Published in 1899, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening tells the story of Edna Pontellier, an upper-class woman living in Louisiana in the 1890s. In the novel, Edna challenges the prevailing moral codes of the late-19th century south as she transforms from a conventional mother into an independent woman who finds purpose outside of the home. Chopin’s own life experiences likely inspired The Awakening. Born in St. Louis on February 8, 1850, she lived in the city through the Civil War. Chopin moved to Louisiana where she faced strict social expectations as both a wife and a mother of five in the late 1800s. Widowed by 32, she remained unmarried and returned to her hometown, where she wrote two novels and around 100 short stories. Much like Edna’s character, Chopin’s life and career challenged gender norms at the turn of the twentieth century.
Although Chopin’s short stories and first novel were well-received, The Awakening garnered mixed reactions. Critics condemned the book for being too sexual, improper, and not ascribing to societal expectations of womanhood. The letters included here show support from Chopin’s friends revealing an opposing opinion of the prose. One friend wrote, “Never before has a story affected me so profoundly… Truly in gifted hands like yours, the pen is mightier than the sword.” For all its controversy, the novel remains a powerful example of Missouri’s literary tradition. Kate Chopin’s The Awakening stands among the works of other Missouri-born authors like Mark Twain, Langston Hughes, T.S. Elliot, and Maya Angelou.
Creator: Kate Chopin
Subject: Chopin, Kate, 1850-1904
Contributing Institution: Missouri Historical Society
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Region: St. Louis Metro
Type: Book and Documents