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A study of the various critical reactions to Chopin's most famous work: The Awakening.

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How was Chopin's The Awakening received as a literary work when first published?

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The late nineteenth century was a tumultuous time for the United States. The social, scientific, and cultural landscape of the country was undergoing radical changes. Darwin's theories of evolution and natural selection had called into question established views concerning humankind's origins (theories in which Kate Chopin had more than a passing interest); urbanization and restoration of the country following the Civil War ushered men and women into a new social identity; and, perhaps most importantly, the women's rights movement had been gathering momentum since 1848, when the first woman's rights conference was held in Seneca Fall, New York.
What this means is that for almost 50 years before Chopin published The Awakening, society had been engaged in a struggle over social ideologies and equal rights issues. As a result of this struggle, women as a whole had, to a certain extent, already experienced mobilization and emancipation from their socioeconomic fetters. For the first time in America, women began to bring the heretofore private issues of home and family into the public arena.
Mari Jo Buhle notes that women during the post-Civil War era "regularly participated in the marketplace, gained their own sources of support, and broke once and for all with humiliating forms of financial dependency on men" (51). Women "at all levels of society were active in attempts to better their lot, and the 'New Woman,' the late nineteenth-century equivalent of the 'liberated woman,' was much on the public mind" (Culley 117). In mid-1899, nearly a half-century after the women's movement officially had begun, the cultural and social soil seemed fertile for the literary introduction of Kate Chopin's fictional character, Edna Pontellier.
Choked by the cloistering, moralistic garb of the Victorian era, yet willing to give up everything--even her own life--for the freedom of unencumbered individuality, Edna Pontellier epitomized the consummate New Woman of the late nineteenth century. She embodied the social ideals for which women of that era were striving. She was individualistic--a maverick; she was passionate; she was courageous and intrepid--she was the definitive persona which thousands of women during the late nineteenth century exalted as a role model. This, combined with the fact that Chopin was already an established author, seemed an indicator that The Awakening was destined for success. One month before Chopin's novel was published, Lucy Monroe reviewed The Awakening for the March 1899, issue of Book News. Monroe's review praises Chopin's work as a "remarkable novel" and applauds it as "subtle and a brilliant kind of art" (Toth 329). Monroe further depicts the novel as "so keen in its analysis of character, so subtle in its presentation of emotional effects that it seems to reveal life as well as represent it" (Toth 328). Monroe's was a glowing review indeed, and undoubtedly heightened the mounting anticipation with which Chopin, her colleagues, and her publisher eagerly awaited the release of The Awakening.
Although Monroe was the chief reader and literary editor for Chopin's publisher and undoubtedly had a vested interest in the success of The Awakening, her favorable review nonetheless undoubtedly hyped the unveiling of what Chopin expected to be a tremendous boost to her literary career.
After Herbert S. Stone & Company published The Awakening on April 22, 1899, Chopin anxiously awaited the response of critics; unfortunately, while Chopin anticipated a warm reception in the days following the novel's release, critics were already sharpening the literary knives with which they would dissect both the amoral disposition of Edna Pontellier and the prurient theme of The Awakening.
During the weeks immediately following its release, critics roundly condemned Chopin's novel . Despite Monroe's pre-publishing promotion and the mounting momentum of the women's movement, both Chopin and The Awakening were bombarded with an onslaught of unfavorable reviews. Most critics regarded the novel as vulgar, unwholesome, unholy, and a misappropriation of Chopin's exceptional literary talent. Many reviewers regarded the novel's aggrandizement of sexual impurity as immoral, and thus they condemned the novel's theme.
That Chopin was already a successful and popular writer further fueled the awkward consternation with which critics viewed The Awakening. In fact, because of Chopin's success with her earlier works, "Bayou Folk," "At Fault," and "A Night in Acadie," critics expected more of what Chopin was known for as a regionalist writer--realism and local color. They expected to read a novel rich in descriptive language, colorful characters, and the sights and sounds of Louisiana Creole life. Instead of local color, however, critics were shocked and dismayed at Edna Pontellier's behavior and considered Chopin's novel morbid and lacking literary value. In most cases, critics were at a loss to explain the reasons why an artist with Chopin's undisputed literary talent would contribute to what one reviewer called "the overworked field of sex fiction" (Seyersted 219).
Because Chopin's earlier works had met with substantial success, however, most critics acknowledged Chopin's gifted writing style while at the same time utterly condemning The Awakening's theme. For example, in the May 4, 1899, issue of the Mirror, Francis Porcher writes, "And so, because we admire Kate Chopin's other work immensely and delight in her ever-growing fame and are proud that she is 'one-of-us St. Louisans,' one dislikes to acknowledge a wish that she had not written her novel" (Culley 145).
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