“Too strong a drink for moral babies, and should be labeled ‘poison’.” was the how the Republic described Kate Chopin’s most famous novel The Awakening (Seyersted 174). This was the not only the view of one magazine, but it summarized the feelings of society as a whole.
Chopin woke up people to the feelings and minds of women. Even though her ideas were controversial at first, slowly over the decades people began to accept them.Kate O’Flaherty Chopin was raised in St. Louis in the 1850’s and 1860’s. Chopin had a close relationship with her French grandmother which lead to her appreciation of French writers.
When she was only five Chopin’s father, Thomas O’Flaherty died leaving her without a father figure. Eliza O’Flaherty, Chopin’s mother, was from there on the head of the household. Chopin grew up knowing that women could be strong and intelligent and that they did not have to be submissive creatures (Skaggs 2). She loved her mother and considered her “A woman of great beauty, intelligence, and personal magnetism” (Seyersted 14).
Growing up around independent women, however, did not dissuade her from marriage. Her marriage to Oscar Chopin by all accounts was a happy one. Taking on the role of a high society lady as well as wife and new mother, Chopin fit in well with the New Orleans culture. She enjoyed the Louisiana atmosphere so well that most of her writings were based here. Chopin continued living in Louisiana raising her six young children until the sudden death of her husband brought her back to St.
, Louis (Skaggs 3).Oscar Chopin died while their youngest child, Lelia was only three. Soon after Chopin moved her family to St. Louis to be with her dying mother. In the grief of her losses Chopin had to rediscover who she was.
This challenge came out in her writing of heroines searching for self-understanding (Skaggs 3). No longer Eliza O’Flaherty’s daughter or Oscar Chopin’s wife, Kate Chopin was forced to find a new role for herself. Her new role would be a writer.
A few key figures in her life influenced Chopin to write. Doctor Frederick Kolbemheyer was a life long friend on whose support she always relied. Raised in Austria and then exiled for his beliefs, Kolbemheyer was a philosopher and encouraged Chopin to read Darwin, Haxley, and Spencer.
Their beliefs were very similar and he must have supported her when she denounced the Catholic religion after her mother’s death. The beloved friends wrote to each other often while Chopin was in Louisiana. Seeing the talent in her writing, Kolbemheyer encouraged Chopin to publish her letters. She admired him greatly and even named her son Frederick after him.
(Taylor 147).There were three American women writers of the time that Chopin admired. When asked who would be a good model woman writer she responded, “I know of no one better than Miss Jewett to study for technique and nicety of construction. I don’t mention Mary E. Wilkins for she is a great genius and genius is not to be studied.” (Taylor 163). Wilkins’s book Pembroke was condemned by society and Chopin must have been sympathetic when five years later her own book The Awakening was also condemned.
Chopin also looked up to Ruth McEnery Stuart and praised her work as being “True to nature,” and having a “wholesome human note” (Taylor 163). It is notable that later Chopin’s talent and style were to be compared to the works of these women whom she admired. The greatest influence on Chopin was the French writer Guy de Maupassant.
Chopin describes Maupassant by writing, “Here was a man who escaped from tradition and authority … looked out upon life through his own being with his own eyes; and who, in a direct and simple was, told up what he saw.
” (Taylor 159). Chopin translated eight of his works and through him developed her style of writing. She shared his concept of a hero :”An isolated world-weary and misanthropic hero who revels in his own sensuality; who trusts in nature and distrusts human relationships, especially love; who experiences a sense of liberation through solitary walks and confidences in his writing… and who is strongly drawn to death as a solution to the repetitive meaninglessness of life’s pleasures.
(Taylor 160)This was the basic outline for the plot of The Awakening . The book starts with Edna, a New Orleans high society wife and mother who was miserable with her life. While spending the summer in Grand Isle, Edna meets Mademoiselle Reiz whose music is the only thing in which Edna finds happiness.
Through the music Edna awakens to the fact that she has the right to be happy. Finding Edna’s behavior unusual, her husband Mr. Pontellier takes the advice of a friend and leaves on a long business trip, giving Edna her space. On the isle she also meets Robert Lebrun who awakens her to a passion Mr. Pontellier could never give her.
