Re Awakening: Some 19th Century Responses
By Frances Porcher
Of an already successful writer's first novel one should not write, perhaps, while the spell of the book is upon one; it is something to be "dreamed upon," like a piece of wedding-cake for luck on one's first marriage-proposal, or anything upon which hangs some importance of decision. And so, because we admire Kate Chopin's other work immensely and delight in her evergrowing fame and are proud that she is "one-of-us St. Louisans," one dislikes to acknowledge a wish that she had not written her novel.
Not because it is not bright with her own peculiar charm of style, not because there is missing any touch of effect or lacking any beauty of description--but--well, it is one of the books of which we feel "cui bono?" It absorbs and interests, then makes one wonder, for the moment, with a little sick feeling, if all women are like the one, and that isn't a pleasant reflection after you have thoroughly taken in this character study whose "awakening" gives title to Mrs. Chopin's novel.
One would fain beg the gods, in pure cowardice, for sleep unending rather than to know what an ugly, cruel, loathsome monster Passion can be when, like a tiger, it slowly stretches its graceful length and yawns and finally awakens. This is the kind of an awakening that impresses the reader in Mrs. Chopin's heroine. I do not believe it impressed the heroine herself that way. I think, like the tiger, she hated to be balked of her desire and that was about the worst of it to her.
. . . It is not a pleasant picture of soul-dissection, take it anyway you like; and so, though she finally kills herself, or rather lets herself drown to death, one feels that it is not in the desperation born of an over-burdened heart, torn by complicating duties but rather because she realizes that something is due to her children, that she cannot get away from, and she is too weak to face the issue. Besides which, and this is the stronger feeling, she has offered herself wholly to the man, who loves her too well to take her at her word; "she realizes that the day would come when he, too, and the thought of him, would melt out of her existence," she has awakened to know the shifting, treacherous, fickle deeps of her own soul in which lies, alert and strong and cruel, the fiend called Passion that is all animal and all of the earth, earthy. It is better to lie down in the green waves and sink down in close embraces of old ocean, and so she does.
There is no fault to find with the telling of the story, there are no blemishes in its art, but it leaves one sick of human nature and so one feels cui bono!
From the St. Louis Globe Democrat: 13 May 1899
The appearance of a new novel by Kate Chopin, of St. Louis, is an event of interest to St. Louisans. The appearance of a book such as "The Awakening" by this St. Louis lady, is fraught with especial interest, and that interest carries with it surprise. Whether that surprise is pleasant or the reverse depends largely on the view point of the reader. It is hardly the kind of a book some people would look for from her. It is pre-eminently a romance of to-day--a love story with one woman as the central figure, around which several male characters revolve; and thoughts of the proverbial moth and the traditional candle force themselves on the reader in almost every chapter. At the very outset of the story one feels that the heroine should pray for deliverance from temptation, and in the very closing paragraph, when, having removed every vestige of clothes she "stands naked in the sun" and then walks out into the water until she can walk no farther, and then swims on into eternity, one thinks that her very suicide is in itself a prayer for deliverance from the evils that beset her, all of her own creating.
It is not a healthy book; if it points any particular moral or teaches any lesson, the fact is not apparent. But there is no denying the fact that it deals with existent conditions, and without attempting a solution, handles a problem that obtrudes itself only too frequently in the social life of people with whom the question of food and clothing is not the all absorbing one.
There are some pretty bits of description of Louisiana Creole life, and there are two or three minor characters in the book that are drawn with a deft hand. After reading the whole story, it can not be said that either of the principal characters claims admiration or sympathy. It is a morbid book, and the thought suggests itself that the author herself would probably like nothing better than to "tear it to pieces" by criticism if only some other person had written it.
From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: 20 May 1899
C. L. Deyo
There may be many opinions touching other aspects of Mrs. Chopin's novel "The Awakening," but all must concede its flawless art. The delicacy of touch of rare skill in construction, the subtle understanding of motive, the searching vision into the recesses of the heart--these are known to readers of "Bayou Folk" and "A Night in Acadie." But in this new work power appears, power born of confidence. There is no uncertainty in the lines, so surely and firmly drawn. Complete mastery is apparent on every page. Nothing is wanting to make a complete artistic whole. In delicious English, quick with life, never a word too much, simple and pure, the story proceeds with classic severity through a labyrinth of doubt and temptation and dumb despair.
