The Awakening INTRODUCTION

ON August 20, 1904, Kate Chopin spent the day at the St. Louis World’s Fair. That evening she collapsed of a cerebral hemorrhage and died on August 22. An author with a flair for the coincidental, Chopin probably would have appreciated the ironic overlap between the end of her own life and the arrival of the world’s largest international exposition in her hometown.

The greatest event in the city’s history, the fair brought some 20,000,000 visitors from around the world to commemorate the hundred-year anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase. Designed to showcase the accomplishments of American civilization, it comprised a miniature city of its own, with a vast expanse of white buildings, lagoons, and carefully landscaped vistas that covered 1,272 acres of Forest Park. Among its many attractions were the Department of Physical Culture, exhibits of the newest artistic, architectural, and technological innovations, the world’s largest Ferris wheel, and a presentation by Helen Keller and her teacher, Annie Sullivan. Visitors could drink iced tea and sample their first ice cream cone, a treat invented by one of the exposition’s concessionaires. Responsibility for representing the world’s cultures fell to the anthropological division, the most elaborate of any World’s Fair. Two of its exhibits were especially popular: the massive Philippine Reservation, which educated visitors about America’s newest colony, and the Pygmy Village populated with authentic African tribespeople. Photographs of the ethnographic attractions, in which primly costumed white ladies and gentlemen peer at scantily clad natives, are a reminder of the jarring encounters that took place in St. Louis. A complex portrait of modernity in the new century, the fair was the site of dizzying juxtapositions of the exotic and the familiar, the traditional and the innovative.

Like the fair, which bore witness to the birth of modernity in the United States, Chopin’s life spanned a tumultuous period in the nation’s history. Born in 1850, when St. Louis was still largely a frontier city, Chopin lived to see it become a bustling, cosmopolitan metropolis. Living in a region divided by Union and Confederate sympathies, she experienced the Civil War firsthand. Raised in a family of slave owners and nurtured by a black mammy, she saw the abolition of slavery and the enfranchisement of African Americans. A devoted daughter, wife, and mother who typified the feminine virtues of the Victorian era, she also shared the strength and independence of the controversial New Woman who strode onto the American scene in the 1890s.

Kate Chopin, nee Catherine O‘Flaherty, was the second of three children born to Thomas and Eliza Faris O’Flaherty. Her parents’ disparate backgrounds are representative of the many intersecting histories that made up the population of nineteenth-century St. Louis. Thomas was an Irish immigrant, who rose from manual laborer to become a successful local businessman. Following the death of his first wife, the thirty-nine-year-old Thomas quickly became engaged to Eliza Faris, twenty-three years his junior, who came from a respectable but impoverished Creole family. If Thomas was living the American dream of new arrivals from Europe, Eliza belonged to the St. Louis establishment, such as it was. With roots that extended back well before the city was an American territory, she descended from the French-speaking Charlevilles, who had moved from Montreal to Louisiana in the 1700s. In this, she is a true Creole of the kind who frequently appear in Chopin’s fiction. Eleven years after the marriage of Thomas and Eliza, Thomas suffered a fatal accident, ironically brought about by the very success he had sought since his arrival on American soil. One of a group of important local figures invited to dedicate the new Gasconade Bridge to Jefferson City, he died when the structure collapsed as they crossed it by train.

Only five years old at the time of her father’s death, Kate was raised in a household dominated by women. She became a favorite of her great grandmother, Victoire Verdon Charleville, who taught her French, nurtured her musical talents, and entertained her with stories about her tough and resourceful female ancestors. Kate also found a lifelong friend in Kitty Garesché, her classmate at the St. Louis Academy of the Sacred Heart. The close-knit female community that surrounded Chopin left its mark on her fiction, which often dwells on the struggles of women protagonists to reconcile the demands of marriage, family, and social obligations.

Kate’s early adolescence was punctuated by separation and death. The Civil War, which forced the closure of her school and divided the city, brought an end to a comfortable, sheltered childhood. Although St. Louis was officially allied with the Union, many of Kate’s family and friends sympathized with the Confederacy. Her half-brother, George O‘Flaherty, fought for the South and died of typhoid fever before the War’s end. She lost her best friend when the Garesché family was expelled from the city because of its patriarch’s aid to the Confederacy (they would be reunited upon Kitty’s return in 1868). And thirteen-year-old Kate was most directly touched by the conflict when she was arrested for tearing down a Union flag hung on the porch of the family home, a crime punishable by death. A Confederate partisan raised in an atmosphere where slavery was tolerated, Chopin’s racial politics remain ambiguous, and critics seeking resolution have found her fiction rife with contradictions. The same cannot be said of her husband, Oscar Chopin, an avowed racial supremacist and member of the Crescent City White League, a New Orleans group dedicated to preserving white Southern rule.

