The novel of adultery could, perhaps, be traced back to the “courtly love” tradition of the European Middle Ages, but Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856), and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1870s) established the 19th century tradition. The Awakening, however, is the only one that was effectively removed from public circulation because of its negative reviews as an immoral book, perhaps because it is more open in its depiction of a female character who enjoys sex or perhaps because it was written by a woman or both.
Hawthorne’s novel begins after the fact and focuses on Hester Prynne’s transformation from “sinner” to “saint,” but like Flaubert’s and Tolstoy’s heroines, Edna Pontellier in The Awakening commits suicide in the end.
It might have been possible to read Chopin’s novel as a cautionary tale, relating the sad fate of a sinful woman, but no one did, again perhaps because Edna’s sensuality is too openly represented. Though the price of pleasure is suicide, she indeed seems to experience pleasure in her forbidden affair and admits to herself that she would, no doubt, seek out more such affairs once the current one ends.
It didn’t seem to matter to reviewers at the time that a primary motive for the suicide is concern for her children. Edna seems to foresee how her transgressions would harm her children. Neither Chopin nor the reviewers lived in a time when the harmful effects of a parent’s suicide on the children were well understood.
Since the second wave of feminism in the 1960s and 70s Chopin’s novel has been received as a feminist classic, portraying a heroine who defies the restrictive Victorian conventions of the 19th century and pursues her own emancipation, not only from an unhappy marriage, but from an oppressive society.
Perhaps the conflicting attitudes toward the book rest on the same textual characteristic, namely that Edna is largely presented sympathetically and the reader is invited to identify with her. The strict sexual moralists of the 19th century were, no doubt, more shocked by the sympathetic portrayal of an adulteress than they were mollified by her suicide at the end. Feminists of the 20th century, however, did identify with Edna’s oppression and her quest for emancipation. For them, her suicide merely underscors the injustice of a society in which a liberated woman cannot survive.
From a more universal perspective, the novel could also be viewed in conflicting ways: either as a cautionary tale of crime and punishment or as a tragic quest for freedom and fulfillment. The key seems to be whether readers identify with Edna as a sympathetic heroine or whether they view her as a selfish narcissist, who is a dangerous threat to marriage, motherhood, and social stability.
Who is the enemy: the repressive society or the rebellious individual seeking liberation?
One is tempted to dismiss the conflict as an anachronism in the 21st century. Surely most readers today would be most likely to view Edna as a victim of sexist oppression who struggles heroically against social injustice. But consider the debate that can still get quite heated over stay-at-home moms vs. working moms who put their children in day care. While contemporary readers may be more willing to forgive Edna’s adultery, they may not be so willing to forgive her neglect of her children.
The conflict between motherhood and women’s emancipation may be as universal as any story of crime and punishment or tragic quest.