CLOSE
L Eaton, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
L Eaton, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

15 Facts About Kate Chopin's The Awakening

L Eaton, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
L Eaton, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Kate Chopin's groundbreaking novel The Awakening is revered for its realism and regularly included in academic reading lists. Set in the late 19th century, its story follows Edna Pontellier, a wife and mother whose flirtation with a young bachelor leads her to desire more from life. This premise elicited widespread scorn when the book was published in 1899—and its author never could have predicted its rocky road to critical acclaim.

1. THE AWAKENING WAS CHOPIN'S SECOND NOVEL.

Her first novel At Fault, privately published in 1890, centered on a Creole widow named Thérèse Lafirme, who unexpectedly finds love with a dashing divorcé. From there, Chopin began writing for well-known magazines, and published more than 100 short stories and essays in Atlantic Monthly, Vogue, The Century Magazine, and The Youth's Companion. Her next two books, both short story collections, were Bayou Folk (published in 1894) and A Night in Acadie (1897). The Awakening, her second novel, was published on April 22, 1899.

2. CHOPIN WAS INSPIRED BY THE WRITING OF GUY DE MAUPASSANT.

The French short story writer is known for his masterpieces of realism. One of his most famous stories, "Boule de Suif," follows the journey of a prostitute during the Franco-Prussian War. Of Maupassant's influence on her work, Chopin said:

"I read his stories and marveled at them. Here was life, not fiction; for where were the plots, the old-fashioned mechanism and stage-trapping that in a vague, unthinkable way I had fancied were essential to the art of story-making. Here was a man who had escaped from tradition and authority, who had entered into himself and looked out upon life through his own being and with his own eyes, and who, in a direct and simple way, told us what he saw."

3. CHOPIN SET MANY OF HER STORIES IN LOUISIANA, INCLUDING THE AWAKENING.

She set At Fault and portions of The Awakening in New Orleans, where Chopin spent many years as a young wife and mother. Chopin reflected the Creole heritage of the area in her characters. Many of her short stories were set in the central Louisiana town of Natchitoches, where she later resided.

4. THE AWAKENING IS CONSIDERED ONE OF THE FIRST FEMINIST WORKS IN AMERICAN LITERATURE.

Chopin's novel arrived during the feminist movement's first wave, when women fought for the right to vote and for increased autonomy. The Awakening's heroine, Edna Pontellier, challenged society's expectations for women by daring to explore romance outside her marriage and gratification outside of motherhood.

5. CHOPIN STRUGGLED AFTER THE DEATH OF HER HUSBAND.

When The Awakening was published, she was a 49-year-old widow who had raised six children. Her husband, Oscar Chopin, had died of malaria in 1882, when Kate was 32. According to biographer Emily Toth, "For a while, the widow Kate ran his business and flirted outrageously with local men." Two years later, she sold the business (a general store and plantation) and moved to St. Louis to be closer to her mother. There, Chopin's obstetrician and family friend, Dr. Frederick Kolbenheyer, suggested writing might pull her out of a growing depression. She found a new passion and purpose.

6. CHOPIN BECAME A RESPECTED WRITER OF REGIONAL STORIES.

Kate Chopin House, Nachitoches, Louisiana
The Kate Chopin House in Nachitoches Parish, Louisiana, circa 1933. The house burned down in 2008.
Library of Congress // Public Domain

Ahead of The Awakening's debut, Chopin was at the height of her popularity. Critics praised both of her short story collections, and heralded A Night in Acadie as "a string of little jewels." She was celebrated for her observations and ability to capture "local color." Posthumously, her works would continue to be revered as grand examples of American realism at the turn of the century. This literary movement depicted the everyday lives of ordinary, contemporary people with keen and humane observations.

7. THE AWAKENING EARNED NEGATIVE REVIEWS ...

Chopin's story of self-discovery and suicide boldly challenged the gender roles of Victorian society. Critics denounced the novel as "morbid," "feeble," and "vulgar." "Miss Kate Chopin is another clever woman, but she has put her cleverness to a very bad use in writing The Awakening," sniffed an anonymous reviewer in the Providence Sunday Journal. "The purport of the story can hardly be described in language fit for publication. We are fain to believe that Miss Chopin did not herself realize what she was doing when she wrote it."

The Los Angeles Sunday Times scolded, "It is rather difficult to decide whether Mrs. Kate Chopin, the author of The Awakening, tried in that novel merely to make an intimate, analytical study of the character of a selfish, capricious woman, or whether she wanted to preach the doctrine of the right of the individual to have what he wants, no matter whether or not it may be good for him."

