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When she published The Awakening in 1899, Kate Chopin startled her public with a frank portrayal of a woman’s social, sexual, and spiritual awakening. Because it told its particular truth without judgment or censure, the public disapproved.
The idea of a true autonomy for women, or, more astounding yet a single sexual standard for men and women — was too much to imagine. Kate Chopin’s presentation of the awakening of her heroine, Edna Pontellier, her unblinking recognition that respectable women did indeed have sexual feelings proved too strong for many who read her novel.
Love and passion, marriage and independence, freedom and restraint these are themes realized in this story. When Edna Pontellier, the heroine of The Awakening announces “I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself” she is addressing the crucial issue of winning of a self, and the keeping of it. But when Edna Pontellier, raised in Presbyterian propriety and a mother of two sons, responds to another Alcée, Chopin, the public thought, had gone too far. “I am no longer one of Mr. Pontellier’s possessions to dispose of or not” she tells the young man she loves: “I give myself where I choose. ”
Twenty-eight, comfortable in a marriage to an older man involved with his business life in New Orleans, Edna has never settled into the selfless maternal mold of the other women who summer at Grand Isle to escape the disease and heat of the city. She begins a journey of self-discovery that leads to several awakenings: to her separateness as a “solitary soul,” to the pleasures of “swimming far out” in the seductive sensuously appealing sea, to the passions revealed in music, to her own desire to create art, to a romantic attachment to a young man, to living on her own, to sexual desire. Robert, the beloved, honorably removes himself to escape entanglement; Alcée, a recognized womanizer and rake, elicits the sexual response. Chopin creates a circle of symbolic characters about her heroine: a devoted wife, an embittered spinster musician, a dour and disapproving father, an understanding doctor, empty headed pleasure seekers. Edna veers between realistic appraisal of her place in the world and romantic longing for Robert, between enjoying the sensual pleasures with Alcée and practically removing herself from her husband’s control.
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Edna moves to self-realization and to a final awareness that she has awakened to a world in which she has no place. Visions of her children rise up to accuse her. Her answer, in a scene that richly echoes Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” is to return herself naked to the seductive sea “how strange and awful” — and the memories of childhood , “the hum of bees, and the musky odor of pinks,” in an act of suicide or transcendence that finishes her search.
Perhaps it was her unique combination of honesty and objectivity that so incensed the readers of The Awakening that they condemned it so roundly she almost abandoned her writing. The Awakening disappeared from public view and it wasn’t until the 1950’s when critics in the United States and in France recognized her talent and revived interest in it. New generations, sensitive to women’s needs, accepting woman’s sexuality, have welcomed the book; and critics have made it one of the most widely discussed.
Almost a century after, America has fully awakened to Kate Chopin’s novel and paid the respect due to a woman who had been so far ahead of her time.