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Although for several decades after her death Kate Chopin's work was largely ignored, it is now thought of as very much in the grand tradition of turn-of-the-century literary fiction, along with the work of Edith Wharton and Henry James.
When The Awakening was first published, many critics found a tormented heroine a distasteful subject for a ladies' novel. What is clear in retrospect is that many of the United States' greatest writers took seriously crises in the lives of American women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Awakening focuses on the terrible torment of women who "woke up" to their social situation, only to realize that their options were few and their imaginations not developed to the task of creating themselves anew. During this period of American history, women were not allowed to vote, had few property rights, and were generally not thought to be worth educating. Certainly, a woman of Edna Pontellier's class was not meant to work, to live alone, or to have ideas about class and female independence.
Chopin is often criticized for "killing off" her heroine: did Edna really have no other choice but to leave her children behind and to lose herself in her despair? But Chopin's point may have been that Edna, raised as she was and for so long living a life which was "expected" of her, had no way of reconciling what she saw with what she felt. Edna, as a representative woman of the era, portrays a social crisis: how far can one person unthinkingly live out the expectations of those around herself? If anything, The Awakening is an argument for women's education and independence, both of which were hot topics at the time of her writing.
The Awakening is also discussed as a story of sexual awakening. Edna desires passion, attraction, and excitement in her relationships with men, and a level of mutual understanding in her relationships with women. Neither of these desires for connection is met. Edna's desires, once she identifies them, overpower her. Robert, the object of her sexual passion, returns her passion but refuses to stay and face the fallout of their union. It is noteworthy that Alcée Arobin, who might be considered a passionate suitor, is only a poor imitation. Even Edna can see through his ridiculously exaggerated game-playing.
The Awakening is both haunting and poetic. Chopin's prose style is impeccable in its quiet stance of observation and understatement. Her dialogue is spare and to the point. At the very end, with Edna's suggested drowning, one feels the power of Chopin's sharp observation: "There was a hum of bees, and the musky odor of pinks filled the air."