It is not a tragedy, for it lacks the high motive of tragedy. The woman, not quite brave enough, declines to a lower plane and does not commit a sin ennobled by love. But it is terribly tragic. Compassion, not pity, is excited, for pity is for those who sin, and Edna Pontellier only offended--weakly, passively, vainly offended.
"The Awakening" is not for the young person; not because the young person would be harmed by reading it, but because the young person wouldn't understand it, and everybody knows that the young person's understanding should be scrupulously respected. It is for seasoned souls, for those who have lived, who have ripened under the gracious or ungracious sun of experience and learned that realities do not show themselves on the outside of things where they can be seen and heard, weighed, measured and valued like the sugar of commerce, but treasured within the heart, hidden away, never to be known perhaps save when exposed by temptation or called out by occasions of great pith and moment. No, the book is not for the young person, nor, indeed, for the old person who has no relish for unpleasant truths. For such there is much that is very improper in it, not to say positively unseemly. A fact, no matter how essential, which we have all agreed shall not be acknowledged, is as good as no fact at all. And it is disturbing--even indelicate--to mention it as something which, perhaps, does play an important part in the life behind the mask.
It is the life and not the mask that is the subject of the story. One day Edna Pontellier, whose husband has vaguely held her dear as a bit of decorative furniture, a valuable piece of personal property, suddenly becomes aware she is a human being. It was her husband's misfortune that he did not make this interesting discovery himself, but he had his brokerage business to think about and brokers deal in stocks, not hearts. It was Mrs. Pontellier's misfortune that another man revealed her to herself, and when the knowledge came it produced profound dissatisfaction, as often happens when love is born in a cage not of its own building. In the beginning she had no thought of wrong-doing, but resentment was hot and made her sullen. Robert Lebrun, whose heart was ensnared before he realized it, went away to Mexico to make money, which was quite the proper thing to do. It would have been the right thing had he gone before it was too late, for then he might have been only a shadowy dream in Edna's life, instead of a consuming reality. This made the poor woman still more discontented. She took to all sorts of foolish fancies to divert her mind. Her children did not help her, for she was not a mother woman and didn't feel that loving babies was the whole duty of a woman. She loved them, but said that while she was willing to die for them she couldn't give up anything essential for them. This sounded clever because it was paradoxical, but she didn't quite know what it meant. She dabbled with brush and canvas. Mademoiselle Reisz told her that to be an artist one must be courageous, to dare and defy. But, unhappily, Mrs. Pontellier was not courageous. So she was not an artist. Mademoiselle Reisz, who was a witch, and knew Robert and Edna better than they knew themselves, did not add, what was really in her mind, that to be a great sinner a woman must be courageous, for great sinners are those who sin for a pure, howbeit unlawful, motive. Edna was not courageous. So she was not a great sinner, but by and by she became a poor, helpless offender, which is the way of such persons--not good enough for heaven, not wicked enough for hell.
Mrs. Pontellier was prepared by unlawful love for unholy passion. Her husband was extinct so far as she was concerned, and the man she loved was beyond her power. She had no anchor and no harbor was in sight. She was a derelict in a moral ocean, whose chart she had never studied, and one of the pirates who cruise in that sea made her his prize. Robert might have saved her from ignoble temptation by supplying a motive for a robust sin, but he was in Mexico and the thought of him only deepened her discontent. The moment came and with it the man. There is always a man for the moment, sometimes two or three. So thought Mrs. Pontellier, and she grew dull with despair. Passion without love was not to her liking and she feared the future. If she had been a courageous woman she would have put away passion and waited for love, but she was not courageous. She let sensation occupy a vacant life, knowing the while that it only made it emptier and more hopeless.
So because she could not forget her womanhood, and to save the remnants of it, she swam out into the sunkissed gulf and did not come back.
It is sad and mad and bad, but it is all consummate art. The theme is difficult, but it is handled with a cunning craft. 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.
