[A short note of housekeeping. I often fail to give even a cursory synopsis of the plots and characters of the books I talk about, and I imagine this may be vaguely frustrating. I'll try to amend things a little by linking to the Wikipedia page for the novel if it contains an adequate summary, or to a review somewhere if not. Here's The Awakening. Also, here is the webpage for the Kate Chopin International Society, which has loads of great information about Chopin and her work.]
I think this book is most often taught in high school courses, which is admirable, since its subtlety and grace is probably lost on most teenagers. Perhaps some of it is even lost on me. But at any rate, I'm tempted to ask if it isn't wasted on high schoolers, or even on college kids, since I think it is often taught there as well.
I don't wonder why educators have come to see The Awakening as a valuable text for this age-range. There are very considerable advantages which make it appealing—it's short, it's written very well and very evenly, and it's quite compelling, even suspenseful when you get involved with the characters. It also feels a good twenty, maybe thirty years newer than its 1899 publication date, a temporal jump which is much more substantial than from say, 1869 or 1879 to 1899. And the themes commonly invoked when teaching or interpreting the novel are accessible, very coherent, and make for rich discussion.
So I suppose in almost every important way it's an ideal novel for teaching these age groups. But I also found it to be more than ideal, as it has depths which are difficult to bring out in a classroom, or for that matter, a blog post.
What I mean to say is that Chopin's novel does things which need to be read rather than described. Part of it is the way interiority and exteriority shift into one another or stand in conflict with one another, or the way one or the other become blocked to the reader or to a character. And by interiority and exteriority, I mean both physical and mental/emotional spaces and surfaces inhabited by the character and rendered for the reader.
Chopin is masterful at suddenly shutting the reader out to a character's consciousness but simultaneously offering a telling but inconsequential physical gesture or word that reveals more than access to the character's thoughts or emotions. Sure, there are melodramatic moments of blocky overdetermination as well, but they are awfully well-balanced by the subtlety of these minute flickers between the character's interiority and exteriority.
The physical side of this interior/exterior dialectic is less prone to fluctuating and a little bit more straight-up symbolic. Four contests of wills take place between Edna and her husband Léonce, and all are predicated on and are acted out by conflicts of access to or control of exteriors and/or interiors. The first is when Léonce comes back late after he grumpily took off to play billiards at his club and now finds his son has a fever. He reprimands Edna, who bursts out of the room onto the porch to cry, but is driven back in by mosquitoes. The second instance also begins when Léonce returns home late, this time to find Edna asleep outside in a hammock. She wants to remain out and sleep there, he will not have this and smokes a lung-collapsing number of cigars waiting for her to come inside. She eventually concedes, but this struggle, compounded with the previous encounter provokes more and more vigorous acts of resistance from Edna over the rest of the novel.
The third contest occurs when Edna refuses to leave New Orleans to attend her sister's wedding in Kentucky, an absence which would coincide with her husband's business trip to New York. Edna refuses to give up the small amount of control and freedom she has claimed—particularly her ability to walk about the town at leisure and to paint or draw indoors. Her husband settles the matter by dropping in on the sister's wedding himself on his way to NY. The last significant contest of wills takes place when Edna decides to vacate the large family house in New Orleans and repair to a small, apparently shabby house nearby. She informs her husband, who's still in New York, of her intention and throws a lavish dinner party at his expense. Léonce, fearful that a vacant house will start a rumor that his finances have dwindled, immediately acts from New York to order repairs made to the house which are carried on in a very public and ostentatious manner. Edna accepts this action and remains in her "pigeon house."
In all these confrontations, we see power relations as part of life, as part of basic spatial experience. It's done tremendously well—not just because it's done subtly, but because it's done convincingly. Chopin's characters try to control spaces or try to leave or enter spaces for compelling reasons, and Chopin makes clear the reasons they can or cannot fulfill their desires.
In short, The Awakening is a novel that frustrates the kind of criticism which argues that a truly great novel transcends bald identity themes and issues, the kind of thinking that says great literature is ethereally pure, genderless. The Awakening doesn't shy away from polemical readings; rather, it demonstrates how polemicized issues like gender are intrinsically part of our most basic relations in life, but also intrinsically part of the most basic relations of character and setting.