Kate Chopin's The Awakening: A Sourcebook

By Janet Beer; Elizabeth Nolan | Go to book overview

Contextual Overview

Kate Chopin's The Awakening appeared at a particularly multiform moment in American literary history but has, as its setting, a distinct culture and locale amongst the French-Creoles of Louisiana. The following section contains documents, contemporary with the novel, which will give a historical, cultural and social context, enabling the modern reader to appreciate fully the exceptional qualities of the artist and her work in its time. The selection of material will give a sense of the prevailing ideologies, social mores and expectations-particularly those relating to the role of women in late nineteenth-century America, as well as a picture of the society into which the text was received and which roundly condemned it as immoral. The contemporary material substantiates the context in which the multiple transgressions of the heroine were received by the novel's readership, some of the reasons for its chequered publication history and the extent to which this text can be said to be ahead of its time, the latter evidenced by its appeal to a modern audience.

The Awakening was published in 1899, on the eve of a new century, and into a period of social adjustment which would see women's roles change remarkably. As mass immigration, urbanisation and industrialisation radically altered the social map of America, women, angered by their exclusion from much opportunity in this vibrant, progressive nation, stepped up their efforts to win full and equal citizenship. In 1890 the two main suffrage organisations joined forces, gaining momentum in their final push for the vote. In the year before Chopin's text appeared, social reformer and activist, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, one of the many voices raised in protest, published her treatise, Women and Economics, in which she addressed the inequalities between the sexes which resulted from women's financial dependence on men. This was the era of the 'New Woman': she rejected traditional stereotypes of woman as delicate, passive and domestic; she demanded, and began to move towards obtaining, education, careers, dress reform and suffrage. As is true of any period of significant social change, however, there was, at this time, an accompanying measure of resistance, tension and anxiety.

Such a mood of uncertainty makes itself evident in a variety of sources, from the gentle lampooning of the 'New Woman' figure in satirical magazines of the

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