The Awakening is a touchstone in feminist literature. Chopin was a fantastic writer who was shocked at the reception of this novel, so much so that she stopped publishing. It is the novel of a woman who questions traditional gender rules and commits herself to doing as she likes.
When it was published in 1899, such an idea was appalling to the general public. The Awakening was pulled from the presses and it was banned until after Chopin's death. She was devastated.
Edna is a gentlewoman of twenty-eight years, married with two children. As is custom, she spends her summers at a lovely resort, socializing with other gentlewomen. It is at the resort that she meets Robert, a handsome, doting young man who spends every waking moment catering to Edna's every desire. Edna takes his admiration for granted, thinking nothing of his puppy love. It takes nearly the entire story for Edna to admit to herself that she returns Robert's love--which is socially unacceptable considering her marriage.
This novel has long stood as a standard for the women's movement. Edna is an example of the overly pampered housewife who grows bored with her situation and begins to question her role in life. She takes baby steps towards her liberation; small, seemingly insignificant thought processes that turn Edna into a woman shirking her traditional role and expectations.
I had a really hard time with this novel. There were so many problems with this story. For one thing, I had to overcome the archaic language that includes words like "darkies" and "quadroon". I had to overcome my personal beliefs about the ridiculousness of a housewife requiring the assistance of a nanny (what does a woman do who doesn't work, doesn't clean house, nor does she care for her children?). I then had to overcome the outdated traditions of "calling hours" and making excuses for not being available for said visiting hours. All those things aside, the novel could conceivably take place today. Here is a woman who has bought into the role of wife and mother, who has replaced her own identity with that of wife and mother, who becomes frustrated and begins to question those roles.
I am personally a proponent of questioning societal norms, and I firmly believe that marriage does NOT make a woman the property of her husband. Unfortunately, because of the era, this novel moves slowly and negates much of the process of self discovery through excuses from the husband. Rather than feeling like a cheerleader for Edna, I felt aggravated, anxious for her to stand up and take her life into her own hands with some real Umph!