Oscar Chopin entered Kate’s life in 1869, another year of ironic coincidences. She wrote her first story, “Emancipation,” a fable about an animal who, having been raised in a cage, discovers the sublime joy of freedom. It is possible to read this story as an allegory for the author’s yearning to cast off all social bonds. But at the same time she found herself entangled in new relationships of her own, including her engagement to Oscar, whom she would marry in 1870. Of French descent, Oscar had been raised on the family plantation in Natchitoches (pronounced “nak-e-tosh”) Parish in northwestern Louisiana. After a honeymoon in Europe, the couple settled in the American quarter of New Orleans, where Oscar returned to work as a cotton factor, a potentially lucrative position as middleman between growers and traders. Intolerant of outsiders, Kate’s new relatives were scandalized by her frank manner and her habits of smoking cigarettes and strolling the city by herself. However, while Chopin would frequently depict fictional women who feel restricted by their husbands, there is little evidence that she was dissatisfied with her own marriage. The Chopins had six children, and they often left the oppressive heat of New Orleans in the summer to vacation in Grand Isle, the Creole resort that is the setting of the first half of The Awakening.

When Oscar’s business failed, the Chopins moved to the family plantation in Cloutierville (pronounced “cloochy-ville”). There, Kate gave birth to her only daughter, Lelia, and helped Oscar run a general store until his death. Despite Oscar’s popularity, his wife’s outspokenness and independence marked her as a city dweller, and she was never fully accepted into the provincial society of his hometown. After Oscar died of malaria in 1882, rumors of an affair with Albert Sampite, a married man, did nothing to improve matters. She would write about these experiences in her first novel, At Fault (1890), a tale of love between a divorced man and a widow. Out of respect for the marital bond, the widow urges him to return to his alcoholic wife, whose convenient death in a flood allows the two lovers to be united.

Chopin may have begun her serious efforts as a writer out of grief. As a young widow, she contended with the provincialism of Cloutierville for two more years before returning to St. Louis to live with her mother, Eliza. When Eliza died of cancer just one year later, Chopin was heart-broken. But she also began to participate in the intellectual life of the city and to make serious efforts to establish herself as a professional author. Although she moved in literary circles, she resisted alliance with any particular group. A brief membership in the Wednesday Club, a select coterie of women intellectuals who gathered for conversation and debate, only strengthened her distaste for such organized activities. More than once, her fiction depicts women reformers or intellectuals in unflattering terms. Concerned about his wife’s erratic behavior in The Awakening, Léonce consults the family doctor, who asks him if she has “been associating of late with a circle of pseudo-intellectual women—super-spiritual superior beings” (p. 76). These words drip with a disdain that is unrelieved by authorial commentary.

Struggling to find venues for her work, Chopin wrote regularly and kept careful records of submissions and rejections. At first, she was most successful with regional publications, placing her poem “If It Might Be” in a Chicago magazine called America and short stories in the Philadelphia Music Journal and St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It proved more difficult to access national periodicals like The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, and Century. At a time when the social conservatism of the Victorian era still prevailed, Chopin’s treatment of such controversial topics as extramarital affairs, venereal disease, murder, and miscegenation often made her work unpalatable to the major literary magazines. Eventually she would break into this market by publishing stories in nationally circulating periodicals such as Vogue, Century, and Youth’s Companion.

Among Chopin’s literary influences was the French writer Guy de Maupassant, whose realism and formal sophistication she admired. Her respect for his frank treatment of taboo subjects inspired her to translate a number of his stories, but their controversial nature made publication difficult. A more conventional early model was the eminent realist author and magazine editor William Dean Howells, who sent her a brief note of praise for her short story “Boulot and Boulotte.” For the depiction of strong, independent female characters, Chopin looked to Sarah Orne Jewett and Mary Wilkins Freeman. She has frequently been grouped with these women as a writer of local color fiction, a genre unjustly dismissed by several generations of critics. More recently, scholars have seen her use of local color techniques as a strategy to gain a foothold in the literary marketplace and to stake a claim in contemporary debates about gender, race, and region. From this perspective, her short story “A Gentleman of Bayou Têche,” in which an artist from the city attempts to exploit a humble fisherman for his “local color,” reads like an allegory for the regional writer’s confrontation with the literary establishment.

Reviewers of Chopin’s first collection, Bayou Folk (1894), failed to notice such instances of understated social commentary. While generally positive, contemporary responses hailed her depiction of charming local details, rather than her treatment of social issues. Reviewers found a more complicated outlook and maturity of authorial voice in her second collection, A Night in Acadie (1897). An essay in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch praising Chopin’s artistry and psychological insight urged readers to think beyond the associations with local color, to recognize “gifts … that go deeper than mere patois and local description.” A second review demurred, describing Chopin as a specialist in the “childlike southern people who are the subject of her brief romances” and expressing regret that some of the stories were “marred by one or two slight and unnecessary coarseness [sic].”