From the Chicago Times-Herald: 1 June 1899
Kate Chopin, author of those delightful sketches, "A Night in Acadie," has made a new departure in her long story, "The Awakening." The many admirers whom she has won by her earlier work will be surprised--perhaps disagreeably--by this latest venture. That the book is strong and that Miss Chopin has a keen knowledge of certain phases of feminine character will not be denied. But it was not necessary for a writer of so great refinement and poetic grace to enter the overworked field of sex fiction.
From the Providence Sunday Journal: 4 June 1899
. . . Miss Kate Chopin is another clever woman, but she has put her cleverness to a very bad use in writing "The Awakening." 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. With a bald realism that fairly out Zolas Zola, she describes the result upon a married woman who lives amiably with her husband without caring for him, of a slowly growing admiration for another man. He is too honorable to speak and goes away; but her life is spoiled already, and she falls with a merely animal instinct into the arms of the first man she meets. The worst of such stories is that they will fall into the hands of youth, leading them to dwell on things that only matured persons can understand, and promoting unholy imaginations and unclean desires. It is nauseating to remember that those who object to the bluntness of our older writers will excuse and justify the gilded dirt of these latter days. . . .
From the New Orleans Times-Democrat: 18 June 1899
. . . By the way, "The Awakening" does not strike one as a very happy title for the story Mrs. Chopin tells. A woman of twenty-eight, a wife and twice a mother who in pondering upon her relations to the world about her, fails to perceive that the relation of a mother to her children is far more important than the gratification of a passion which experience has taught her is, by its very nature, evanescent, can hardly be said to be fully awake. This unhappy Edna's awakening seems to have been confined entirely to the senses, while reason, judgment, and all the higher faculties and perceptions, whose office it is to weigh and criticise impulse and govern conduct, fell into slumber deep as that of the seven sleepers. It gives one a distinct shock to see Edna's crude mental operations, of which we are compelled to judge chiefly by results--characterized as "perhaps more wisdom than the Holy Ghost is usually pleased to vouchsafe to any woman." The assumption that such a course as that pursued by Edna has any sort of divine sanction cannot be too strongly protested against. In a civilized society the right of the individual to indulge all his caprices is, and must be, subject to many restrictive clauses, and it cannot for a moment be admitted that a woman who has willingly accepted the love and devotion of a man, even without an equal love on her part--who has become his wife and the mother of his children--has not incurred a moral obligation which peremptorily forbids her from wantonly severing her relations with him, and entering openly upon the independent existence of an unmarried woman. It is not altogether clear that this is the doctrine Mrs. Chopin intends to teach, but neither is it clear that it is not. Certainly there is throughout the story an undercurrent of sympathy for Edna, and nowhere a single note of censure of her totally unjustifiable conduct.
From Public Opinion: 22 June 1899
. . . "The Awakening," by Kate Chopin, is a feeble reflection of Bourget, theme and manner of treatment both suggesting the French novelist. We very much doubt the possibility of a woman of "solid old Presbyterian Kentucky stock" being at all like Mrs. Edna Pontellier who has a long list of lesser loves, and one absorbing passion, but gives herself only to the man for whom she did not feel the least affection. 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. . . .
From Literature: 23 June 1899
. . . One cannot refrain from regret that so beautiful a style and so much refinement of taste have been spent by Miss Chopin on an essentially vulgar story. The peculiarities of Creole life and temperament, and the sensuous atmosphere of life in New Orleans and at summer resorts on the Gulf, are happily sketched and outlined in this dramatic tale, and emphasis is laid upon the freedom of the Creole from false modesty and the pleasant social relations which inhere among Creole circles. A Creole husband as a rule entirely trusts his wife and is incapable of jealousy, for the reason that the right hand is not jealous of the left nor the head of the heart. Nevertheless, Leonce Pontellier, the Creole husband in the story, having married a beautiful Kentuckian, is less fortunate than most of his compatriots in having excellent reason for jealousy. His wife, having married him in a reaction from a fancied love affair of her girlhood, does not find marriage and motherhood a cable strong enough to keep her from forming other attachments, and the story of these and of her final awakening has little to redeem it from the commonplace, nor is it strong enough to condone the character of its revelations. The awakening itself is tragic, as might have been anticipated, and the waters of the gulf close appropriately over one who has drifted from all right moorings, and has not the grace to repent. . . .
