Summary of The Awakening

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The Awakening  book summary

Literary Classic

  • Novel
  • Realism

What It’s About

A Proto-Modernist Heroine

Kate Chopin’s The Awakening is widely considered one of the most important and beautifully crafted novels of the turn of the 20th century. At the time of its publication in 1899, however, many saw Chopin’s exploration of a married woman’s quest for fulfillment and autonomy as morally deviant. Critics condemned it as much for its portrayal of female sensuality as its unorthodox perspectives on marriage and motherhood. Surprisingly modern in style and psychology, Chopin’s unique blend of matter-of-fact narration with lyrical interludes continues to draw readers and raise incisive questions about the nature of desire and the complications of freedom. As the heroine Edna Pontellier sheds the influences and obligations laid upon her from without, Chopin offers both a pointed critique of the limited social roles permitted to women in America and a sympathetic exploration of the challenges inherent in an individual’s search for existential truth and autonomy. 

Take-Aways

  • Kate Chopin’s The Awakening offers an ahead-of-its-time portrayal of female sensuality and women’s desire for independent, meaningful selfhood.
  • While vacationing at Grand Isle, Edna Pontellier’s interactions with the Creoles she meets reignite a number of long-repressed emotions. Back in New Orleans, Edna pursues her art, ignoring her children and husband. She moves into her own house and begins an affair with a local lothario. Later, she declares her love for Robert Lebrun – whom she fell for at Grand Isle. Robert wants to marry her. When she refuses him, he leaves. Edna returns to Grand Isle, swims out to sea and drowns herself. 
  • Chopin began writing fiction as a form of therapy for her depression.
  • Despite the many social changes occurring at the turn of the 20th century, Victorian-era ideas about women’s roles within their families and society at large remained prominent.
  • Chopin’s upbringing and early widowhood influenced her perspective on female autonomy.
  • Most reviewers felt that The Awakening exceeded the bounds of social respectability.
  • The bird imagery that appears throughout the novel mainly serves as a symbol of the social limitations woman faced at the turn of the century.
  • The Awakening frames art as a transformative entity, capable of changing an individual’s perspectives and deepening individual humanity. 
  • Chopin treats Edna’s choice to commit suicide as both a tragic and heroic act.
  • “How strange and awful it seemed to stand naked under the sky! How delicious! She felt like some newborn creature, opening its eyes in a familiar world that it had never known.”
 

Summary

On Grand Isle

Middle-aged businessman Léonce Pontellier sits on the front porch of the main guesthouse at Grand Isle, a summer retreat near New Orleans that wealthy Creoles frequent. Léonce watches as his wife Edna Pontellier and the proprietress Madame Lebrun’s oldest son Robert walk back to the house from the beach. Léonce hands Edna her wedding rings, which she had given to him before going down to the ocean, and invites Robert to come with him to play billiards. Robert admits that he would rather stay with Edna. Léonce leaves, stating that he isn’t sure what time he will be back.

Léonce returns late. He is in high spirits and chats boisterously to Edna, waking her from sleep. Disappointed that she isn’t more responsive, he goes to check on their sons. He returns, announcing that Raoul has a fever. When Edna protests, Léonce calls her neglectful. After checking on Raoul, Edna returns to bed. She refuses to respond to anything else her husband says, and Léonce soon falls asleep. Now, however, Edna can’t sleep. She goes outside to the porch and begins to cry. Such scenes with Léonce are nothing new, but in the past, she found them less important than her husband’s fidelity and kindness. Now, however, a feeling of oppression threatens to overwhelm her. The next morning, Léonce returns to New Orleans. From the city, he sends a large box of bonbons, which Edna shares out at the main house. The guests praise Léonce’s generosity, and Edna admits that he is an excellent husband.

Adèle Ratignolle

Unlike other women on Grand Isle, particularly Edna’s friend Adèle Ratignolle, Edna’s entire world doesn’t revolve around her husband and children. The afternoon that the box of bonbons arrives, Adèle, Edna and Robert are sitting together. Adèle is discussing her pregnancy, much to Edna’s discomfiture. Though she is married to a Creole, Edna still finds the openness of the Creoles about things she considers private – especially sexuality – in mixed company to be surprising.

