this is a summary of the main points of a critical essay on The Awakening, and my responses to them.
A Forgotten Novel by Kenneth Eble, p. 188
The Great Awakening is a “first rate novel… advanced in theme and technique over the other novels if its day” and is recommended though its “general excellence” (188).
According to Eble, “characterization was always Mrs. Chopin’s talent” (189). The Great Awakening, then, “portrays the mind of a woman trapped in marriage and seeking fulfillment of what she vaguely recognizes as her essential nature” (188). The novel, essentially, is good because of the characterization of Edna as an independent heroine and the focus of the novel on her.
Response: This is a good novel, but not what many would call “first rate,” primarily because of the characterization of Edna. Edna is characterized as strong willed and independent, but her struggle to ‘find herself’ should not make her be seen as a heroine: she says herself, “I want nothing but my own way” (105), and getting her own way was more important to her than the well being of her family, specifically, her children. How is a mother willing to give up the well being of her children for her own desires a hero?
Edna is not, as some claim, selfish; but rather, her awakening is one to a self awareness that no one around her can understand, and an awakening that gives her a sense of dignity and significance, and that is what makes the novel great.
Eble asserts that Edna could be seen as a sort of tragic heroine struggling with inner passions that she has previously not been aware of because they have been suppressed as a result of her upbringing and marriage. She has, according to Eble, overcome her “Kentucky Presbyterian upbringing and a comfortable marriage” (192) to become independent.
Response: Actually, Edna is selfish. She does not want to be seen as the possession of a man. Her awakening is not only the realization of her desire to be independent, it is also the realization that she will go to great lengths to achieve her goal. These include forgetting her duties at home, putting herself before her children, moving out of her husband’s house, and engaging in her affair with Robert. When she comes home to find Robert has left her, she ultimately decides to kill herself. Instead of realizing that she has put her family life in danger because she was in love with another man, she decides that because she cannot have him, she cannot live.
Eble argues that, “quite frankly, the book is about sex… from first to last”
The sensual quality of the book offended contemporary audiences. Eble also asserts that critics were not only offended because the book was “indecent” because of “the sensuous scenes, but rather that the author obviously sympathized with Mrs. Pontellier” (191).
Response: The book is not about sex. Edna’s story is about love, and lack thereof. Her story is one about a marriage in which she did not love her partner, a duty to children who she loved less than herself, and the one man who she really loved but was unable to be with. Edna’s great awakening was one in which she finally found herself able to love, and with that love, something to live for.