Despite considerable appreciation by her contemporaries, Chopin would have remained neglected by literary history if it were not for the recovery of The Awakening in the 1960s. Its renewed popularity also brought attention to the whole corpus of her work, which includes numerous poems, essays, and short stories, as well as her first novel, At Fault. These texts illuminate many of the concerns of The Awakening but are also of considerable interest in their own right. Read in its entirety, Chopin’s fiction introduces a broad swath of personalities, from impoverished blacks and Acadians of the Bayou to plantation elites and urban intellectuals. Whereas some stories turn seemingly trivial events—the shopping spree of an abstemious middle-aged woman, a country girl’s visit to the circus—into dramatic interior conflicts, others deal with more overtly controversial issues such as miscegenation, venereal disease, murder, and extramarital sex. The relatively circumscribed geographical parameters of Chopin’s fiction extend from lively, cosmopolitan New Orleans to the insular, rural byways of nineteenth-century Louisiana. Unlike the minutely detailed, inclusive catalogues of realist fiction, her preference is for the sketch, which conveys an impression rather than a sharply delineated picture. Frequently, Chopin writes as an insider whose intimacy with her subjects is conveyed through the use of local dialect and allusions. As a result, whereas the human dramas are readily accessible, contemporary readers may struggle to gain a precise understanding of character and locale.

Chopin’s first story, “Emancipation: A Life Fable,” is an exception to this rule since it is set in no particular time or place. It is significant largely because it anticipates Edna Pontellier’s metamorphosis in The Awakening. A male creature is raised in a cage where his physical needs are satisfied by an invisible provider. When the cage is left open one day, he escapes and learns that freedom is far better than comfort. In later stories, the issue of awakening more often centers on female desire, which is sometimes at odds with marriage and social obligations. Chopin’s female characters often seem motivated by the same creaturely drives that stirred the animal protagonist of “Emancipation.” For married women, husbands are like the invisible master whose care made the beast passive and complacent. Often wives find sexual interest or satisfaction in illicit affairs, which are closely associated with the freedom to choose the objects of their desire. In “A Respectable Woman,” Mrs. Baroda is attracted, against her will, to her husband’s close friend, Gouvernail. By the story’s end, without ceasing to love her husband, she has come to terms with her desires and plans to consummate the affair upon her next meeting with Gouvernail. This theme is carried one step further in “The Storm,” a sequel to “At the ’Cadian Ball,” an earlier story in which the dashing Alcée Laballière gives up Calxita, the woman he desires, in exchange for a respectable marriage. Years later, when the former lovers are thrown together by bad weather, the violence of the natural world is echoed in their illicit passion. The description emphasizes the deep, irrational needs that drive them against their good intentions: “The generous abundance of her passion, without guile or trickery, was like a white flame which penetrated and found response in depths of his own sensuous nature that had never yet been reached” (p. 220). When the sun comes out, so do prudence and social responsibility; they each return, satisfied, to their respective familial obligations. A somewhat different take on the pleasures of escaping one’s commitments is found in “A Pair of Silk Stockings,” where a middle-aged widow, who has persistently denied her own material needs in order to provide for others, uses a windfall to indulge in a few hours of shopping, eating, and entertainment. Overcome with the sensual feel of expensive department store clothing, the taste of fine food and wine, and the luxuriant pleasures of a matinee, she briefly allows desire to prevail over her reason or sense of responsibility.

From plantation elites to slaves and humble laborers, Chopin’s characters cross the spectrum of economic class and social standing. In some cases, her focus on middle- or upper-class white women relegates others to the background. For example, many have observed that Edna Pontellier’s freedom of mobility is enabled by numerous servants, nannies, cooks, and workmen who lurk at the periphery of The Awakening without ever being given full realization. Chopin’s characteristic understatement makes it difficult to determine whether this is her own perception of an underclass or a criticism of her protagonist’s insensitivity. Stories such as “Désirée’s Baby,”“Athénaïse,” and “A Respectable Woman” concern the problems of economically privileged characters. But at times she deals more explicitly with interactions among members of different classes. Set on a farm, “A Shameful Affair” is about a young woman visiting from the city whose lust is inflamed after she is kissed by a particularly handsome field hand. Consumed by desirous but condescending thoughts, she is deeply ashamed to learn that he is a man of her own social status who is masquerading as a laborer for the sake of adventure. Although her desire has not transgressed the lines of class, as it initially appeared, the story suggests that proximity to the land and the rugged bodies that work it is an ideal setting for a woman to discover her own sexuality. “A Gentleman of Bayou Têche” is about an artist from the city who learns a hard lesson about the need to respect rural dwellers. When Mr. Sublet visits a plantation, he persuades Evariste, a humble Acadian fisherman, to pose for a portrait in his work clothes, despite the man’s desire to be pictured in his finest. Having compromised Evariste’s dignity, Sublet must reevaluate his behavior when Evariste saves his son from drowning. In this story, the lowly Acadians are endowed with more courage and self-respect than the refined urban tourists.