Perhaps harshest of all was Public Opinion's review, which celebrated Edna's eventual drowning. "If the author had secured our sympathy for this unpleasant person it would not have been a small victory, but we are well satisfied when Mrs. Pontellier deliberately swims out to her death in the waters of the gulf," the critic wrote.

8. ... BUT EVEN CRITICS WHO WERE UNNERVED BY CHOPIN'S PLOT PRAISED HER CRAFT.

Frances Porcher, reviewing for The Mirror, lamented that Chopin's novel ultimately left her feeling "sick of human nature," but wrote, "there is no fault to find with the telling of the story; there are no blemishes in its art."

L. Deyo of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch acknowledged The Awakening's subversive elements, but argued that its artistry superseded its shock value. "The theme is difficult, but it is handled with a cunning craft," Deyo wrote. "The work is more than unusual. It is unique. The integrity of its art is that of well-knit individuality at one with itself, with nothing superfluous to weaken the impression of a perfect whole."

9. THE OUTCRY WOUNDED CHOPIN—AND HER CAREER.

Despite all the praise her short stories had earned, the critical response to The Awakening crushed Chopin's spirits. The St. Louis Fine Arts Club, which she sought to join, barred her admission because of the scandal. She wrote more short stories but struggled to find publishers. Toth argues that Chopin's challenge to society's patriarchal status quo in The Awakening "went too far: Edna's sensuality was too much for the male gatekeepers."

10. THE AWAKENING WAS CHOPIN'S LAST NOVEL.

Five years after its publication, the St. Louis-born author died after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage while she was visiting the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair.

11. FOR DECADES, IT SEEMED THAT THE AWAKENING WOULD BE FORGOTTEN.

Following her death, critics and readers remembered her most often for her short stories. Her legacy remained that of a "local colorist"; the regional elements of her short stories were valued more highly than The Awakening's theme of female empowerment.

12. APPRECIATION FOR THE AWAKENING GREW IN THE MID-20TH CENTURY.

By the early 1960s, second-wave feminism was changing the way Americans viewed women and society at large. In 1969, Per Seyersted, a scholar of American literature, secured Chopin's literary legacy by publishing the first edition of her collected works. He also wrote Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography. The former allowed generations of readers to discover her writing, while the latter reconsidered The Awakening, and celebrated "its courageous realism." Both books kicked off a reevaluation of Chopin and her once-notorious novel.

13. THE AWAKENING HAS BEEN BANNED—BUT ONLY ONCE.

Though book jackets like to claim that it's been banned, historians have found of only one verified instance when The Awakening was pulled from library shelves. A popular story claims that a library in Chopin's hometown of St. Louis removed the novel. But in all her research, Toth could not verify this. However, The New York Times reported The Awakening was banned from a public library in Evanston, Illinois in 1902. And its placement was challenged at Georgia's Oconee County Library in 2010. That incident wasn't related to the controversial content of the novel, but to its cover showing a painting of a semi-nude woman, which upset a library patron.

14. THE AWAKENING IS CONSIDERED A CLASSIC.

Contemporary critics and academics recognize that Chopin was ahead of her time by almost 100 years. In Awakenings: The Story of the Kate Chopin Revival, editor and Chopin authority Bernard Koloski summarized the incredible journey of The Awakening's rise to the American literature canon:

"No other American book was so maligned, neglected for so long, and then embraced so quickly and with such enthusiasm as Kate Chopin's 1899 novel The Awakening. And none has been so thoroughly redeemed as The Awakening. Thought vulgar, morbid, and disturbing in Chopin's time, it has for the past quarter of a century been seen as sensitive, passionate, and inspiring. Forgotten for two generations, it is today known by countless people in dozens of countries, and Kate Chopin has become among the most widely read of classic American authors."

15. BECAUSE OF THE AWAKENING, CHOPIN'S WORK CAN BE READ AROUND THE WORLD.

Her writings have been translated into many other languages, including, according to the Kate Chopin International Society, "Albanian, Arabic, Chinese, Czech, Danish, Dutch, French, Galician, German, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Malayalam, Polish, Portuguese, Serbian, Spanish, Swedish, Turkish, and Vietnamese."

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Bronte: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock
arrow
literature
10 Facts About Charlotte Brontë
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Bronte: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Bronte: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock

Charlotte Brontë was born in England to an Irish father and Cornish mother on April 21, 1816. And though much of her life was marked by tragedy, she wrote novels and poems that found great success in her lifetime and are still popular nearly 200 years later. But there’s a lot more to Brontë than Jane Eyre.