From the Los Angeles Sunday Times: 25 June 1899
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. It is true that the woman in the book who wanted her own way comes to an untimely end in the effort to get what she wants, or rather, in the effort to gratify every whim that moves her capricious soul, but there are sentences here and there through the book that indicate the author's desire to hint her belief that her heroine had the right of the matter and that if the woman had only been able to make other people "understand" things as she did she would not have had to drown herself in the blue waters of the Mexican Gulf. The scene of the story is laid in New Orleans and in a summer resort on the coast of the Gulf, and the book is concerned mainly with the mental and moral development of Edna, wife of Leonce Pontellier, a Kentucky woman, married to a creole, after she discovers that she has fallen in love with Robert Lebrun, another creole. And as the biography of one individual out of that large section of femininity which may be classified as "fool women," the book is a strong and graceful piece of work. It is like one of Aubrey Beardsley's hideous but haunting pictures with their disfiguring leer of sensuality, but yet carrying a distinguishing strength and grace and individuality. The book shows a searching insight into the motives of the "fool woman" order of being, the woman who learns nothing by experience and has not a large enough circle of vision to see beyond her own immediate desires. In many ways, it is unhealthily introspective and morbid in feeling, as the story of that sort of woman must inevitably be. The evident powers of the author are employed on a subject that is unworthy of them, and when she writes another book it is to be hoped that she will choose a theme more healthful and sweeter of smell.
From the Pittsburgh Leader: 8 July 1899
"Silbert" [Willa Cather]
A Creole Bovary is this little novel of Miss Chopin's. Not that the heroine is a Creole exactly, or that Miss Chopin is a Flaubert--save the mark!--but the theme is similar to that which occupied Flaubert. There was, indeed, no need that a second Madame Bovary should be written, but an author's choice of themes is frequently as inexplicable as his choice of a wife. It is governed by some innate temperamental bias that cannot be diagrammed. This is particularly so in women who write, and I shall not attempt to say why Miss Chopin has devoted so exquisite and sensitive, well-governed a style to so trite and sordid a theme. She writes much better than it is ever given to most people to write, and hers is a genuinely literary style; of no great elegance or solidity; but light, flexible, subtle, and capable of producing telling effects directly and simply. The story she has to tell in the present instance is new neither in matter nor treatment. Edna Pontellier, a Kentucky girl, who, like Emma Bovarv, had been in love with innumerable dream heroes before she was out of short skirts, married Leonce Pontellier as a sort of reaction from a vague and visionary passion for a tragedian whose unresponsive picture she used to kiss. She acquired the habit of liking her husband in time, and even of liking her children. Though we are not justified in presuming that she ever threw articles from her dressing table at them, as the charming Emma had a winsome habit of doing. We are told that "she would sometimes gather them passionately to her heart; she would sometimes forget them." At a Creole watering place, which is admirably and deftly sketched by Miss Chopin, Edna met Robert Lebrun, son of the landlady, who dreamed of a fortune awaiting him in Mexico while he occupied a petty clerical position in New Orleans. Robert made it his business to be agreeable to his mother's boarders, and Edna, not being a Creole, much against his wish and will, took him seriously. . . . The lover of course disappointed her, was a coward and ran away from his responsibilities before they began. He was afraid to begin a chapter with so serious and limited a woman. She remembered the sea where she had first met Robert. Perhaps from the same motive which threw Anna Karenina under the engine wheels, she threw herself into the sea, swam until she was tired and then let go. . . .