During the summer they fall deeply in love but Robert is scared of being condemned by society and flees to Mexico.(Bloom 11). After Robert leaves, Edna meets Alcee Arobin. Hopeful that Alcee will be like Robert, she takes him into her home. Once there Alcee becomes as controlling as Mr. Pontellier. Instead of helping her independence as Robert did, Alcee !suppresses her and Edna again feels miserable.
Robert returns and promises to wait for her to leave Alcee. He, however; changes his mind and mysteriously vanishes leaving a note saying; “Good-bye-because I love you” (Bloom 11). Consumed by a morbid depression and unable to even care for her children, suicide enters Edna’s mind. “There was no one thing in the world that she desired. There was no human being whom she wanted near her except Robert, and she even realized that the day would come when he, too, and the thought of him would melt out of her existence, leaving her alone.” (Chopin 113).
Edna then swam into the sea and drown (Boren 194).At the time of The Awakening’s publishing, society was very different than it is today. Victorian women had no right to vote and had little independence. Women were expected to accept their position at home and be satisfied with it. The public understanding was that “A woman’s personal life centers around home, husband, and children.” (Nickerson 1).
The Awakening challenged this notion and critics were outraged by it.Critics of the time were brutal in telling the world exactly what they thought of Chopin’s controversial characters. In 1899 a reviewer for Public Opinion said he was “well satisfied with Edna’s suicide because she deserved to die for her immoral behavior” (Delaney 43). No one told of the affairs some women had then. Deyo expressed why this was, ” A fact ..
. which we have all agreed shall not be acknowledged is as good as no fact at all. And it is disturbing – even indelicate- to mention it as something which, perhaps, does play an important part in the life behind the mask” (Seyersted 175). Even Chopin herself did not pity Edna, instead taking a detached view of the story. It has been suggested by Bloom that Chopin gives her sentiments through Edna’s doctor: ” Nature takes no account of moral consequences, of arbitrary conditions which we create, and which we feel obligated to maintain at any cost.” (Bloom 23).
The public outrage against the story went further than the critics words. The book was banned from the public library and her hometown of St. Louis shunned Chopin for writing it. She was denied membership in the fine arts club and was given no credit as a writer even though her previous stories had been celebrated.
Hurt and defeated after all that had occurred, Chopin wrote a public apology. It said that she was sorry that people found Edna offensive; but that when she began writing her story she did not know how Edna would evolve. She went on to say that by the time Edna’s story was laid out the book was almost complete. Chopin’s true friends stayed by her and Frederick encouraged her to write again. She only wrote one more story, “Charlie” in 1900 which wasn’t published until long after her death . After “Charlie” Chopin lived out of the public life until her young death at the age of fifty-four in 1904 (Boren 207).
Chopin was a writer truly ahead of her time. It was not until fifty years after her death that The Awakening began to be appreciated by society. The French were the first to recognize this work with admiration; in the 1950’s Contwell, Brooks, and Aronavon were the first to respect the book. In the sixties Chopin’s popularity grew thanks to the feminists. They looked toward Edna as a heroine out of her time for her sexual awakening.
This does not mean that Chopin was a feminist. Chopin wrote objectively and distanced herself from feminist struggles. Felix Chopin stressed that she “was not interested in the woman’s suffrage movement” (Taylor 151). Anne Jones disagreed saying that Chopin “was fully conscious of the implicit contradictions between lady and artist and made the best of them, largely through irony” (Taylor 151).
Recently The Awakening has been compared to the great heroic novels in history. Lewis Leary describes Edna as “A valiant women, worthy of place beside other fictional heroines who have tested emancipation and failed-Hawthorne’s Hester Pynne, Flaubert’s Emma Borary, or Henry James’ Isabel Archer.” (Koloski 67).
Joyce Reddel Ladensen calls it “a powerful story of one women’s education as antagonist against Victorian marriage and the social and psychological straight jacket it can produce (Skaggs 6). Chopin was a writer who was not afraid to write about the world as it really was. Her writings do more than just tell a story. The reactions to her writing gives an impression of the way of life was when the critics read her stories. As the reactions changed through the decades, the morals of society and the society itself change.
Looking back on critics’ changing views, from outrage to admiration, it is easy to see how far this nation has come.