The lot of women in the 19th century wasn't a terribly impressive one -- many of them had been reduced to babymakers and inoffensive "property" for the men.
And Kate Chopin caused a massive scandal when she wrote about one woman who drifted from societal normal in "The Awakening," leading to a world of exploration, love, and ultimately tragedy. Her misty, vaguely dreamlike writing can pull a reader into the world of 1900s New Orleans and its society, but her heroine sometimes feels more like a vessel than a fully-realized person.
Edna Pontellier is the wife of successful New Orleans businessman Léonce, and mother of two lovely young boys. Yet she is dissatisfied by her life, and feels no connection to the other wives and mothers, who idolize their motherhood and subservience. And when she encounters handsome young Creole Robert Lebrun while on vacation, she begins to "awake" to the feelings she has left behind during her marriage.
Distancing herself from Leonce and her sons, Edna begins exploring art and emotions that have been denied her by the strictures of her society -- as well as an affair with the flirtatious Alcée Arobin. She even moves out into a cottage of her own, much to the horror of those who thought they knew her. Her romantic feelings have not moved on from Robert, but his return makes her realize how different she has become...
Kate Chopin's most famous work is often cited as a sort of proto-feminist work, with a woman rebelling against the male-dominated role she has been given. The fact that a story about a woman abandoning her husband and kids caused such a scandal only adds to that belief.
But that's a rather restricted label to give such a versatile author, and "Awakening" is a book with too many facets to be so restrained. In many ways Chopin resembles a Southern version of Edith Wharton, exploring the stultifying society that she once dwelled in, and the often-tragic consequences of people -- particularly women -- who dared to step outside those unforgiving boundaries.
Chopin's lush writing elevates this story even further, weaving an atmospheric, vaguely dreamlike web around everyday New Orleans. She makes readers feel the heat of a summer's day, the remote beauty of a party, the eerie majesty of an empty sea. And though "The Awakening" is infused by a feeling of languid dreaminess, Chopin creates a feeling of tension and inevitability that grows as the book goes on. It's almost a shock at the book's finale, when that tension releases in a quiet burst of poetic language.
And to her credit, Chopin is able to make her points about women and society without setting up straw-men. Such characters as "angel of the house" Adèle Ratignolle and the stuffy Leonce (who sees Edna as his personal property and expects her to obey) are examples of the usual society of the time, yet Leonce is a fully realized character who loves -- but can never understand -- his wife.
Perhaps the biggest problem is that Edna herself is at times rather thin as a character. While she has many conflicting desires, she sometimes seems like a mere vessel for all those desires to be displayed over time. But there are some scenes where she does seem like a fully realized person, such as when she meditates on her lack of housewifely virtues, is struck by wild mood swings around her sons, and befriends Mademoiselle Reisz.
"The Awakening" is more than just an early feminist novel -- it's an exquisitely written story about the roads that our own desires can take us down, and the tragedies that can come from it. A must-read, if nothing else for Kate Chopin's powerful writing.