It is equally difficult to pin Chopin down on matters of race, since her fiction often appears to express contradictory views. Whereas some have argued that her advocacy of women’s autonomy is compromised by formulaic and sometimes condescending representations of nonwhite characters, others point to stories in which African Americans play important and sympathetic roles. Black characters are entirely marginal in The Awakening, seemingly existing only to do the work of cooking, cleaning, and childcare. But why mention them at all? Does Chopin do so as a subtle condemnation of her protagonist’s self-absorption? Or is their purpose to provide simple background detail? Evidence for both theories can be found in her writing. The protagonist of “A Country Girl” is taunted by a thoughtless black girl after her grandparents forbid her to go to the circus. Unredeemed during the course of the story, Black Gal’s meanness simply adds to the child’s sense of tragedy at being left behind. Tante Elodie, the protagonist of “The Godmother” “consider[ed] the emancipation of slaves a great mistake” (p. 224). At the same time, Tante Elodie herself is a woman of questionable morality, whose efforts to conceal a murder committed by her godson ruins their relationship and her own health. There is little evidence that Chopin shares the views of such a character.

There are also instances in which she writes with sensitivity about racial conflict. Her most well-known story, “Désirée’s Baby,” deals unblinkingly with the problem of miscegenation. Désirée, a woman of unknown parentage, gives birth to a dark-skinned child. After her husband’s cruelty drives her to commit suicide, the story ends with the revelation that he is the source of the baby’s black blood, a secret he knowingly concealed from his wife. Its conclusion, which implies that miscegenation is a dirty secret at the heart of the most elite Southern families, underscores the tragic consequences of insistence on racial purity.

However, the unexpected revelation at the close of “Désirée’s Baby” turns it into the story of a white woman’s abuse by a black man, making it less racially progressive than it may seem on first reading. If its position on race remains unresolved, its concern with a woman’s victimization is indisputable. Indeed, “Désirée’s Baby” represents Chopin’s most pessimistic view of marriage as an arrangement that often begins to the mutual satisfaction of both parties but later dissolves into conflict and unhappiness. Although she is aware that marriage can be constraining for both husbands and wives, she returns repeatedly to the particular frustrations of married women, who have far less freedom to escape into work and travel than their spouses. As Edna frets and paces around her home in New Orleans, Léonce retreats to his club and disappears on business trips to New York. But it is rare for Chopin to depict a husband as unforgivably cruel as Armand Aubigny, whose abuse and hypocrisy drives Désirée to suicide.

More commonly, husbands are mildly boring and insensitive, flaws that become increasingly intolerable when their wives encounter more desirable romantic prospects. In both “A Respectable Woman” and “The Storm,” functional marriages are temporarily disrupted by sexual desire. The end of “The Storm” sees order restored without harm to any of the parties involved, whereas “A Respectable Woman” concludes with the awakening of a wife’s desire for another man. In “The Story of an Hour,” a happily married woman with a weak heart is devastated by the news of her husband’s death. In a cruel twist of fate, just as she recognizes the potential of her newfound freedom, he walks in the door, having been nowhere near the accident reported to have killed him. The shock of his sudden reappearance causes her to collapse and die of cardiac arrest. Laden with irony, the story’s final line—“When the doctors came they said she had died of heart disease—of joy that kills” (p. 173)—pairs extreme happiness with fatal affliction.

If Chopin could represent marriage as both lethal and joyful, a more lengthy exploration of her ambivalence is found in “Athénaïse,” the story of an unhappy wife who flees her well-meaning husband, Cazeau. After he tracks her down, their homeward journey takes them past a spot that reminds him of a slave who had escaped his father’s plantation when he was a boy. This unsettling memory implies that for women, marriage is tantamount to slavery. But when Athénaïse runs away again and Cazeau declines to pursue her, it is clear that he sees her as more than a piece of property. Nonetheless, the slave metaphor hangs over the conclusion of the story, which sees the wife’s willing return after several weeks of exile in New Orleans. The decisive factor is the discovery that she is pregnant, which brings her the first sparks of passion for her husband, along with the desire for home. Although the conclusion relegates Athénaïse to her role as wife and mother, its meaning is ambiguous. On the one hand, it seems to propose that learning to accept one’s proper place in the social order is a sign of maturity; on the other, it suggests more affirmatively that a woman must have the freedom to choose when and with whom she will assume that place. So, too, Cazeau has come to recognize his wife’s autonomy, rather than taking her presence for granted.