Edna Pontellier and Emma Bovary are studies in the same feminine type; one a finished and complete portrayal, the other a hasty sketch, but the theme is essentially the same. Both women belong to a class, not large, but forever clamoring in our ears, that demands more romance out of life than God put into it. Mr. G. Bernard Shaw would say that they are the victims of the over- idealization of love. They are the spoil of the poets, the Iphigenias of sentiment. The unfortunate feature of their disease is that it attacks only women of brains, at least of rudimentary brains, but whose development is one-sided; women of strong and fine intuitions, but without the faculty of observation, comparison, reasoning about things. Probably, for emotional people, the most convenient thing about being able to think is that it occasionally gives them a rest from feeling. Now with women of the Bovary type, this relaxation and recreation is impossible. They are not critics of life, but, in the most personal sense, partakers of life. They receive impressions through the fancy. With them everything begins with fancy, and passions rise in the brain rather than in the blood, the poor, neglected, limited one-sided brain that might do so much better things than badgering itself into frantic endeavors to love. For these are the people who pay with their blood for the fine ideals of the poets, as Marie Delclasse paid for Dumas' great creation, Marguerite Gauthier. These people really expect the passion of love to fill and gratify every need of life, whereas nature only intended that it should meet one of many demands. They insist upon making it stand for all the emotional pleasures of life and art; expecting an individual and self-limited passion to yield infinite variety, pleasure, and distraction, to contribute to their lives what the arts and the pleasurable exercise of the intellect gives to less limited and less intense idealists. So this passion, when set up against Shakespeare, Balzac, Wagner, Raphael, fails them. They have staked everything on one hand, and they lose. They have driven the blood until it will drive no further, they have played their nerves up to the point where any relaxation short of absolute annihilation is impossible. Every idealist abuses his nerves, and every sentimentalist brutally abuses them. And in the end, the nerves get even. Nobody ever cheats them, really. Then "the awakening" comes. Sometimes it comes in the form of arsenic, as it came to Emma Bovary, sometimes it is carbolic acid taken covertly in the police station, a goal to which unbalanced idealism not infrequently leads. Edna Pontellier, fanciful and romantic to the last, chose the sea on a summer night and went down with the sound of her first lover's spurs in her ears, and the scent of pinks about her. And next time I hope that Miss Chopin will devote that flexible iridescent style of hers to a better cause.
Letters to Chopin from "Lady Janet Scammon Young" and
"Dr. Dunrobin Thomson"
I feel sure I ought to send you the enclosed letter from the great consulting physician of England, who is also one of the purest and best of men, and who has been said by a great editor to be "the soundest critic since Matthew Arnold."
Your book has deeply stirred some other noble souls to whom I have lent it. Like Doctor T--- --- I assume that it is to be republished over here. Maarten Maartens, who was here last week, said The Awakening ought to be translated into Dutch, Scandinavian, and Russian.
But great as is my interest in this book I confess to a still deeper interest in one which you ought to write--which you alone among living novelists could write. Evidently like all of us you believe Edna to have been worth saving--believe her to have been too noble to go to her death as she did. I quite bow to Doctor T's better sense of art. The conventions required her to die. But suppose her husband had been conceived on higher lines? Suppose Dr. Mandelet had said other things to him--had said, for example: "Pontellier, like most men you fancy that because you have possessed your wife hundreds of times she necessarily long ago came to entire womanly self knowledge--that your embraces have as a matter of course aroused whatever of passion she may be endowed with. You are mistaken. She is just becoming conscious of sex--is just finding herself compelled to take account of masculinity as such. You cannot arrest that process whatever you do; you should not wish to do so. Assist this birth of your wife's deeper womanliness. Be tender, let her know that you see how Robert, Arobin affect her. Laugh with her over the evident influence of her womanhood over them. Tell her how, in itself it is natural, that it is divinely made & therefore innocent and pure and the very basis of social life--else why is true society absolutely non- existent without both sexes. There is no society in Turkey. Show her the nonsense of ascribing all this interinfluence to 'the feminine mind acting upon the masculine mind'--a saying that so severe a thinker as Herbert Spencer ridicules. Above all trust her, let her see that you do. Only the inherently base woman betrays a trust. Leave her with Robert, with Arobin. Trusted she will never fail you--distrusted, ignored, left in ignorance of what her new unrest really means she will fall. Follow my advice and in a year you will have a new wife with whom you will fall in love again; & you will be a new husband, manlier, more virile and impassioned with whom she will fall in love again."
