The Awakening by Chopin: Literary Criticism

Instructor: Audrey Farley

Audrey is a doctoral student in English at University of Maryland.

This lesson discusses the form and genre of Kate Chopin's 1899 novel, The Awakening. The novel is a realist novel, with naturalist elements. This lesson also discusses the literary critical reception of the novel, which has tended to emphasize the feminist and psychoanalytic undertones.

Overview of the Novel

The Awakening was written by American author Kate Chopin in 1899. The novel portrays a woman's struggle against the patriarchal norms of late nineteenth-century society. Edna Pontellier feels stifled by her domestic duties. She falls in love with a man named Robert Lebrun. He departs for Mexico, sensing that the relationship is doomed. Edna is devastated. When her best friend, Adéle, is unable to console her, she commits suicide by drowning.

Form and Genre

The Awakening is a realist novel, which portrays society's ills to enact social change. Further, the novel bears the characteristics of the naturalist movement. Naturalism is an outgrowth of the realist genre, which includes fiction that is influenced by Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. Chopin, like other naturalist writers, suggests that one's heredity and social environment determine her character. (Realism, by contrast, merely attempts to describe reality, not to determine the forces that influence subjects' experience of reality.)

The novel is often read as a critique of upper-class pretension. Chopin portrays how wealthy Southerners behave according to superficial notions of class and etiquette, while mistreating Creole servants and workers. The novel is also read for its introspective tendencies. Chopin follows the tradition of Henry James, using narrative to explore the innermost recesses of psychology. The novel explores the complex psyche of a woman who desires to abandon her family to pursue her romantic passions.

Feminist Themes

The Awakening has long been hailed by feminist critics, since it portrays a young woman's unorthodox struggle against nineteenth-century norms of femininity and motherhood. Edna Pontellier abandons her husband and children, and the author does not condemn her character for this. Instead, readers are encouraged to sympathize with the protagonist, as she seeks to fulfill her sexual desires and artistic passions.

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