The Awakening has enjoyed a strange success: At the time of its publication, critics condemned the novel for its heroine's unrepentant drive for independence and emotional, sexual, and spiritual awakening. Although contrary to legend it was never a banned book, the novel fell into obscurity for 70 years. Read in the radical context of the 1960s, The Awakening was received enthusiastically as a valid work; the scandal that destroyed its chance of success at the time of its publication seemed absurd.
A scandal usually secures a book's success, particularly when a book is accused not only of describing immorality but also of promoting it — typically in such a situation, everyone wants to find out what they're not supposed to hear or know. This phenomenon did not occur with The Awakening, however, possibly because Edna's story was just too depressing: She is not a character made two dimensional by excessive virtue or vice; rather, she achieves a certain realism in her character's mixture of flaws and features. She's too real, and readers found it too sad that she must kill herself to finally elude society's demand that she be a mother first and a human being second. Female readers in 1899 did not find an easy escape out of their own lives when they picked up The Awakening — entering Edna's life, they were forced to understand her choices and lack of them, and re-encounter the same limitations that marked their own lives.
Many male reviewers condemned The Awakening primarily out of fear of the very real shifting in the social order. Women were still required by society to live and uphold the mother-woman role, but at the same time, they were increasingly choosing to work outside the home. The suffrage movement was in full swing, threatening the masculine grip on the realms of politics and economics. While Edna is no suffragette, evidencing no interest in any cause other than her own intensely personal agenda, her rejection of the mother-woman role, exploration of her sexuality with men other than her husband, and indifference to the opinions of mainstream society make her threatening indeed to those readers who wished women would remain at home.
The suffragettes were not the only force making waves for the mainstream. Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote the groundbreaking Women and Economics, published in 1898, which viewed marriage with an economic perspective: A wife pays for her room and board in her husband's house by bearing his children, rendering sexual reproduction an economic function and the American family nothing more than a system of barter. Edna attempts to exit this system by funding her own little household but still cannot escape its grip — hardly good news for those women who agreed with Gilman's analysis.
Edna's status as a trophy wife — a woman whose life of leisure is a testament to her husband's financial success — is essential to her development, however. Because she has servants to attend to necessary household tasks and take care of her children, she can devote time to art, solitary reflection, and the influential relationships. Reviewers from the 1970s until the present note that the servants in Edna's household are rarely heard to speak, and frequently their names are not given. The lack of attention in the novel to the servant women's perspectives tells a great deal in the omission — if Edna could not free herself from the role society cast her in, how much more difficult must it have been for those women trapped in Louisiana's elaborate racial caste system. Only a few short decades after the Civil War, Louisiana retained its intensely bigoted environment and practices.
In addition, the sexism associated with the antebellum South was alive and well for Chopin and Edna. In highly conservative Louisiana, women were expected to behave as stereotypical Southern belles, pure of heart and chaste in action. Such a role symbolically prohibited an active place in public life. Literal constraints were in place, as well, such as the law that declared married women, along with children and the mentally ill, incompetent to initiate or complete legal contracts. As an independent-minded woman and native of St. Louis, Chopin drew on her own experiences as an outsider in Louisiana to flesh out Edna's portrait as a scandalously independent woman. Like Edna, Chopin sought to create her own life, such as instituting a literary salon to replace all the other social visits society expected her to pay. However, unlike Edna, Chopin was very much at home in her independence.
Part of the scandal surrounding the novel was Chopin's bold choice of female self-discovery and self-reliance. Women writers, throughout the United States but particularly in the South, were expected to stick with ladylike subjects; a portrayal of female sexuality or intense dissatisfaction with their married lives was not on that list. Further, because Chopin used Louisiana so frequently in her stories, she was marginalized as a regional writer, a term used for writers who vividly describe the local color but don't necessarily produce great literature. When male writers, such as Mark Twain, drew heavily on their surroundings for character or theme, their work was understood to be literature that made use of certain regional characteristics to great effect, rather than simply a description of those characteristics, as is the case with regional writers. As a woman, Chopin's status as a writer was severely limited by the expectations of an intensely chauvinistic public. When she shattered all expectations by producing a work that clearly transcended not only regionalism but also the established list of sentimental subjects thought suitable for women, the furor was intense.
In Edna Pontellier's America, female sexuality was an utterly taboo subject. For women, sex was supposed to be a means to one specific end: making babies within the context of marriage. Part of the reason Edna's behavior seemed so scandalous at the time was that her sexuality neither began nor ended with her husband as the times dictated it ought; she discovered it with other men after she was already married.