Suppose Dr. Mandelet had thus spoken, and Pontellier had thus acted?
Of course in its brutal literal significance we wholly reject and loathe the French maxim: "The lover completes the wife," yet if we know the true facts of nature we must confess that there is a profound inner truth in it. No woman comes to her full womanly empire and charm who has not felt in what Dr. T----- calls "her passional nature" the arousing power of more than one man. But oh how important to her purity, her honor, her inner self-respect that she (again quoting Dr. T-----) "distinguish between passion and love." So that instead of guiltily saying, "I fear I love that man" she shall say within herself with no sense of guilt "How that man's masculinity stirs me"--say it above all to her husband. Now all this, which I am saying so clumsily needs saying powerfully; needs to be taught by that most potent method of expression open to man--a great novel. You can write it. You alone. You are free from decadency. Your mind and heart are beautiful, free, clean, sympathetic. Give us a great hearted manly man--give us a great natured woman for his wife. Give us the awakening of her whole nature, let her go to the utmost short of actual adultery--show that her danger is in her ignorance of the great distinctions of which Dr. T----- speaks. Show us how such a husband can save such a wife and turn the influence of sex to its intended beneficient end. I trust I need not say that my suggestion that she go very very far is not for the sake of scenes of passion, but that readers may be helped whose self respect is shipwrecked or near it because they have gone far and are saying "I might as well go all the way . . . ."
If I can do anything for you pray command me. I know publishers, translators, &c, &c. I shall go to Montreux in December at latest, but the address at the beginning will always find me. With every best wish,
My dear Lady Janet:
It is commonplace to say that I am indebted to you for a great pleasure in the loan of that remarkable book The Awakening. I have read it twice--once at a sitting when I ought to have been asleep, and again more deliberately in my brougham. Doubtless it will be published over here, but I am having my bookseller get two copies of the American edition--one for Crestwood and one for town. It is easily the book of the year. The ending reminds one of The Open Question, but how vastly superior in power, ethic and wit is this newer novel.
You accuse "Kate Chopin" (a pen name I suppose) of an unnecessary tragedy. My dear Lady Janet, the authoress took the world as it is, as all art must--and 'twas inevitable that poor dear Edna, being noble, and having Pontellier for husband, and Arobin for lover, and average women for friends, should die.
My wrath is not toward "Kate Chopin" at all. That which makes The Awakening legitimate is that the author deals with the commonest of human experiences. You fancy Edna's case exceptional? Trust an old doctor--most common. It is only that Edna was nobler, and took that last clean swim. The others live. Not all meet Arobin or Robert. The essence of the matter lies in the accursed stupidity of men. They marry a girl, she becomes a mother. They imagine she has sounded the heights and depths of womanhood. Poor fools! She is not even awakened. She, on her part is a victim of the abominable prudishness which masquerades as modesty or virtue. Every great and beautiful fact of nature has a vile counterfeit. The counterfeit of goodness is self-righteousness--of true modesty, prudishness. The law, spoken or implied, which governs the upbringing of girls is that passion is disgraceful. It is to be assumed that a self respecting female has it not. In so far as normally constituted womanhood must take account of something sexual, it is called "love." It was inevitable, therefore, that Edna should call her feeling for Robert love. It was as simply & purely passion as her feeling for Arobin. "Kate Chopin" would not admit that. Being ( I assume) a woman, she too would reserve the word love for Edna's feeling for Robert.
The especial point of a wife's danger when her beautiful, God given womanhood awakes, is that she will save her self-respect by imagining herself in love with the awakener. She should be taught by her husband to distinguish between passion and love. Then she is safe, invulnerable. Even if, at the worst she "falls"--she will rise again.
It is inevitable, natural, and therefore clean and harmless, that a normal, beautifully constituted married woman will be stirred in her passional being by the men between whom and herself there is that mysterious affinity of the real nature of which we know nothing. If she calls that stirring of her nature "love" she is lost. If she knows perfectly well that it is passion; if she esteems and respects her passional capacity as she does her capacity to be moved by a song or a sonnet, or a great poem, or a word nobly said she is safe. She knows that that thing is. She is no more ashamed of it than of her responsiveness to any other great appeal. She knows that it does not touch her wife-life, her mother-life, her self-hood. It is not "naughty."