1. BRONTË WAS JUST 5 YEARS OLD WHEN SHE LOST HER MOTHER.

Maria Branwell Brontë was 38 when she died in 1821 of ovarian cancer (or, it's been suggested, of a post-natal infection), leaving her husband, Patrick Brontë, and their six young children behind. In the years after Maria died, Patrick sent four of his daughters, including Charlotte, to a boarding school for the daughters of clergy members. Brontë later used her bad experiences at this school—it was a harsh, abusive environment—as inspiration for Lowood Institution in Jane Eyre. As an adult, Bronte mentioned her mother (who was also fond of writing) in a letter, saying: "I wish she had lived and that I had known her."

2. BRONTË HAD BEEN WRITING POETRY AND STORIES SINCE HER YOUTH.

Though one of her boarding school report cards described her abilities as "altogether clever for her age, but knows nothing systematically," Brontë was a voracious reader during her childhood and teen years, and she wrote stories and staged plays at home with her siblings. With her brother Branwell, especially, she wrote manuscripts, plays, and stories, drawing on literature, magazines, and the Bible for inspiration. For fun, they created magazines that contained everything a real magazine would have—from the essays, letters, and poems to the ads and notes from the editor.

3. SHE WORKED AS A TEACHER AND GOVERNESS BUT DISLIKED IT.

portrait of Charlotte Bronte
Charlotte Bronte circa 1840.
Portrait by Thompson. Photo by Rischgitz, Getty Images.

In her late teens and early twenties, Brontë worked on and off as a teacher and governess. In between writing, she taught at a schoolhouse but didn't like the long hours. She also didn't love working as a governess in a family home. Once, in a letter to a friend, she wrote, "I will only ask you to imagine the miseries of a reserved wretch like me, thrown at once into the midst of a large family … having the charge given me of a set of pampered, spoilt, and turbulent children, whom I was expected constantly to amuse as well as instruct." She quickly realized she wasn't a good fit for these caretaking jobs, but she later used her early work experiences as inspiration for passages in Jane Eyre.

4. BRONTË DEALT WITH A LOT OF LITERARY REJECTION.

When she was 20 years old, Brontë sent the English Poet Laureate Robert Southey some of her best poems. He wrote back in 1837, telling her that she obviously had a good deal of talent and a gift with words but that she should give up writing. "Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life, and it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure will she have for it, even as an accomplishment and a recreation. To those duties you have not yet been called, and when you are you will be less eager for celebrity. You will not seek in imagination for excitement," Southey responded to her. The Professor, Brontë’s first novel, was rejected nine times before it was finally published after her death.

5. SHE USED THE MALE PSEUDONYM CURRER BELL.

English writers Anne, Emily and Charlotte Bronte.
English writers Anne, Emily, and Charlotte Bronte circa 1834, as painted by their brother.
Painting by Patrick Branwell Bronte. Photo by Rischgitz, Getty Images.

In 1846, Brontë paid to publish a book of poetry containing poems she and her sisters Emily and Anne had written. The three sisters used male pseudonyms—Charlotte was Currer Bell, Emily was Ellis Bell, and Anne was Acton Bell. (The book sold two copies.) Brontë also used the Currer Bell pseudonym when she published Jane Eyre—her publishers didn't know Bell was really a woman until 1848, a year after the book was published!

6. JANE EYRE WAS AN INSTANT SUCCESS.

The first page of the manuscript 'Jane Eyre.'
The first page of the manuscript 'Jane Eyre.'
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

In 1847, British publishing firm Smith, Elder & Co published Jane Eyre: An Autobiography. From the start, the book was a success—one critic called it "the best novel of the season"—and people began to speculate about who Currer Bell was. But some reviewers were less impressed, criticizing it for being coarse in content, including one who called it "anti-Christian." Brontë was writing in the Victorian period, after all.

7. BRONTË WAS LUCKY TO AVOID TUBERCULOSIS …

Tuberculosis prematurely killed at least four of Brontë's five siblings, starting with her two oldest sisters, Maria and Elizabeth (who weren't even teenagers yet), in 1825. In 1848, Brontë’s only brother, Branwell, died of chronic bronchitis, officially, though tuberculosis has also been a rumored cause, probably aggravated by alcohol and opium. Her sister Emily came down with a severe illness during Branwell's funeral and died of tuberculosis three months later. Then, five months later in May 1849, Charlotte’s final surviving sibling, Anne, also died of tuberculosis after a lengthy battle.

8. … BUT SHE DIED AT 38 YEARS OLD—WHILE PREGNANT.

In June 1854, Brontë married a clergyman named Arthur Bell Nicholls and got pregnant almost immediately. Her pregnancy was far from smooth sailing though—she had acute bouts of nausea and vomiting, leading to her becoming severely dehydrated and malnourished. She and her unborn child died on March 31, 1855. Although we don’t know for sure what killed her, theories include hyperemesis gravidarum, based on her symptoms, or possibly typhus. Her father, Patrick Brontë, survived his wife and all six children.

