A CENTURY AFTER the novel first appeared, teachers of The Awakening often ask their students to summarize the plot -- and no two ever come up with the same story. Kate Chopin's 1899 novel is complex and subtle, and readers can argue endlessly about which scenes and features and characters are most important. They also wonder about the ending: is it positive? is it negative? is it over? ( Novelist Jill McCorkle has suggested that Edna is still out there swimming, bent on finding a good time to come back.) Many modern readers wonder whether they are supposed to like Edna, understand her, or loathe everything about her.
Most of Kate Chopin's original critics had little trouble with any of those questions.
According to the majority of 1899 reviews, The Awakening's Edna Pontellier is a selfish wife and mother who not only does not appreciate her good husband, but she also rebels in the worst possible way -- by taking a lover or two. She is not sympathetic; she is wicked, foolish, or both. As for the ending, the journal Literature expressed the common view of 1899: "the waters of the gulf close appropriately over one who has drifted from all right moorings, and has not the grace to repent."
That was not the way Kate Chopin saw her novel. Asked to describe it, she might have said something about the imagery -- the birds, the water -- and about the settings: the natural wonders of Grand Isle, the urban bustle of New Orleans. But as to what happens, Kate Chopin's own plot summary might go something like this:
The central character, Edna Pontellier, is a Kentucky Presbyterian and an outsider to Louisiana and Creole culture. Twenty-eight years old, she is married to a forty-year-old New Orleans businessman who