“The voice of the sea is seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander in abysses of solitude.”

Each summer since he was a young man, Robert has chosen one of the women of Grand Isle to devote himself to for the season. Though Robert has singled out Edna this year, he doesn’t express his love for her in the same semi-comic way he once did to Adèle. Adèle goes home to rest, and Robert suggests that he and Edna go for a swim. As they walk toward the water, Edna feels a strange dawning sensation blossoming within her. It makes her feel more aware than ever before of her relationship with the world outside herself.

Edna has always understood her life as having an external and an internal quality: Inside herself, she questions things, but outwardly, she conforms. One morning, Adèle and Edna go to the beach. Edna tells her that the ocean reminds her of walking through the high grass in a meadow near her home in Kentucky. She confesses that this summer she has felt, at times, as she did when wandering through that meadow – without direction or guidance.

“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.” (Edna)

Adèle takes hold of Edna’s hand. The easy affection feels strange to Edna, whose mother died young and who was never close to her sisters. Her most intense relationships were always with men: She suffered a number of unrequited crushes over the years. Indeed, though Edna enjoyed Léonce’s courtship, a prime reason for marrying him was to put an end to a hopeless passion she was harboring for a famous actor. As for her children, she loves them but feels relief when she is away from them. Suddenly, Robert appears with Adèle’s children and Edna. Adèle asks Robert to walk her back to her cottage.

Adèle asks Robert to stop spending so much time with Edna. She is worried Edna – who is still unused to Creole ways – might take Robert’s flirtations seriously. Annoyed, Robert declares that he hopes Edna does take him seriously. Adèle reminds Robert that if he ever did really pursue a married woman, he would lose his reputation as a gentleman. Robert grumbles that it’s not like he’s Alcée Arobin, the well-known ladies’ man.

A Memorable Night

A few weeks later, Madame Lebrun hosts a party. Robert asks if Edna would like to hear Mademoiselle Reisz – a bad-tempered, but talented musician – play. Edna says yes, and he goes to fetch her. As Mademoiselle Reisz plays, Edna feels emotions so powerful and deep that they reduce her to tears. As Mademoiselle Reisz is leaving, she remarks that Edna is the only guest worthy of hearing her art. Robert then suggests that everyone head to the beach for a late-night swim.

Léonce “could see plainly that she was not herself. That is, he could not see that she was becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world.”

Edna has been struggling to learn to swim all summer. Tonight, however, she suddenly swims out boldly, shouting with joy. She feels daring and wants to swim deep into the water – further than any woman has gone before. As she swims, she marvels at how long she spent paddling in the shallows like a child. Turning back to the shore, she realizes how far she has gone and, for a moment, worries she won’t be able to make it back to the beach. When she finally gets back to the shore, she dresses immediately and begins walking home alone.

Robert catches up with Edna. Edna tries to explain the strange emotions she has experienced that night. In response, Robert begins to tell her a story about a spirit which haunts Grand Isle looking for a kindred soul. Perhaps tonight it has found Edna. Edna dismisses the story as mere banter, missing the fact that Robert is trying to tell her he understands her mood. Back at her cottage, Edna collapses, exhausted, into a hammock. Robert sits with her until her husband returns. A silence – pregnant with unspoken feelings and desires – fills the air. Back from the beach, Léonce encourages Edna to come to bed, but she refuses.

Chênière Caminada 

The next morning, Edna sees a handful of people making their way to the wharf to take a boat to the island of Chênière Caminada for Sunday mass. On impulse, Edna sends a servant to wake Robert so he can come with her to the other island. On the boat, Robert chats for a while in Spanish to Mariequita, but his attention soon returns to Edna. They discuss exploring other local spots together in the upcoming days. During the church service, Edna begins feeling unwell. Robert takes Edna to the cottage of Madame Antoine, a native inhabitant of the island, to rest. After sleeping for a number of hours, Edna awakens, feeling refreshed. Back on Grand Isle, Edna thinks about how much she has changed over the course of the summer. She quietly sings a song that Robert had sung on the boat.