Further, Edna advances not only in knowledge of her sexuality but also in awareness of her spirituality: Upon moving into the pigeon house, she has a sense "of having descended in the social scale, with a corresponding sense of having risen in the spiritual." This increase in her spiritual stock occurs after she has begun her affair with Arobin, a point at which a standard heroine of the times should have felt irredeemably shamed and certainly less spiritually advanced.
Edna's sexual awakening is doubtless a reflection of the sexuality glorified in Walt Whitman's landmark poetry of self-celebration, Leaves of Grass, the imagery or influence of which is frequently found in The Awakening. One of Whitman's most famous lines reads "If I worship one thing more than another it shall be the spread of my own body, or any part of it." That sentiment is manifest in Edna's new appreciation for her body that occurs during her day at Madame Antoine's. Leaves of Grass outraged the public's puritanical sensibilities in 1855 with its male author's celebration of sensuality; how much worse for a woman to celebrate her self and sexuality, even 44 years later.
Another troubling factor for Chopin's contemporaries was her refusal to condemn Edna. She describes Edna's actions and reactions without passing judgment, a literary device that precedes the modernist literature of the 1920s by two decades. After kissing Arobin for the first time, Edna felt "neither shame nor remorse" and Chopin doesn't suggest that she should. Instead, using a narrative voice distant and ambiguous in tone, she presents Edna's development and decisions without the moralizing that was expected from novelists. Book and magazine editors of the time routinely asked writers to maintain a certain moral tone in their work, or at least provide endings for their heroines that were in keeping with the accepted avenues: Women were to be married off or, if left solitary, remain virginal. Many reviewers described Chopin's novel with terms such as "unhealthy" and "morbid." One review declared that "The Awakening is too strong drink for moral babes, and should be labeled 'poison.'"
The Influence of Science
Part of Chopin's reluctance to pass judgment using the established moral codes may have stemmed from the scientific advancements of the last half of the 1800s. The work of Charles Darwin and his supporters fundamentally changed, or at least challenged, the way people thought about who they were, where they came from, and where they were going. The very idea of evolution necessitated a fundamental shift in thinking, casting previously ironclad ideas into doubt. So, too, does Chopin depict Edna's shift in perspective as causing an irreparable break with her former life, disallowing the possibility that she can simply move back into Léonce's house and resume her limiting life.
The Influence of Naturalism and Romanticism
Given Chopin's approach to the novel, there can be no happy ending for Edna, and this feature places The Awakening in the naturalist school of writing. Established in the last half of the nineteenth century, Naturalist and the closely associated Realist literature held that writing should offer an objective, empirical presentation of the human experience. Naturalism required an amoral stance towards a character's actions and aspirations — but nonetheless expected the worst both for and from the character. The influence of Darwin's theories on naturalism resulted in the sentiment that humans have little control over themselves or the forces that shape their lives, but must struggle to survive, prospering only at the expense of others. As if to emphasize that she is consciously including that school's principles or approach in her novel, Chopin has Edna reading a novel by the realist writer Edmund Goncourt.
In stark contrast with naturalism was the much older school of romanticism, which promoted the idea that anyone's life or worldview could be transformed by idealism and self-knowledge. American romanticism put an emphasis on the role of art in such a transformation. Ironically, The Awakening was heavily influenced by this school, as well: Chopin presents a character whose relationship with art both engenders and indicates her life's transformation. Although Edna is not a serious artist, her art does reflect her growth as a person. Her focus on developing her spiritual rather than material state is in keeping with the related transcendentalist philosophy of Emerson and Thoreau; in fact, Edna is shown reading Emerson her first night alone in the mansion. Transcendentalist writers, themselves influenced by the romantics, have an optimistic view about human potential and express the need to appreciate independence in spirit and action, even when in conflict with mainstream expectations. As Edna learns her own mind and follows her heart, defying her culture's traditions and orthodoxy, she is exemplifying the values of transcendentalism.
By presenting a heroine who attempts to transform her life but ultimately feels overwhelmed by those around her and defeated by herself, Chopin depicts the dark side, what cynics would call the realistic consequences, of Edna's romantic impulse to reconfigure her life according to her own true principles.
Chopin's novel arrived at a pivotal juncture in time: The roots of feminism had been established in the 1890s but the future of women's economic, political, and personal independence was far from determined. Just so Edna's life, which indicates the real possibility of a new independence but does not promise that such independence will be easily won or maintained.