Although many of Chopin’s stories concern the problems of married women, she also writes perceptively about middle-aged single women. “A Pair of Silk Stockings” and “Elizabeth Stock’s One Story” both deal with the struggles of women forced to support themselves. Mrs. Sommers of “A Pair of Silk Stockings” is a generous and self-sacrificing woman who, for once in her life, puts her own desires above those of others. The sympathetic description of her afternoon shopping spree suggests Chopin’s understanding of the loneliness and hardship of life as a single mother. Elizabeth Stock is another working woman, who loses her job at the post office after breaking the rules by reading the mail. Ironically, her transgression comes about because of her excessive dedication, which inspired her to deliver a postcard during a snowstorm when she happened to notice that it bore information crucial to a man’s career. After being fired, Elizabeth Stock lacks a sense of purpose and her health gradually declines. However, her sad demise also leads to the discovery of her abilities as a writer by the story’s unnamed narrator, who has been assigned the task of sorting through the dead woman’s papers. Although most are filled with “bad prose and impossible verse,” the ensuing narrative is the one piece that “bore any semblance to a connected or consecutive narration” (p. 211). While no undiscovered genius, Elizabeth Stock is a figure for the woman writer who finds a voice to tell the most important story of her life. Both she and Mrs. Sommers demonstrate the costs of excessive self-sacrifice. So, too, “The Godmother” is about a woman whose best interests are eclipsed by her fierce love for her godson. When he accidentally kills a man, she goes to such lengths to conceal the crime that she destroys their relationship, her friendships, and her own health.

Chopin’s stories often depict the pain of betrayal, disappointment, or loss of an intimate friend or relative. A woman with few close friends who avoided association with organized groups, she wrote of women who suffer the burden of unwanted social and emotional bonds. The Awakening directly confronts the paradox of being surrounded by loving friends and family but longing for freedom. Like the animal protagonist of “Emancipation,” Edna Pontellier is oppressed by the easy satisfaction of her material needs. A prosperous and agreeable husband, generous friends, and a bevy of cooks, maids, and nannies attend to her every whim and desire. Nonetheless, during a summer vacation at Grand Isle, she is stirred by a vague dissatisfaction that she finds both unpleasant and stimulating. Her unexciting marriage gradually begins to feel claustrophobic as she recognizes the more proprietary aspects of her husband’s behavior. Confronting the demands of marriage, children, and social life, Edna is stricken with a growing desire to escape it all but has limited resources for exploring the alternatives. Back home in New Orleans, she wanders the city by herself, neglects her responsibilities in the home, dabbles at becoming an artist, and engages in an extramarital affair. When none of these outlets proves satisfactory, she wades out into the sea, presumably to her death.

What Chopin’s contemporaries found particularly objectionable about The Awakening was the author’s apparent unwillingness to condemn her protagonist’s unconventional choices. Indeed, many reviews expressed concern with the moral constitution of its central character. “If the author had secured our sympathy for this unpleasant person it would not have been a small victory,” wrote a reviewer for Public Opinion in June 1899, “but we are well satisfied when Mrs. Pontellier deliberately swims out to her death in the waters of the gulf.” Others concurred, finding little grounds for identification with Edna’s plight. A piece in The Nation dismissively summarized the novel’s plot, “‘The Awakening’ is a sad story of a Southern lady who wanted to do what she wanted to. From wanting to, she did, with disastrous consequences; but as she swims out to sea in the end, it is to be hoped that her example may lie for ever undredged. It is with high expectation that we open the volume, remembering the author’s agreeable short stories, and with real disappointment that we close it.” Given such evidence, it is not surprising that The Awakening has been mythologized as a scandal in its own time. It is certainly true that many of Chopin’s contemporaries decried the actions of her independently minded protagonist, and that others expressed disappointment at the novel’s departure from the charming local color of her previous fiction. However, these facts have led critics to exaggerate the negativity of reactions to The Awakening, and their consequences for Chopin herself.

Indeed, a number of reviews recognized the novel’s artistic accomplishment. Charles Deyo, exchange editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, enthused: “There may be many opinions touching other aspects of Mrs. Chopin’s novel ‘The Awakening,’ but all must concede its flawless art.” Compared with her previous publications, he detected a newfound confidence in its pages: “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 to dumb despair.” The New York Times Saturday Review of Books and Art concurred, praising Chopin for her bold approach to controversial topics: “The author has a clever way of managing a difficult subject, and wisely tempers the emotional elements found in the situation.”

