Social Sensitivity

The Awakening has taken on a new significance since the advent of the women’s movement. Literary debates have raged over the significance of Edna Pontellier’s awakening, her suicide, and the conflict between motherhood and career for women in the 19th century. Many critics feel that Edna’s suicide was an independent victory over society’s limitations. Others feel that she killed herself because she felt defeated by society and did not want to disgrace her children.

Women’s issues were still too new in the late 1800s for the book to have any impact at the time it was published. Feminists since the 1940s and 1950s, however, have recognized the book as an important contribution to the understanding of women’s changing roles in an evolving society. Chopin was sensitive to women’s issues and in a broader sense interested in universal human nature. Through her characters, she explored the relationship between self and society.

Particularly aware of the conflicts women face-due in part to her French background and her female perspective-Chopin shared with her readers a view of women in American society that differed from other writers of her day. Her characters often held unconventional attitudes toward themselves and society’s rules. These characters tried to fit into society and, at the same time, remain true to themselves. Edna Pontellier is no exception. She represents women in society both past and present. She joins other of Chopin’s female protagonists in forming a basis for dialogue about a society that once devalued female sensuality and independence.

The 19th century, in particular, saw a change in the status of women. Chopin’s character, Edna Pontellier, illustrates the independent nature that women began recognizing in themselves. Edna felt that there was more to life than living in her husband’s shadow and stifling her own desires and dreams. Women of the time felt the same way. As early as 1848, women gathered in New York state to begin addressing issues of equality. This first convention of women set the groundwork for the women’s rights movement. Women’s groups continued to organize to educate women about social and political issues and to allow a forum for women’s discussions. While women did not gain the right to vote until 1920, these pioneering efforts gained a voice in society that would not be quieted. Edna’s actions in The Awakening reflect the times and the emotions felt by the many women who sought personal freedom.

Chopin’s editors tolerated her daring themes and characters’ actions more than did the critics and general public. Chopin wrote about life as it really was and did not shy away from subjects that were considered taboo. The characters in Chopin’s short stories and novels often demonstrated the “dual lives” that women of the 1800s lived. In a time when women’s roles were changing, Chopin’s characters found themselves questioning conformity and duty versus freedom and personal identity.

Kate Chopin herself exemplified the spirit of the women’s movement during the 1800s. While she was married to a wealthy Southern businessman, she defied tradition by assisting her husband with his business, taking walks by herself through the streets of New Orleans, and smoking cigarettes. Her blatant disregard for society’s expectations peaked in The Awakening. Her character, Edna Pontellier, thinks and acts in many ways like Kate Chopin did. Edna thinks about herself as separate from her family and society. She challenges the role society has forced upon her and courageously turns her back on it.

Critics denounced Chopin for allowing Edna Pontellier the freedom to refuse to conform. They also criticized Chopin’s seeming sympathy for her character. The outcry demonstrated that the literary world was not ready for the realism Chopin’s novel portrayed. Even though women’s roles in the real world were changing, Chopin’s frank treatment of female sexuality, social impropriety, and personal freedom shook the literary world. Critics condemned the novel. Libraries removed it from their shelves. Chopin continued to write, however, and to allow her characters to stretch beyond the confining boundaries set by society. Today’s critics recognize her artistry and applaud her realistic approach that gives insight into society in the late 19th century.

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