9. ZEALOUS BRONTË FANS TRAVEL TO HER HOME IN ENGLAND.

Charlotte Brontë's writing desk in Haworth.
Charlotte Brontë's writing desk in Haworth.
Christopher Furlong, Getty Images

Emily and Anne Brontë wrote famous books, too—Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, respectively. The Brontë sisters's writing has inspired devoted fans from around the world to visit their home in Haworth, West Yorkshire, England. The Brontë Society’s Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth has a collection of early manuscripts and letters, and the museum invites bookworms to see where the Brontë family lived and wrote, and walk the Yorkshire moors that inspired many of the scenes each sister depicted.

10. SHE HELPED MAKE THE NAME 'SHIRLEY' MORE POPULAR FOR GIRLS.

Thanks to Brontë, the name Shirley is now considered more of a girl's name than a boy's one. In 1849, Brontë's second novel, Shirley, about an independent heiress named Shirley Keeldar, was released. Before then, the name Shirley was unusual, but was most commonly used for boys. (In the novel, the title character was named as such because her parents had wanted a boy.) But after 1849, the name Shirley reportedly started to become popular for women. Decades later in the 1930s, child star Shirley Temple's fame catapulted the name into more popular use.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Denis De Marney, Getty Images
arrow
literature
From A Game Of Thrones to War and Peace: These are America's 100 Favorite Books
Denis De Marney, Getty Images
Denis De Marney, Getty Images

Die-hard classic literature lovers might quibble over Fifty Shades of Grey being placed on the same list as Jane Eyre, but alas, the people have spoken. Both are among America’s 100 favorite novels, according to a national survey conducted by YouGov.

The list was compiled in support of The Great American Read, an upcoming PBS series about the joys of reading. Set to premiere on May 22, the eight-part series will introduce the "100 best-loved novels" and feature interviews with famous authors, comedians, actors, athletes, and more. A few of the featured guests will include George Lopez, Seth Meyers, Venus Williams, and James Patterson. Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, A Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin, and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao author Junot Díaz, all of whom have books on the list, will also make appearances.

On the day of the series premiere, PBS will launch a round of voting to determine "America’s Best-Loved Novel." Viewers across the country will have the chance to choose their favorite book from the list of 100 and place their vote online, or through Facebook or Twitter using the #GreatReadPBS hashtag. The winner will be announced this fall.

The oldest book on the list is Don Quixote, a classic Spanish novel by Miguel de Cervantes (1603), while the newest is Ghost (2016), a young adult book by Jason Reynolds. The list includes authors from 15 different countries, and the books span several genres. Many of the novels are staples on high school summer reading lists, including 1984, The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Scroll down for the full list of America's favorite books, arranged in alphabetical order.

1984
A Confederacy of Dunces
A Game of Thrones
A Prayer for Owen Meany
A Separate Peace
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
The Alchemist
Alex Cross Mysteries (series)
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Americanah
And Then There Were None
Anne of Green Gables
Another Country
Atlas Shrugged
Beloved
Bless Me, Ultima
The Book Thief
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
The Call of the Wild
Catch-22
The Catcher in the Rye
Charlotte's Web
The Chronicles of Narnia
The Clan of the Cave Bear
The Coldest Winter Ever
The Color Purple
The Count of Monte Cristo
Crime and Punishment
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
The Da Vinci Code
Don Quixote
Doña Barbara
Dune
Fifty Shades of Grey
Flowers in the Attic
Foundation
Frankenstein
Ghost
Gilead
The Giver
The Godfather
Gone Girl
Gone with the Wind
The Grapes of Wrath
Great Expectations
The Great Gatsby
Gulliver's Travels
The Handmaid's Tale
Harry Potter (series)
Hatchet
Heart of Darkness
The Help
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
The Hunger Games
The Hunt for Red October
The Intuitionist
Invisible Man
Jane Eyre
The Joy Luck Club
Jurassic Park
Left Behind
The Little Prince
Little Women
Lonesome Dove
Looking for Alaska
The Lord of the Rings (series)
The Lovely Bones
The Martian
Memoirs of a Geisha
Mind Invaders
Moby Dick
The Notebook
One Hundred Years of Solitude
Outlander
The Outsiders
The Picture of Dorian Gray
The Pilgrim's Progress
The Pillars of the Earth
Pride and Prejudice
Ready Player One
Rebecca
The Shack
Siddhartha
The Sirens of Titan
The Stand
The Sun Also Rises
Swan Song
Tales of the City
Their Eyes Were Watching God
Things Fall Apart
This Present Darkness
To Kill a Mockingbird
Twilight
War and Peace
Watchers
The Wheel of Time (series)
Where the Red Fern Grows
White Teeth
Wuthering Heights

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER