The Awakening is a novel by Kate Chopin, first published in 1899. Set in New Orleans and the Southern Louisiana coast at the end of the nineteenth century, the plot centers around Edna Pontellier and her struggle to reconcile her increasingly unorthodox views on femininity and motherhood with the prevailing social attitudes of the turn-of-the-century South. It is one of the earliest American novels that focuses on women's issues without condescension. It is also widely seen as a landmark work of early feminism.
The novel's blend of realistic narrative, incisive social commentary, and psychological complexity makes The Awakening a precursor of American modernism; it prefigures the works of American novelists such as William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway and echoes the works of contemporaries such as Edith Wharton and Henry James. It can also be considered among the first Southern works in a tradition that would culminate with the modern masterpieces of Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty, Katherine Anne Porter, and Tennessee Williams.
The Awakening was particularly controversial upon publication in 1899. Although the novel was never technically banned, it was censored. Chopin's novel was considered immoral not only for its comparatively frank depictions of female sexual desire but for its depiction of a protagonist who chafed against social norms and established gender roles. The public reaction to the novel was similar to the protests which greeted the publication and performance of Henrik Ibsen's landmark drama A Doll's House (1879), a work with which The Awakening shares an almost identical theme.
However, published reviews ran the gamut from outright condemnation to the recognition of The Awakening as an important work of fiction by a gifted practitioner. A good example of this can be found in the divergent reactions of two newspapers in Kate Chopin's hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. The St. Louis Republic labeled the novel "poison" and "too strong a drink for moral babes", and the St. Louis Mirror said: "One would fain beg the gods, in pure cowardice, for sleep unending rather than to know what an ugly, cruel, loathsome Monster Passion can be when, like a tiger, it slowly awakens. This is the kind of awakening that impresses the reader in Mrs. Chopin's heroine." Later in the same year, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch would write in praise of the novel in an essay entitled "A St. Louis Woman Who Has Turned Fame Into Literature."
Some reviews clucked in disappointment at Chopin's choice of subject: "It was not necessary for a writer of so great refinement and poetic grace to enter the over-worked field of sex-fiction," (Chicago Times Herald). Others mourned the loss of good taste as when The Nation referred to Chopin as "one more clever writer gone wrong." Chopin did not garner unqualifiedly negative reviews. The Dial called The Awakening a "poignant spiritual tragedy" with the caveat that the novel was "not altogether wholesome in its tendencies." In the Pittsburgh Leader, Willa Cather set The Awakening alongside Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert's equally notorious and equally reviled novel of suburban ennui and unapologetic adultery—though Cather was no more impressed with the heroine than were most of her contemporaries. Cather concluded her review: "next time I hope that Miss Chopin will devote that flexible, iridescent style of hers to a better cause."
The novel opens with the Pontellier family vacationing on Grand Isle at a resort on the Gulf of Mexico managed by Madame Lebrun and her two sons, Robert and Victor. The Pontellier family is composed of Léonce Pontellier, a businessman of Louisiana Creole heritage; his wife Edna, and their two sons.
Edna spends most of her time with her close friend Adèle Ratignolle. In a boisterous and cheery manner, Adèle reminds Edna of her duties as a wife and mother. At Grand Isle, Edna eventually forms a connection with another man. The story continues from here.