With a Little Help from Her Friends
Today, we want to highlight a book close to the heart of St. Louis: The Awakening, by St. Louis–born author Kate Chopin. The book, published in 1899, was Chopin’s most famous and controversial work—it was banned for decades. Today it’s recognized as an important example of early feminist writing, but at the time it was published it was widely criticized for being too sexual, shocking, and indecent.
The Awakening tells the story of married Edna Pontellier, who starts to feel dissatisfied with her life as she falls in love with Robert Lebrun while vacationing with her family at Grand Isle, Alabama. Robert soon leaves for business in Mexico, and Edna soon realizes she can no longer be content with her life. After returning to New Orleans, Edna leaves her family and begins an affair with local rake Alcee Arobin. Later, Robert arrives in New Orleans, confesses his love for Edna, and reveals that he left for Mexico originally because he was unwilling to pursue a doomed relationship with her. When he leaves Edna again, she returns to Grand Isle and swims out into the Gulf of Mexico until she can swim no more. The story of Edna Pontellier is that of a woman confined by the conventions of her time.
The novel was too bold for contemporary critics. Author Willa Cather wrote in the Pittsburgh Leader that she didn’t understand why Chopin would waste “so exquisite and sensitive . . . a style on so trite and sordid a theme.” The St. Louis Republic called the book “too strong drink for moral babes and should be labeled ‘poison,’" and the Public Opinion expressed satisfaction about Edna’s suicide in the end.
Yet there was also praise amidst the controversy. Several of Chopin’s friends wrote her letters raving about her book, which must have taken away some of the sting from the negative reviews. One friend, attorney Lewis B. Ely, wrote to Chopin on April 28, 1899, stating, “I have just finished the last chapter of ‘The Awakening’ & I can thank you for the pleasure the story has given me. I think it is the most delicate, artistic. I call it a moral tale rather than an immoral one but I think the moral is a deep one. The book is a sermon against un-naturalness and Edna’s marriage as I understand it. I think there is very little in it to offend anybody. Wish you lots of good luck with it.”
Ely later expressed outrage and solidarity with Chopin about a negative review she received in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, which he helpfully (or not?) sent to her on May 13, 1899: “What in the name of Jupiter did you do when you read the review of the Awakening in this AM’s Globe — For fear you have not yet seen it I enclose it. I have just read it coming down on the car. Provide yourself with Ammonia salts, brandy etc before you start to read it — you have had or will have hysterics I’m sure. I didn’t know there was such a fool in the world as the writer of that article; he drivels and drools along on the page just as though words were solely intended for idiot’s languages to splash in like a frolicsome infant in the soap suds. The column reads like some mental cow had kicked over a bucket of type.”
Another friend, R. E. Lee Gibson wrote to Chopin on April 28, 1899, about his own experience with her novel: “Never before has a story affected me so profoundly. . . . I read at intervals with increasing interest and enjoyment until I reached the XXI chapter, and at that point my interest became totally engaged; I got so completely engrossed, so absorbed that I could not put the book by until I had finished it. It is exceedingly clever, artistic, satisfying. It is a fine story strong and stirring and full of interest throughout. I congratulate you with all my heart upon the splendid ability which you have shown in the story. . . . Truly in gifted hands like yours the pen is mightier than the sword.”
Finally, Chopin’s friend Anna L. Moss criticized the lack of reviewers’ understanding of The Awakening in a letter dated June 25, 1899. She ended with admiration for the character of Edna Pontellier by writing, “I wish you believed that the Ednas will somewhere, somewhen, somehow grow into a spiritual harmony to which the splendor of their frailty will contribute beauty — that the freedom and liberty — into which your heroine went with the exultation of irrepressible life . . . must contribute to a result grand in the whole, as the factors she brings are strong and compelling.”
Kate Chopin never wrote another novel, a result of either criticism she received for The Awakening or her early death in 1904. The Awakening was out of print by 1906, and there was very little scholarship on Chopin’s writings until the 1960s. Now her work is widely read in high school and university courses—although some schools and libraries continue to challenge The Awakening.
—Jaime Bourassa, Associate Archivist, Digitization