"The Awakening" was first published in 1899. The writeups about it above date from 2001, meaning that a not insubstantial part of the work's history has been between the first review above and this review.

This book can be read from several different perspectives. One of the first questions is how much the author, Kate Chopin, chooses to identify with the protagonist, Edna Pontellier. The usual first reading, even in a work of literary fiction, is to think of the protagonist as the heroine, although they may possess flaws. How you feel about Chopin's relation towards Edna probably depends on how you feel about Edna herself. If you view Edna Pontellier as a paragon of self-expression and principled refusal to accept the world's strictures, you might believe that the author is writing her story as an autobiography. If you take the story of Edna's liberation as a little more problematic, you might view the book's psychologically detailed prose with a more nuanced eye. But I am getting ahead of myself.

"The Awakening" is a short (150 pages in my edition) biographical novel about Edna Pontellier, the daughter of Kentucky aristocrats who has married an upper class Creole (in this sense, of French descent) businessman and moved to Louisiana. She is 28 and has several children. But, of course, despite her luxurious and stress free life, she feels unsatisfied. She has no real feelings for her husband, and the life of a wife and mother bores her. She is introduced to two young men, Robert Lebrun and Alcee Arobin, and apparently has emotional or sexual relationships with one or both of them. (Although it was quite scandalous when released, the descriptions of intimacy are very tame and ambiguous.)

Some of my thoughts about this novel might be overly critical, given its historical role in the development of the novel, of using psychological realism, and of incorporating feminist themes. All of those should be acknowledged, but my biggest problem is, for a work about "awakening", the protagonist remains blind to many facets of the world around her. She is an upper class woman who has all her physical needs provided for her. Her realization of her own psychological imprisonment doesn't seem to evoke any desires to understand others. This is especially notable when she complains about having too many servants to oversee, when she enjoys watching "the darkies lay the cane", and when she has her "octoroon maid" sit as a model for a portrait. This isn't just a matter of my modern political or social sensibilities: the awakening makes her more aware of her own psychological needs, but it seems not to extend to others. Her try at psychological liberation only goes down the most obvious, self-indulgent path. Her idea is to use her husband and father's money to live with only one servant, and to make some money through painting. To me, this all seems a bit like the wealthy sorority sister who travels to Costa Rica for a one week vacation and discovers her spiritual side. None of which is to fault the book, because it is quite likely that Chopin was attempting to portray not just a stagnant, stratified society, but the facile nature of people's escape from it.

At the beginning, I said that a substantial part of the time since the book's publication can be observed right here. I grew up tacitly believing that personal self-discovery went hand in hand with social awareness. In the 1990s, people would have believed that implicitly. Now, I see that belief as a historical oddity: the romantic belief in personal uniqueness has often , naturally, gone along with the belief that social structures are not worth examining, and that the feelings of others, especially socially different others, are not important. My reading of this book is very different, and probably more accurate, than it would have been a dozen years ago.