Nancy Walker has observed that emphasis on The Awakening’s scandalous reception is linked to several other myths about the end of Chopin’s life. The first is that Chopin was ostracized by St. Louis society and that her book was banned from libraries. In truth, her most recent biographer, Emily Toth, notes that “the Mercantile Library and the St. Louis Public Library both bought multiple copies and kept them on the shelves until they wore out.” Nor is it the case, as a second myth suggests, that negative reactions to The Awakening drove Chopin into authorial paralysis. She lived only four years after its publication and, although she struggled to find venues for publishing her work, she continued to write and circulate short stories until her death.

It is true, however, that The Awakening was not fully appreciated until its rediscovery half a century later by a new generation of readers, who acknowledged its considerable formal sophistication and the complexity of its characterization. The publication of two major works by Norwegian scholar Per Seyersted—Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography and The Complete Works of Kate Chopin—inaugurated the reassessment of Chopin’s career that would establish her firmly within the annals of American literary history. It is no accident that surging interest in Chopin in the early 1970s coincided with the emergence of feminist criticism, which sought to bring overlooked authors into the literary canon and to reevaluate themes and locations trivialized by earlier generations of critics because of their association with women writers. While controversial to her contemporaries, Chopin’s frank treatment of female desire and autonomy, the dissatisfactions of marriage and motherhood, and the importance of artistic expression intersected perfectly with the concerns of the women’s movement. Influential members of the first generation of feminist scholars such as Elaine Showalter, Cynthia Griffin Wolff, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, and Sandra Gilbert would use Chopin as a paradigmatic instance of the work of feminist literary recovery. But once the struggle to establish Chopin as an important American author was won, it was possible to see that her significance extends beyond the bold thematization of women’s concerns. Her fiction’s considerable technical accomplishment and complex treatment of diverse characters and topics makes her a subject of ongoing scholarly interest. As critical tastes change and novels go in and out of fashion, Chopin’s work has consistently remained in print and become a staple of course syllabi.

The durability of The Awakening is due, in part, to the fact that, as with so much of Chopin’s previous writing, it refuses to provide simple answers to the difficult questions it raises. Its conclusion has proved especially resistant to definitive interpretation. Is Edna’s suicide a victory over the many demands her society has made of her? Or is it an easy way out of the otherwise messy and inevitable compromises of modern existence ? Has she reclaimed control by asserting the right to end her own life? Or has she passively acquiesced to her fate? Is wading into the sea a liberating alternative to the confines of a male-dominated culture? Or is it a pessimistic admission that women cannot find a space of their own within the existing social order?

How various readers have answered these questions has much to do with their assessment of Edna’s character—whether they take her to be a feminist heroine, selfish woman, victim, or bold iconoclast—as well as their understanding of the novel’s place within literary tradition. In certain respects, The Awakening borrows the concerns and settings of nineteenth-century sentimental fiction. As Elaine Showalter has argued, its emphasis on domestic space and relationships between women locates it in the company of novels by such sentimentalist precursors as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Louisa May Alcott, Susan Warner, and Maria Cum mins. However, Chopin avoids the rhetorical excesses and moralizing tendencies of these earlier authors. Her attention to the specifics of place, depiction of everyday life, and concern with women’s artistic autonomy aligns her with the somewhat later generation of female regionalists like Sarah Orne Jewett and Mary Wilkins Freeman.

There is also a case to be made for The Awakening as a work of naturalist fiction, despite the fact that this category has typically been associated with such aggressively masculine authors as Jack London and Frank Norris. Influenced by Darwinian theory, the naturalists depicted a world governed by powerful, amoral forces that would ultimately defeat the exertion of human agency and will. Bert Bender has suggested that Chopin was provoked by Darwin’s theory of sexual selection, which emphasized the competitive aspects of the species’ struggle for reproduction. Though compelled by the notion of an innate physical attraction that could not be regulated by social institutions, Chopin objected to Darwin’s Victorian characterization of the female as passive and modest. A robust woman with strong appetites and a well-proportioned physique, Edna is determined to take an active role in the ritual of sexual selection. In a Darwinian universe, the social conventions of marriage are irrelevant to the sexual drive, which demands variety over constancy in choice of partners. In Bender’s analysis, Edna’s suicide results from the realization that her life is governed by forces outside her control. Her desire for autonomy is at odds with the species’ necessity to reproduce, which—after the exhilarating process of sexual conquest—inevitably relegates women to the role of motherhood.

In its emphasis on interior psychology at the expense of external description, and in its formal experimentation with time and perception, The Awakening also anticipates many of the strategies of modernist fiction. In contrast to the realist commitment to mundane surface detail, Chopin seems relatively unconcerned with mimetic representation. Michael Gilmore has described this quality as a privileging of subjective responses and expressions over the replication of external reality. He attributes Chopin’s interest in music to the fact that it is “an imageless art… neither mirroring nor duplicating an external form, and it shakes Edna to the depths because it provides immediate entrance to the subjective world of feelings.” The Awakening seems propelled more by impulse than measured narrative progression. While individual chapters are temporally coherent, the time that passes between one chapter and the next is highly varied, sometimes spanning a few hours and sometimes making a bigger or less clearly delineated leap forward. Memories, particularly of Edna’s childhood in the Kentucky blue-grass country, surface at unpredictable moments like a musical refrain that ties past and present together.

Just as time does not move in a predictable pattern, narrative perspective in The Awakening is constantly shifting. At some points the third-person narrator seems to echo Edna’s point of view. For example, in the final moments of her life, the narrative voice channels the protagonist’s own subjectivity: “How strange and awful it seemed to stand naked under the sky! how delicious! She felt like some new-born creature, opening its eyes in a familiar world that it had never known” (p. 133). At other points, it hovers at a remove that allows for ironic commentary. This is the case in an account of an evening at Grand Isle. When a tedious interlude by the Farival twins is interrupted by the parrot’s shrieks, the narrator observes wryly, “He was the only being present who possessed sufficient candor to admit that he was not listening to these gracious performances for the first time that summer” (pp. 28-29). We are to understand that these are not Edna’s observations, but the products of a more detached narrative consciousness. So, too, on the night of Edna’s first swim, the narrator checks Edna’s perceptions against reality. Believing herself to be far from shore, “a quick vision of death smote her soul, and for a second of time appalled and enfeebled her senses” (pp. 33—34). The sublimity of Edna’s experience—in which she genuinely believes she has confronted the possibility of her own death—is put into perspective with a more measured description of the same event: “She had not gone any great distance—that is, what would have been a great distance for an experienced swimmer” (p. 33). This tonal disparity distinguishes Edna’s own melodramatic sensibility from a more reasoned narrative voice. Such experiments with narrative and point of view locate The Awakening somewhere between the realist commitment to external detail and the modernist interest in individual subjectivity.

Such varied cadences of tone and perspective are well suited to this story of desire and sexual awakening. Although the actual consummation of Edna’s affair with Alcée Arobin takes place in the space between chapters 31 and 32, the novel is suffused with sensual images, from the illicit books that circulate at Grand Isle to the luxuriant feel of expensive clothes and possessions, the gustatory pleasures of fine food and drink, the romantic intonations of the piano, and the caressing waves of the sea. Experiencing a heightened perception that engages all of her senses, Edna’s awakening is not reducible to heterosexual contact. And although the flirtations of Robert Lebrun are most commonly credited for prompting Edna’s desire, Showalter has rightly observed that her sensuality is actually ignited by intimate relationships with two women, Adèle Ratignolle and Mademoiselle Reisz. Sitting with Adèle and Robert, Edna’s gaze is drawn not to Robert but to the “excessive physical charm” (p. 17) of her female companion. Seeking words to describe the intense bond between Edna and Adèle, the narrator concludes that “we might as well call [it] love” (p. 17). Edna develops a very different but equally intense attachment to the dour Mademoiselle Reisz. Hearing her at the piano arouses Edna’s passions to an orgasmic intensity that resonates “within her soul, swaying it, lashing it, as the waves daily beat upon her splendid body” (p. 31). As this passage suggests, when it comes to women, love and physical desire are closely aligned. In Edna’s relationships with men, the two are more often at odds. With a history of romantic attachments to unattainable male figures—“a sad-eyed cavalry officer who visited her father in Kentucky” (p. 21), her neighbor’s fiancée, a great tragedian—it is not clear that Edna is actually seeking to consummate a heterosexual relationship. Although she loves Robert, she has sex with Arobin because his kiss awakens her desire. The regret she feels afterward is “neither shame nor remorse” (p. 97), but more a dawning awareness that she is “assailed” by emotions more powerful than reason or affection.

The seeming paradox that a greater knowledge of self comes through the suppression of rationality is at the heart of Edna’s development. In spite of its title and the many references to awakening that appear throughout the novel, readers are often surprised at how often Edna is either sleeping or overcome with a drowsiness that obstructs clarity of thought. For every image of a stirring, emergent consciousness there is another of narcotic stupor. As a “light was beginning to dawn dimly within her” (p. 16), Edna is moved not to wakefulness but to dreams; learning to swim gives her new power “to control the working of her body and her soul” (p. 33), but it also inspires her to reach “for the unlimited in which to lose herself’ (p. 33). Whereas Adèle is a figure of bustling, productive maternity, Edna is listless and disengaged. Whereas Mademoiselle Reisz turns her artistic talents into a career, Edna is satisfied to dabble at her painting “in an unprofessional way” (p. 14). Ironically, then, the awakening intimated by the novel’s title is not an initiation into any of the recognizable social roles modeled by its characters, but rather an escape from them.