A wise husband (there are some) is at no point so loving and tenderly wise at this point. A cad or a cur is (God save the mark) jealous. If his wife is weak she quails, and hides from men or shelters herself in a pretended indifference. If she is strong she resents the monstrous insult of his suspicion. I am happier over nothing in my professional life than that I have helped many men at this point--many men, many women. I have said to more than one man: "Your wife's nature is stirring; lovingly help her. Let her see that you know it and like it; and that you distinguish perfectly between her heart, her wifely loyalty, and her body--make her distinguish it too."
But I weary you. This book has stirred me to the soul. Edna is like a personal friend. She is not impure. The art, the local colour, the distinctness of characterisation of even the minor personages are something wonderful.
Thanking you again, dear Lady Janet, I am as ever yours faithfully
From Book News: July 1899
Kate Chopin's Comment
BY KATE CHOPIN
Having a group of people at my disposal, I thought it might be entertaining (to myself) to throw them together and see what would happen. 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.
ST. LOUIS, MO.,
May 28, 1899
When it was published in 1899, The Awakening was considered vulgar by most critics. The inferior social status of women was firmly entrenched, especially in the South. An accompanying concept was the assumed moral superiority of women, at least in sexual matters. Upper-class ladies such as Edna Pontellier were ornaments, displays of their husband’s wealth. A book that challenged the traditional roles of women was likely to be controversial. The public was not ready to accept a liberated woman, even if she did commit suicide in the end. Kate Chopin disappeared from the literary world when her book was critically attacked and banned from libraries. Not all critics gave negative reviews. Willa Cather, later a famous novelist herself, praised The Awakening. Cather acclaimed the style of Chopin and also compared the protagonist to Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina, heroines of classic European fiction. From the mid-twentieth century on, critics, especially feminists, have raised the status of the novel to an American masterpiece. It has been celebrated as an important literary document in the history of women’s rights and as an artistic success.
Chopin tells Edna’s story without comment; the action and dialogue present ambiguities. Various schools of criticism have interpreted The Awakening from diverse views. Feminist critics have promoted it as a neglected text that should rightly be placed among the outstanding novels of the nineteenth century. It presents the plight of a woman who cannot accept the idea of being limited to a socially defined role. Edna rejects the economic and social success that her marriage to Léonce gives her in favor of working out her own destiny. She prefers to define her role actively rather than to be a passive object. Her awakening is sexual in part, but it is also a search for creativity, as suggested by her attempt to paint. She seeks the advice of the only artist she knows—Mademoiselle Reisz. She reads Emerson, the voice of individualism. From these sources, she gains the courage to challenge the authority of her husband. In her fight for independence, Edna becomes a threat to the values of a society.
Feminist critics also recognize other elements of the book relating to psychoanalytic theory, mythology, linguistics, and cultural studies. Critics from different fields saw it as naturalistic, an extended work of local color, or as a conflict between Creole and American cultures. A major emphasis, however, was the consideration of the novel as a work of art, which often involved an examination of patterns of imagery that tie the novel together.
One example is how Chopin uses birds to help define Edna’s situation. On the first page, the caged parrot suggests her feeling of being trapped by traditions. The mockingbird, on the other side of Madame Lebrun’s door, further illustrates her passive role, in which a voice of her own is not expected. Edna, however, speaks for herself by moving out of Léonce’s house into what she calls her pigeon-house, suggestive of both a dependent domestic bird and a wild bird that has found its own nest. The advice that Edna gets from the pianist includes a reference to a bird that will have wings strong enough to fly above traditions and prejudices. Also, when the pianist plays for Edna, the latter envisions a naked man looking toward a distant bird in “hopeless resignation.” Finally when Edna decides on suicide as a final act of free will, she watches a broken-winged bird descend into the sea. Edna breaks free from her cage, but she flounders in an alien environment. The story of her brief flight, however, has become a celebrated novel.