggeration, it is certainly true that it was received with considerable controversy and was difficult to find in libraries at the time. Unfortunately, Chopin died in obscurity a few years after the novel’s publication, and it would be decades before she received any literary attention.
Today, The Awakening is considered one of the first American novels to deal with what would become known as feminist ideas. Contemporary author Barbara Kingsolver has likened The Awakening to the 1960s’ The Feminine Mystique, suggesting that Chopin’s novel was unleashed on a world not ready for its discussion of feminine independence.
Even today, the book remains an object of controversy in some parts of the U.S. Nevertheless, as a classic novel, it has also been widely translated, made into TV movies like Grand Isle, and adapted for dance productions and plays. Readers owe it to themselves, however, to return to the original novel. It’s a slim, unassuming little book, but it presents an incisive look at 1890s society that still rings true, in part, today.