Historical Interpretation of "The Awakening"

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Copyright Sarah Klein, 1998 Contact at sklein2@aol.com


Kate Chopin's 1899 novel The Awakening depicts a woman's struggle to find and to assert her essential "self" within the cultural constraints of late 19th century America. Chopin's protagonist experiences a new sense of independence, of individual freedom and expression, paralleled by her corresponding sense of conflict and despair. The novel chronicles Edna Pontellier's journey toward a new vision of female "self" at the turn-of-the-century and consequently explores, examines and challenges boundaries. In constructing her heroine's journey, Chopin enriches the text with the curious complexities of multiple literary traditions, each of which she both asserts and undercuts within the novel. Although the novel at times alternately embraces the traditions of realism, naturalism, and romanticism for example, Chopin's work also diminishes the tradition of each within the text. In doing so, Chopin refuses to exclusively and conclusively adopt one clear literary stance. This complexity lends itself to various critical interpretations of "what Chopin is trying to do" in the novel and opens the critical conversation to multiple avenues of exploration. Specific to my particular discussion is the way in which The Awakening embodies elements of Modernism, foreshadowing the major movement in literature that dominated the early 20th century. Indeed, Chopin's novel represents a pivotal literary construct, a vital expression of an evolving literary consciousness in turn-of-the-century America. The Awakening clearly reflects the early stirrings of a transition in literature that takes place full-force after 1900. At the same time, it is important to note that Chopin's approach excludes the text from a strictly Modernist interpretation, anticipating but not fully embracing the markings of this early 20th century movement. In the same way that Chopin undercuts the expectations of other traditions, she also eludes any exclusive Modernist interpretations of the novel. The successes and complexities of this novel include but exceed those recognized by contemporary feminists who seek to reclaim this piece of the American women's literary tradition, citing its protagonist's revolutionary response to the expectations of gender and period. Clearly, Chopin's text confronts the female experience of the late Victorian era, its double standards, its limitations and its possibilities. But the novel is built on an even richer canvas than has been recognized by most scholarship, representing not only an exploration of turn-of-the-century American womanhood but a gutsy moment at the crossroads of literary history -- and women's literary history, in particular. For feminist scholars, the text is especially rich because its female author explores and negotiates a fluid border of literary tradition -- examining and playing with, alternately embracing and backing away from, the Victorian literary foremothers' version of "domestic fiction" and the up-and-coming, largely male-dominated, Modernist movement. Chopin as an author, like Edna as a character, is a woman caught in the borderlands between the literary traditions assigned to her as a nineteenth century female writer and the mores of a new era. As a writer, Chopin grapples with the old models and looks for her possible place among the new. As a woman and a hopeful artist, Chopin's questions about her position in literary history are not unlike those more naively confronted by her protagonist: Should we discard the old models? Should we discard them in their entirety? And if so, how? If we discard the old models, what will replace them, and why? Will the new models work for us? Is there a place, a voice, for Woman, and Artist, and Woman-Artist, in this new territory? If we as women want to embrace a new...
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