“There was nothing which so quieted the turmoil of Edna’s senses as a visit to Mademoiselle Reisz. It was then, in the presence of that personality which was offensive to her, that the woman, by her divine art, seemed to reach Edna’s spirit and set it free.”

At dinner a few days later, Edna learns that Robert is leaving suddenly for Mexico. The news surprises and upsets her. She retires to her cottage, where Robert comes to find her. He tells her he is unhappy about being parted from her but implies that his feelings for her are precisely why he needs to leave. After he leaves, Edna tries to stop herself from crying, realizing that she is infatuated with Robert.

No one thinks there is anything unnatural about Edna missing Robert, and Edna herself sees nothing strange about her feelings. She has always felt her unspoken emotions were her own. Trying to explain this idea to Adèle, Edna asserts that while she would give up her money and would even give up her life for her boys, she would never give up her essential self.

New Orleans

The Pontelliers live in a lovely white and green house in New Orleans. Léonce enjoys walking around the lavish interior admiring his possessions. Ever since her marriage, Edna has spent Tuesdays at home receiving visitors. A few weeks after her return from Grand Isle, however, Edna abandons this practice. Léonce, worried that her behavior will negatively affect his business affairs, scolds Edna. After dinner, Edna retires to her room. She throws her wedding ring on the ground and stomps on it. When she sees her heel made no mark on the ring, she grabs a glass vase and shatters it. She then puts her ring back on her finger.

“The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to Earth.”

The next morning, Edna decides to go visit Adèle. Edna tells Adèle that she plans to take art lessons – a plan Adèle of which approves. After leaving the house, Edna feels depressed. She recognizes that the perfect domestic harmony she witnessed between Adèle and her husband didn’t appeal to her at all.

Edna not only stops her Tuesdays at home, but she also begins neglecting her other housekeeping duties. Her behavior shocks Léonce, and he tells her so. Edna tells him she may not feel like spending her time painting for the rest of her life, but it’s what she wants to do now. Up in her studio, Edna paints and thinks about Grand Isle; sometimes, she sings Robert’s song. Some days, she feels unbelievably happy. Other days, she feels inexplicably sad and unsure why she is even alive.

Mademoiselle Reisz

In a depressed state, Edna decides to go visit Mademoiselle Reisz to hear her play. Mademoiselle Reisz is pleased to see Edna and mentions that she received a letter from Robert. Edna begs to see the letter, but Mademoiselle Reisz refuses. She will, however, play for her. Edna tells Mademoiselle Reisz that she has been working to become an artist. Mademoiselle Reisz replies that to be an artist requires more than talent; it requires bravery and a spirit of defiance. Edna retorts, laughingly, that she has at least persistence and asks again to see Robert’s letter. Mademoiselle Reisz gives Edna the letter and sits down to play Chopin. As she plays, Edna reads and weeps. As she is leaving, Edna asks if she can visit again; Mademoiselle Reisz says that she may come anytime.

“I always feel so sorry for women who don't like to walk; they miss so much – so many rare little glimpses of life; and we women learn so little of life on the whole.” (Edna)

Léonce visits a family friend, Doctor Mandelet, to ask his opinion about Edna’s behavior. The doctor suggests that Léonce just let Edna alone for a while and to let her do whatever she wants to do. The doctor then promises to come to dinner soon to see Edna for himself. After Léonce departs, the doctor wonders if Edna is having an affair.

Edna’s father, a former Confederate army colonel known as “the Colonel,” comes to stay with the Pontelliers so he can purchase a suit and wedding gift for Edna’s sister Janet’s wedding. Though Edna has never been close to her father, she doesn’t find him to be an annoying houseguest. Edna and the Colonel get into a fight, however, when Edna refuses to attend the wedding. Léonce doesn’t try to force her, but he decides to attend the wedding himself while he is in New York. The children go to stay with Léonce’s mother in the country. Alone at last, Edna feels wonderfully at peace.

Alcée Arobin

One day, Alcée and Mrs. Highcamp invite Edna to come with them to the racetrack. After dinner at the Highcamps, Alcée escorts her home. After he departs, Edna finds herself regretting not asking him to stay longer. A few days later, Alcée and Edna go to the races again, this time alone. Alcée behaves charmingly, and, that night, he dines with Edna at her home. Edna feels physically attracted to him. Fearing her own impulses, Edna coldly sends Alcée away.