This conclusion troubled Chopin’s contemporaries because it seemed to endorse a destructive self-absorption at the expense of social responsibility. It has provoked more recent readers because they see the extent to which Edna’s freedom is bought through the labor of others. She is surrounded by people who work, either in the home, like the resourceful Adèle, or in professions, like her husband. At the same time, the anonymous and rather disagreeable quadroon who cares for her children, the servants who shop, cook, and clean, and the Mexicans, Acadians, and African Americans who exist on the narrative periphery, create an environment in which Edna has no productive function. It is no wonder that early in the novel Léonce regards his sunburned wife as a piece of damaged property. Her crisis has been described by Michelle Birnbaum as that of the “colonial subject,” who cannot consciously recognize the racial and class inequities around her and consequently internalizes those conflicts as divisions within herself. Instead of acknowledging the disparities in her social environment, she experiences an imbalance within her own psychic landscape.

That Edna accepts the racial and class hierarchies of her culture is unsurprising. She lives in a sheltered and highly regulated environment that is rarely interrupted by the surrounding world. This insularity explains why the party at Grand Isle is so dismayed to learn of Robert’s imminent departure for Vera Cruz. It also explains the striking ignorance of their observations about Mexico: The pious lady in black asks him to investigate whether the power of her Mexican prayer beads extends beyond the border; Madame Ratignolle remarks that Mexicans are “a treacherous people, unscrupulous and revengeful” (p. 50), and Victor relays a trite story about “a Mexican girl who served chocolate one winter in a restaurant in Dauphine Street” (p. 50). Not only do they know nothing of Mexico, but lacking resources to understand genuine cultural or geographic difference, they can relate to the foreign only though the lens of their own limited experiences. Even less worldly than her companions, Edna remains silent during this conversation because she can “think of nothing to say about Mexico or the Mexicans” (p. 50). Nor, for that matter, can Robert, whose exact reasons for going, aside from an obscure business prospect, remain murky. Critics have noted that the character of Mariequita and an unnamed “Mexican girl” who gives Robert an embroidered tobacco pouch serve to associate travel south of the border with sexual adventure. But they have differed over the meanings of that association, some seeing it as a place of homosexual license, a reading that explains the unconsummated romance between Edna and Robert as well as “the gentleman whom he intend[ed] to join at Vera Cruz” (p. 49), others as a place of heterosexual opportunity.

While the narrative provides little means to resolve these questions, it is possible to remark on Mexico’s significance to Edna and her fate. She has nothing to say about it because she cannot conceive of places beyond the bounds of her own limited world. Having led a protected and uneventful life, she is unable to imagine that the solution to her problems lies in going elsewhere. Whereas men move to expand the horizon of experience – Léonce leaves his family behind for business trips to New York, and Robert leaves the country altogether—Edna’s only movement (other than circular wanderings in the city) is toward greater confinement, as she relocates from her spacious home into the more enclosed “pigeon house” around the corner. While it might be possible to see the new house as a cozy version of Virginia Woolf’s longed-for “room of one’s own,” it is also, more ominously, akin to the cage in “Emancipation.” Facing an increasing claustrophobia, which is inescapable through either imaginative or literal movement, Edna comes to believe that death is the only possible solution.

The profound ignorance of the characters in The Awakening about the rest of the world returns us to Chopin’s own last activity, her visit to the St. Louis World’s Fair. The Fair spoke to Americans’ thirst for knowledge about the rest of the world. At the same time, its allegedly wide-angle vision was actually a telescope that used other nations as a reference point to establish American superiority. As much as it addressed the desire to learn about and collaborate with a global community, it was also designed to parade the nation’s cultural advancement and growing economic and military might on a world stage. The sad irony that with supremacy come loneliness and isolation is crystallized in the image of Edna’s favored musical composition, “Solitude,” which evokes a man standing desolate and despairing before the sea. In addition to its many other accomplishments, The Awakening succeeds in illustrating the alienation that results from having the best that the world can offer, but existing under conditions that make it impossible to give of oneself in return. Chopin, who read widely, traveled to Europe, and witnessed pivotal events of her time, should not be confused with her protagonist. A widow, single mother, and professional writer, she lived her life fully and to its end. Such experience grants the far more worldly author the insight to depict a character whose lack of reciprocity is less an individual flaw than a flaw of a culture that treated women as property and maintained rigid racial and class structures. Although Chopin herself is often able to see around such obstacles, she also blames them for preventing Edna from finding other opportunities for self-realization on the rich and seething margins of her own empty, white world.

Rachel Adams teaches nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature at Columbia University. She is the author of Sideshow U.S.A.: Freaks and the American Cultural Imagination (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001) and the co-editor of The Masculinity Studies Reader (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2002). She has also published articles on American literature, film, disability, race, and gender studies.