Chopin's Awakening

April 22: Kate Chopin's The Awakening was published on this day in 1899. Chopin scholar and biographer Emily Toth says that Chopin "anticipated so much: daytime dramas, women's pictures, The Feminine Mystique, open marriages, women's liberation, talk shows, Mars vs. Venus, self-help and consciousness raising." The early reviewers could not have foretold all this, but they were certainly outraged at the attempt of Chopin's heroine, Edna, to look beyond the traditional wife-mother roles. Spending a seaside summer away from her husband, and often with another man, Edna's break-free moment comes when she takes the plunge for a swim alone:

She could have shouted for joy. She did shout for joy, as with a sweeping stroke or two she lifted her body to the surface of the water. A feeling of exultation overtook her, as if some power of significant import had been given her to control the working of her body and her soul. She grew daring and reckless, overestimating her strength. She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before.

Kate Chopin died just five years after the publication of The Awakening—long before the controversy had settled regarding its feminist theme, or the novel had much of a following. Her husband had died when she was in her early thirties, leaving her with six children (born over nine years); in "The Story of an Hour," something of a precursor to her famous novel, the wife learns that her husband has died and that she feels unexpectedly about it:

There was something coming to her and she was waiting for it, fearfully. What was it? She did not know; it was too subtle and elusive to name. But she felt it, creeping out of the sky, reaching toward her through the sounds, the scents, the color that filled the air.

Now her bosom rose and fell tumultuously. She was beginning to recognize this thing that was approaching to possess her, and she was striving to beat it back with her will—as powerless as her two white slender hands would have been.

When she abandoned herself a little whispered word escaped her slightly parted lips. She said it over and over under her breath: "free, free, free!"

When it is discovered that the husband has in fact not been killed, the wife dies suddenly—"of joy that kills," the men in the story figure.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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