“I am no longer one of Mr. Pontellier’s possessions to dispose of or not. I give myself where I choose.” (Edna to Robert)

The next day, Edna receives an elegant letter of apology from Alcée. They quickly resume their friendship, though Edna continues to feel a strong sexual attraction to him. During a visit to Mademoiselle Reisz, Edna announces she plans to move out of her house and rent a smaller place nearby, which she will pay for with her own money. She thinks the move will give her greater freedom. Mademoiselle Reisz offers Edna Robert’s latest letter. She tells Edna that she should not be surprised that he doesn’t write to her: He loves her and is trying to forget that fact. Reading it, Edna discovers Robert will soon be back in New Orleans. When Mademoiselle Reisz asks Edna, plainly, whether she loves Robert, Edna confesses that she does.

That evening, Alcée finds Edna in a happy mood. She tells Alcée about her visit with Mademoiselle Reisz. Mademoiselle Reisz touched Edna’s shoulders and warned her that any bird that wishes to fly above common prejudice and tradition must have powerful wings or it will crash back to Earth. When Alcée kisses Edna, she responds enthusiastically, her body coming alive with desire. After Alcée leaves, however, Edna begins to cry. She doesn’t regret what she has done – only that it wan’t motivated by love.

The Pigeon House

Edna doesn’t wait to hear from Léonce before beginning her move to the house around the corner, which her servants call the “pigeon house.” Before she moves, she gives an elegant farewell dinner. During the dinner, though Edna looks like a queen, inside she feels a creeping hopelessness. Alcée stays after the other guests leave. He helps her close up her husband’s house and then walks with her to the pigeon house. Once inside, Alcée offers to leave but stays, caressing her hair. When she doesn’t rebuff him, he begins to kiss her shoulders and doesn’t leave until she succumbs to him.

“The years that are gone seem like dreams – if one might go on sleeping and dreaming – but to wake up and find – oh! well! perhaps it is better to wake up after all, even to suffer, rather than to remain a dupe to illusions all one’s life.” (Edna)

Léonce writes to Edna, expressing his severe disapproval of her move out of their house. He worries that people will assume his business is doing badly. To counter such talk, Léonce arranges to remodel their house and places an announcement in the newspaper that he and his wife plan to go abroad. Edna travels to Iberville to visit her children and enjoys herself immensely. Leaving them is a bit hard, but by the time Edna is back in the city she is, once more, pleased to be alone.

Robert’s Return

One afternoon, Edna decides to visit Mademoiselle Reisz again. The pianist isn’t at home, so Edna goes inside to wait for her. Hearing a knock, Edna finds Robert at the door. Robert walks her back to her house. Edna invites Robert to dine. Initially, he declines but seeing the strain on her face, changes his mind. During dinner, Edna and Robert act formally with one another. Afterward, Edna asks Robert about his new tobacco pouch. Robert sparks Edna’s jealousy by explaining that a Mexican girl made it for him as a gift. After his departure, Edna feels more distant from Robert than ever.

The next morning, Edna is once again hopeful. Robert’s reserve the night before wasn’t a rejection, and he will surely come see her again later that day, but days pass and Robert doesn’t return. One evening, she goes with Alcée out to the lake. Upon their return, they sleep together again. That night, she falls asleep free of sorrow, but when she awakes in the morning she feels depressed.

“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.”

One day, Edna accidentally meets Robert at a small garden café in the suburbs. Robert is ill at ease, but agrees to stay and eat with her. Edna’s own reserve quickly crumbles; she asks Robert why he hasn’t been to see her and tells him he is behaving selfishly. He responds by calling her cruel – forcing him to confess to things that can yield no happy end. The two return to small talk.

Robert accompanies her back home after dark. She doesn’t press him to stay, but he does. Walking over to where he is seated, Edna bends over and kisses him. He responds by drawing her close and kissing her back. Robert confesses that the entire time he was in Mexico, he fantasized that Edna could somehow become his wife – that Léonce would free her. Edna replies that Robert’s dream is a silly one: Léonce cannot set her free because she is no longer one of his possessions. She gives herself as she chooses. Her words and what they imply shock Robert. A servant interrupts to tell Edna that Adèle is in labor and is asking for Edna. Before Edna leaves, she tells Robert how much she loves him and begs him to wait for her return. Robert tries to convince her not to go, but she repeats that she will come back soon and departs.

