Romanticism, Realism, Naturalism, and Local Color
The Literary Context of The Awakening

Four major literary movements can claim some aspect of The Awakening, for in this "small compass . . . [is illustrated] virtually all the major American intellectual and literary trends of the nineteenth century" (Skaggs, 80).

The Romantic movement marked a profound shift in sensibilities away from the Enlightenment. It was inspired by reaction to that period's concepts of clarity, order, and balance, and by the revolutions in America, France, Poland, and Greece. It expressed the assertion of the self, the power of the individual, a sense of the infinite, and transcendental nature of the universe. Major themes included the sublime, terror, and passion. The writing extolled the primal power of nature and the spiritual link between nature and man, and was often emotional, marked by a sense of liberty, filled with dreamy inner contemplations, exotic settings, memories of childhood, scenes of unrequited love, and exiled heroes.

In America, Romanticism coalesced into a distinctly "American" ideal: making success from failure, the immensity of the American landscape, the power of man to conquer the land, and "Yankee" individualism. The writing was also marked by a type of xenophobia. Protestant America was faced with an influx of Catholic refugees from the Napoleonic Wars, of Asian workers who constructed the railroads, and the lingering issue of Native Americans. An insular attitude developed, the "us and them" in Whitman. The major writers of the period were Irving, Cooper, Emerson, Poe, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Whitman, Dickinson, and Melville.

There are various romantic elements in The Awakening. Perhaps the most obvious and elemental are the exotic locale, use of color, and heavy emphasis on nature (click here). The overriding romantic theme in the novel is Edna's search for individuality and freedom: freedom to decide what to be, how to think, and how to live. This search amounts to her own romantic quest for a holy grail, a grail of self-definition. In the process two classic motifs of the Romantic movement occur: rebellion against society and death. Ringe points out that Edna lies between two extremes in life and is completely alone in the universe (204-05): a condition that is a hallmark of romanticism. As are the other prototypical romantic elements of the text: frequent inner thoughts, memories of childhood, the personified sea and its sensuous call, the fantastic talking birds, the mysterious woman in black, the romantic music playing almost constantly in the background, the dinner party, the gulf spirit, and the desire to express herself through art.

Realism developed as a reaction against Romanticism and stressed the real over the fantastic. The movement sought to treat the commonplace truthfully and used characters from everyday life. Writers probed the recesses of the human mind via an exploration of the emotional landscape of characters. This emphasis was brought on by societal changes sparked by The Origin of Species by Darwin, the Higher Criticism of the Bible, and the aftermath of the Civil War. A deeper, more pessimistic, literary movement called Naturalism grew out of Realism and stressed the uncaring aspect of nature and the genetic, biological destiny of man. Naturalists believed that man's instinctual, basic drives dominated their actions and could not be evaded. Life was viewed as relentless, without a caring presence to intervene. Twain, Crane, London, Norris, Howells, James, and Dreiser were the major writers of this movement.

The aspect of naturalism most evident in The Awakening is the portrayal of Edna as hostage to her biology. She is female, has children, and is a wife in a society that dictates behavioral norms based on those conditions. These factors drive the novel and drive Edna. She makes "no attempt to suppress her amatory impulses" (Seyersted/Culley, 180), she bases her decisions on the welfare of her children, and she is in her difficult situation because of the men in her life: father, husband, lover, and would-be-lover. The inherited biological aspect continues with the idea that her character traits may have been tainted by bad stock. The novel is also true to the real life aspects of Realism and Naturalism in its forthright dealing with sexual matters: Arobin's seduction, the hot kisses she gives to Robert, Leonce's allusion that they no longer sleep together, the naked man on the rock. This type of description was actually advanced for both movements; Chopin provided a more detailed and full range of sexual emotions and activities than most other American novelists had. (Seyersted/ Culley, 181). The relationship between men and women and the economic aspects that go along with that issue are also realistic. Edna is "owned" at various points in the novel by her father, husband, Arobin, and Robert. Victor speaks of women in terms of possession, and Leonce is shown to class her as property, and to see her as a symbol of his social status. Edna herself remarks that as she moves into the pigeon house she feels she is lower on the social rank. Another naturalistic element in the novel is the portrayal of Edna as a victim of fate, chance, of an uncaring world, pulled into a consuming, but indifferent sea. In the end, despite her developments into selfhood, the only escape from her biological destiny as a woman in society, possessed, sexual, and ruled, is death.

Local Color writers were an offshoot of the Realistic movement. They sought to preserve a distinct way of life threatened by industrialization, immigration, the after effects of the War, and the changes in society. Their writing concentrated upon rendering a convincing portrait of a particular region and delving below the surface picture to reveal some universal aspect. A local color work "is one in which the identity of the setting is integral to the very unfolding of the theme, rather than simply incidental to a theme that could as well be set anywhere" (May, 195). Women local colorists were concerned with the place of women in society and the moral designs called for in a life. Freemen, Stowe, Harris, Chesnutt, and Cable were all important local colorists.

Local Color aspects of The Awakening include the characterizations of the people, the descriptions of places and fundamental meaning in the story, the Creole society and its social mores, and the aspects of women making choices that create a life. The characters are important to the plot, but also to the feeling of place: Mlle. Reisz is a bad-tempered spinster, Arobin is a Don Juan, the old men fussing in the boat and Mariequita are "typical" of the island people, the woman in black is a "good Catholic Creole," and Adele is the "perfect" women. The settings of the story are integral with their meaning: New Orleans has to be a hothouse of societal rules, Grand Isle has to be distant and isolated, Cheniere Caminada needs to be magical in order for the symbolic aspects of each place to complement the story. The use of a foreign language and the focus on Edna's decisions in life are also elements of local color. Perhaps the most essential element of the story, and the most important reflection of local color, is the Creole society and its rules. These rules allow Edna to flirt with Robert with Leonce present, while later, these same rules cause Robert to leave.

Neal Wyatt (1995)  [contact at nwyatt@leo.vsla.edu]
Kate Chopin Study Text