Several contemporary reviews, one by the important novelist, Willa Cather, give a flavour of the critical reception afforded to Kate Chopin's The Awakening on its publication in 1899. Her art-structure, style, language, imagery-as well as her proficiency as a writer of local colour receives applause, but her subject is condemned. There is a uniformity of tone and substance in contemporary reactions to Chopin's novel; as one reviewer puts it, 'It is sad and mad and bad, but it is all consummate art' (p. 57). So, because the novel was regarded as controversial and shocking on publication, it did not receive very wide distribution or dissemination. However, as Emily Toth, Chopin's most recent biographer, has proved, the novel was not, despite popular mythology, banned, nor was it withdrawn from circulation (Toth, pp. 422-5). Nevertheless, its boldness of subject and design earned it few supporters, the absence of an arbitrating, moralising voice within the narrative compounding, for many readers, the depravity of the plot. There is, therefore, a relative absence of critical attention paid to Chopin's work in the first fifty years of the twentieth century, although there are exceptions to this rule.
Chopin's first biographer, Father Daniel S. Rankin, published his Kate Chopin and her Creole Stories in 1932; in this study he paid scant attention to the novel, concentrating instead on her work as a regionalist in her short stories. An important readership for Chopin's work outside the United States, however, was established in 1953 when Cyrille Arnavon translated The Awakening into French; this was published together with an appreciation of the writer. Chopin found a sympathetic audience in France as her own work is discernibly influenced by French writers, and most particularly, in the case of her short stories, by Guy de Maupassant. The Awakening itself is often compared to Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert and, indeed, is often called the 'American Bovary'. This was a comparison made from the very beginning and Willa Cather, in her review of the novel, uses the relationship between the texts to demonstrate that Chopin was both morally and artistically wrong to choose what Cather calls 'so trite and sordid a theme' and that she is but a pale imitation of Flaubert. The contemporary theorist, Stephen Heath, however, writing in 1994, sees Chopin as producing a much more sophisticated rendition of Madame Bovary in The Awakening; the contrast between their analyses of the text provides the most straightforward