The sight of Adèle in labor brings back vague, distressing memories of her own experiences giving birth. When it is over, Edna kisses Adèle good-bye, and Adèle begs Edna to remember the children. Doctor Mandelet walks Edna home. He says he wishes Adèle had asked someone else to come be with her – someone less impressionable. The doctor then inquires about Léonce’s proposed trip abroad. Edna tells him she isn’t going with Léonce. No one has any right to demand things of her, except, perhaps, her children, and even then, she isn’t sure. The doctor understands and sympathizes. He tells Edna that she can come to him if she ever finds herself in trouble and wishes for a confidant. At home, Edna finds a note from Robert reading, “I love you. Good-bye, because I love you.” Edna lies awake on the sofa all night.

Back to Grand Isle

At Grand Isle the next day, Edna suddenly appears at the main house where Victor is doing some repairs. Edna explains that she has come alone for a rest. While lunch is prepared, Edna goes down to the beach. As she walks, Edna’s mind is strangely blank. She did all the thinking she needed to do last night. She realizes that one day her love for Robert would probably fade, like all her other infatuations. But her children would always be there, keeping her soul enslaved.

At the beach, Edna watches as a bird with a broken wing crashes into the water. She puts on her bathing suit but – upon reaching the water – takes it off and stands naked on the sand. She walks out into the water and begins to swim. She thinks about Léonce, her children and Robert – and about Mademoiselle Reisz’s words about courage. Soon, the shore is far away and her strength is spent. Memories of her childhood fill her mind as she surrenders herself to the sea.

About the Text

Structure and Style

The Awakening is a Realist novel – a work which aims to depict the world without artifice – with certain features drawn from the Naturalism, Bildungsroman and Local Color traditions. The novel can, however, also be classified as a proto-modernist text given Chopin’s use of repetition and dream-like imagery. The novel is narrated chronologically in a third person omniscient voice. The narration alternates between being factual and impressionistic, reflecting the structured outer and ever-shifting inner life of Chopin’s protagonist. 

The novel’s tone is serious and sympathetic toward Edna’s struggles. Still, at times it becomes more mocking – particularly of upper-class pretensions – in a manner reminiscent of Chopin’s contemporaries such as Henry James, Edith Wharton and George Bernard Shaw. The Awakening’s structure is circular. The first part of the novel details Edna’s summer vacation on Grand Isle, where the first stirrings of her soul’s awakening begin. The second part focuses on her life in New Orleans where she attempts to pursue her art more seriously and achieve both physical and spiritual independence from her husband and children. The final section relates the disappointing outcome of Edna’s attempted love affair with Robert Lebrun and her return to Grand Isle, where she drowns herself in the sea. 

Interpretation

  • Bird imagery appears throughout The Awakening, mainly serving as a symbol of the social limitations woman faced at the turn of the 20th century. Caged birds, such as Madame Lebrun’s parrot, emphasize women’s entrapment in a society which treats them as their husband’s (or father’s) possessions. The little house Edna rents, dubbed the “pigeon house,” likewise indicates that the sense of independence that Edna feels there may be illusory: After all, it is only just around the corner from her former home. Finally, Mademoiselle Reisz speaks in bird terminology when discussing the courage a woman must possess if she is to successfully “fly” above society’s expectations for her gender – an idea which recurs in the novel’s final scene where Edna spies a bird with a broken wing falling into the sea.
  • The Creole community within the novel is able to understand and accept the nurturing “mother-woman,” as represented by Adèle and the nun-like serious female artist as personified by Mademoiselle Reisz. They cant, however, embrace a woman like Edna who resists being reduced to one single identity or social role.
  • Though Edna never becomes a professional artist, the novel nevertheless posits art as a transformative entity capable of changing an individual’s perspectives and deepening his or her humanity. 
  • Edna’s burgeoning sexuality is treated in highly naturalistic terms for much of the text: Edna often appears passive and at the mercy of forces beyond her control. Her proactive pursuit of Robert toward the novel’s end, however, places Edna in the role of seducer rather than the seduced. The shift shows Edna’s determination to transcend traditional gender roles. And yet, as Doctor Mandelet suggests and Edna herself realizes watching Adèle give birth, for women, sex can never be an entirely freeing act. Indeed – whether within marriage or not – sex can become another sort of trap, since it might result in children who will inevitably make demands upon their mothers. 
  • Edna’s ultimate recognition that her passion for Robert is probably another infatuation that will one day pass emphasizes the folly of attempting to assert independent selfhood by way of another person. 
  • The choice of the sea – the place where Edna’s awakening begins – as the site of her suicide underscores her realization that simply removing outside influences and obligations won’t solve the problem of her lack of place in the world or provide her with a sense of spiritual fulfillment. Without the all-but-impossible ability to keep swimming forever, Edna sees no options for herself in the living world. Her choice to commit suicide is thus framed as both a tragic and heroic act. 

