Few, if any, books ever written have pleased everyone who read them. As Bill Cosby once remarked, “I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is to try and please everybody.” Therefore, successful writers often write about touchy subjects. The Awakening by Kate Chopin is no exception.

Dealing primarily with freedoms of women, The Awakening stirred up a great deal of controversy in the late 19th century when it was written, and it ruined Chopin’s writing career from the time it was published until her death. Chopin tried to get people to recognize the simple rights of women as people, as men, in a way. Some people, including women’s rights activists who began to draw major attention after The Awakening was published, grabbed the ideas expressed in the novel, and used them for their causes.

“The author has a clever way of managing a difficult subject, and wisely tempers the emotional elements found in the situation. Such is the cleverness in the handling of the story that you feel pity for the most unfortunate of her sex” (Times).

However, the ideas expressed in the novel did not agree with the general population. One review sated:

‘The Awakening,’ by Kate Chopin, is a feeble reflection of Bourget, theme and manner of treatment both suggesting the French novelist.... If the author had secured our sympathy for this unpleasant person it would not have been a small victory, but we are well satisfied when Mrs. Pontellier deliberately swims out to her death in the waters of the gulf” (Opinion).

Clearly, some who read the book did not agree at all with the messages Chopin was trying to send, which called for women to do what they felt was right. Most people, including many women, felt that it was a wife’s job and obligation to do whatever their husband asked, take care of their families, and have as many babies as possible. Chopin, a single mother of six, obviously did not agree (hence, the controversy).

Chopin used several techniques of influencing her readers, especially by writing about a situation with conflict. She grabbed the reader right away with an interesting setting, full of opposing characters, whose opposing viewpoints naturally created, at the very least, something entertaining.

The story takes place in New Orleans, but starts off in Grand Isle, a vacation hot spot for rich married couples. Grand Isle symbolizes a kind of separation from society, where Edna’s feelings grow toward Robert Lebrun, a young man whose mother owns the cottages on the island. New Orleans represents the return to society, where things must settle down and conform.

Some of the characters providing conflict include Adéle Ratignolle, one of Edna’s close friends. Adéle lives for her children and her husband. She spends all of her time being a mother, and is the ideal woman of her society. However, Mademoiselle Reisz is of a completely different sort. She never married, and lived independently her whole life. She is a major influence on Edna, who is captivated by her piano playing. Robert Lebrun also plays a significant impact on Edna, and is probably her biggest influence in the story. Their relationship starts out with him joking and flirting with her, but eventually they fall in love. Edna’s final expression of love toward a man who is not her husband is one of the major climaxes of the book.

What is really captivating is the ending, when it is realized that Edna, the protagonist, is caught in her society with nowhere to go and no one to turn to. When Edna swims out to sea, it is clear that if this could be taking place, something is dreadfully wrong with society.

Altogether, this was a well written piece of literature exemplifying the women’s rights movement, and calling to attention outright flaws in the way society was. Since the novel was written, women have been granted the right to vote, and made large bounds forward toward equality, but somehow the old society remains, and somehow, it isn’t as big an issue as it should be.


Chopin, Kate. The Awakening.

The New York Times Book Review, June 24, 1899, p. 408. Reprinted in Twentieth- Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 14.

Public Opinion, Vol. XXVI, No. 25. June 22. 1899. p. 794. Reprinted in Twentieth- Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 14.

Stone, Carol. Women's Studies, Vol. 13, Nos. 1 & 2, 1986, pp. 23-31. Reprinted in Novels for Students, Vol. 3.