Kate Chopin’s novel has been called a scandalous masterpiece. It shocked readers when it was published in 1899, but today it is recognized as an American classic. Born into a wealthy family in St. Louis, Chopin moved to Louisiana when she married at age 20; like many of her other works, The Awakening portrays the Creole elite of Natchitoches parish. In the novel, “Creole” refers to people descended from French and Spanish colonists who settled in Louisiana before it became part of the United States. While Creole people could be white, mixed-race, or black, Creole society maintained a racial hierarchy that privileged light skin. Several of Chopin’s works criticize this hierarchy, yet The Awakening largely leaves it unexamined.
To depict Creole culture, Chopin drew inspiration from both American regionalist writers such as Sarah Orne Jewett and French naturalist writers, including Guy de Maupassant. Her writing combines features from both styles, blending regionalism’s attention to the features that distinguish American people and places with the objective point of view and occasional pessimism found in naturalism.
The Awakening explores the experience of Edna Pontellier, who chafes against expectations of women in Creole society. Edna’s search for an identity beyond marriage and motherhood creates conflict with her husband Léonce, who does not understand her need for independence; this conflict contributes to her affairs with other men. Two other characters, Adèle Ratignolle and Mademoiselle Reisz, serve as foils to Edna. Ratignolle is an example of the idealized Creole woman, living a life completely devoted to a husband and children, while Reisz is single and lives on the margins of society. Together these two reflect the limited options available to women. Dissatisfied and wanting something else, Edna commits suicide to escape these constraints. In spite of its tragic ending, The Awakening is a remarkable portrait of female rebellion. In it, Chopin challenges gender inequalities and questions the social norms that restrict what women like Edna can do and be.