Historical Background

Transitioning Between Two Worlds

The turn of the 20th century in America was a time of social and economic upheaval. The 1893 depression saw unemployment rise to 19% among working-class Americans. The gleaming White City of the Chicago World’s Fair brought new technological wonders to the masses, railroads and factories proliferated, the so-called race question remained volatile, and suffragettes continued their fight for women’s voting rights. The ideas and imagery drawn from the problems of race and gender, the notions of boundaries drawn and lines blurred, and the observation of spaces contained and spaces transgressed – all these elements saturate the literature of this period and appear in The Awakening in a surprisingly wide variety of ways.

Despite the many changes occurring as the 19th century drew to a close, Victorian-era ideas about women’s roles within their families and society at large in many ways remained prominent. Within the middle class in particular, men and women continued to operate within distinct spheres: Men worked outside the home, involving themselves in politics and philosophy, and society expected women to embrace submissive, domestically-minded femininity. The notion that a woman might wish for power above and beyond her moral influence over her children – and, to a certain extent, her husband – was considered radical, unnatural and quite possibly wicked. For these reasons, women who did involve themselves in the kinds of organizations pushing for reform often couched their activism in the constructs of traditional womanhood – framing their politics as a kind of societal housekeeping.

Development

Though in many ways very different from her protagonist Edna Pontellier, Chopin’s own life appears to have been her prime inspiration when composing The Awakening. Brought up in a household of bright, independent women – Chopin’s widowed mother, grandmother and great-grandmother – and educated by the nuns of St. Louis Academy of the Sacred Heart, Chopin had a clear sense that women don’t require men – or children – in order to live full lives. Her own experience of being widowed at a young age and left to support and bring up six children alone, likewise influenced her perspective on female autonomy. Though writing wasn’t Chopin’s only source of income – as her careful records of the places her stories were published and the amounts each publisher paid suggest – becoming a professional author gave her an understanding of why earning one’s own money offers women greater freedom. 

However, at the same time, Chopin was acutely aware of the ways that “ethical and conventional standards” can affect both men and women’s lives. Though never an active part of the burgeoning women’s movement of the late 19th century, Chopin couldn’t help but be aware of the transitions occurring within American society. Though Victorian notions of “true womanhood” still predominated at the time of The Awakening’s inception, the ideas that would ultimately drive the reforms of the Progressive Era and thus expand the boundaries of the so-called women’s sphere were becoming increasingly mainstream. Chopin gives a nod to this notion in her novel, when Doctor Mandelet asks Léonce if he thinks his wife has become involved with any pseudo-intellectual women’s groups.

Stylistically, author Guy de Maupassant influenced Chopin. His writing, Chopin felt, “escaped from tradition and authority” and reflected a unique personal outlook on the world: “Here was a man…who had entered into himself and looked out upon life through his own being and with his own eyes and who, in a direct and simple way, told us what he saw.” Another French writer, Émile Zola, also appears to have left an impression on Chopin. In a 1894 review of Lourdes published in St. Louis Life, Chopin notes that, while she didn’t much like the book, Zola’s text underscored her conviction that “truth rests upon a shifting basis and is apt to be kaleidoscopic.” In terms of setting, Chopin drew upon her time living in New Orleans with her husband and the real-life Creole resort on Grand Isle where the family often vacationed. 

