The Awakening, by Kate Chopin, opens on Grand Isle, a resort where Edna Pontellier has come to spend the summer with her children. Her husband, Leonce, travels back and forth between the island and New Orleans and the lack of passion between the two is immediately evident. As Edna explains, "She grew fond of her husband, realizing with some unaccountable satisfaction that no trace of passion or excessive and ficticious warmth colored her affection, thereby threatening its dissolution." But it is here on Grande Isle that she encounters Robert, who completely changes her. Of him she says, "It was you who awoke me last summer out of a life-long, stupid dream."
Nevertheless, she is torn between her desire for him and her love for her children, and after witnessing the birth of a friend's child she can't help but wonder whether one should make sacrifices for one's children. However, in the end, it is the love she bears for her children that leads her to her fateful plunge. "The children appeared before her like antagonists who had overcome her; who had overpowered her and sought to drag her into the soul's slavery for the rest of her days. But she knew a way to elude them." Edna cannot bear to hurt them by acting on her own desires but neither can she live knowing it was they who kept her from complete freedom.
The Awakening was published in 1899 and was immediately met with harsh criticism, largely due to the subject matter of the novel, which was deemed "trite and sordid...vulgar...and morbid in feeling." Not only was Chopin's career hurt but she was ostracized by her fellow writers. Neither the literary society nor society in general was ready for Chopin's novel, or her main character, Edna, who ultimately commits suicide rather than continue to live the lie that is her life.
*Retained on the Northwester Suburban High School District 214 reading list in Arlington Heights, IL along with eight other challenged titles in 2006. A board member, elected amid promises to bring her Christian beliefs into all board decision-making, raised the controversy based on excerpts from the books she'd found on the Internet. First published in 1899, this novel so disturbed critics and the public that it was banished for decades afterward.
Baym, Nina, et al, Ed., The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 2nd Edition, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1985.
Bevilacqua, Winifred Farrant, Ed., Fiction By American Women. Port Washington, New York: National University Publications, 1983.