Reviews and Legacy

The Awakening was neither a commercial nor a critical success upon its publication in April 1899. While critics noted the novel’s artistry and praised Chopin’s “subtle skill, pellucid style” (Nation) and “extraordinary distinctiveness and force” (Book News Monthly), most found themselves unable to look past what they deemed its “immoral” content – or, as the Los Angeles Times put it, the story’s “repellent” and “disagreeable glimpses of sensuality.” In a time when literature was seen as an instructive vehicle and the particular, God-given role of women in the domestic sphere was taken as a given, the overall consensus seemed to be that Chopin had exceeded the bounds of respectability, from both a societal and literary perspective. As the Chicago Times Herald’s reviewer wrote, “It was not necessary for a writer of so great refinement and poetic grace to enter the overworked field of sex-fiction.” 

Chopin’s controversial novel was all but forgotten by the time of her death in 1904 and was out of print by 1906. Though a handful of essays published in 1956 by Kenneth Eble and Robert Cantwell and in 1962 by Edmund Wilson lauded the novel, The Awakening received little scholarly attention until 1969 when Per Seyersted of the University of Oslo published a biography of Chopin together with an edition of her complete works. In his analysis of The Awakening, Seyersted argued that Chopin was “in many respects a modern writer” in her approach to “the complexities of truth and the complications of freedom” and identified her as “the first woman writer in her country to accept passion as a legitimate subject for serious, outspoken fiction.” By the early 1970s, feminist critics in particular had embraced Chopin’s text, and by the end of the decade, The Awakening was widely considered an important part of the late 19th- and early 20th-century literary canon. The novel has been adapted for film twice: first in 1982 by Bob Graham and again in 1991 when Mary Lambert directed a made-for-TV movie adaptation titled Grand Isle, starring Kelly McGillis. The story was adapted for the stage in 2016 and appeared at the Exit Theatre in San Francisco, California. In 2010, Savage Umbrella and 3AM Productions at Gremlin Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota, presented a musical version of The Awakening.

About the Author

Catherine O’Flaherty (Kate Chopin) was born February 8, 1850 in St. Louis, Missouri. The third-born child of successful Irish-born businessman Thomas O’Flaherty and his second wife, Eliza Faris – a respected member of St. Louis’s French community – Chopin grew up speaking both French and English. The family remained in St. Louis following Chopin’s father’s death in 1855 and stayed there throughout the Civil War. After graduating from the intellectually rigorous St. Louis Academy of the Sacred Heart in 1868, Chopin married Oscar Chopin in 1870 and moved to his hometown of New Orleans. There, Kate – who had grown up in a slave-owning household – was exposed to the economic and racial turmoil of Reconstruction. She gave birth to six children between 1871 and 1879. In 1897, after Oscar’s New Orleans cotton business failed, the family moved to Cloutierville, a small French Creole village in northwestern Louisiana, where Oscar opened a general store. When he died of malaria in 1882, Oscar left his 32-year-old widow with large debts. Chopin’s mother encouraged her to return to St. Louis, which Chopin did in 1885. After Chopin’s mother’s death later that same year, Chopin became depressed. Her doctor and family friend Dr. Frederick Kolbenheyer encouraged her to write as a form of therapy. Chopin’s first novel, At Fault, was published privately in 1890. During the next decade, she wrote about 100 short stories, many of which were published in prestigious magazines such as Vogue and The Atlantic Monthly. Twenty-six of her stories were for children. Two collections of Chopin’s stories, Bayou Folk, published in 1894, and A Night in Acadie, published in 1897, received critical and popular acclaim. Chopin’s second novel, The Awakening, met condemnation, however. Reviewers objected to the book’s passionate themes and Chopin’s heroine’s flaunting of social conventions. She returned to publishing short stories in the aftermath of The Awakening’s failure. In April 1904, the St. Louis World’s Fair opened. Chopin bought a season ticket and attended regularly. On August 20, 1904, a particularly hot day, Chopin returned home from the fair feeling unwell. That evening, she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. She died two days later on August 22 and was buried at Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis.


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