It is easy to see why this novel, written by Chopin in 1899 might have caused such an uproar. In such times, the life the protagonist, Edna, leads is very much in keeping with the norms of society, that is, of course in particular the American and European wealthier classes. The idea of a woman putting her own desires and wants above that of her husband’s and children’s, and in fact, the idea of her family not being of the utmost importance to her (referentially, to fit in with society and decorum), would be tantamount to rebellion. And Edna’s behavior is indeed of a rebellious nature in her sudden insistence about spending her time in her own interests and pursuits.
There are some dissimilarities however in Chopin’s Edna and the women of her time that indeed did begin to recognize their second-class status.
First of all, Edna is not a warm, loving individual:
Even as a child she had lived her own small life within herself. (p. 26)
She was fond of her children in an uneven, impulsive way. She would sometimes gather them passionately to her heart; she would sometimes forget them. (p. 33)
She grew fond of her husband, realizing with some unaccountable satisfaction that no trace of passion or excessive and fictitious warmth colored her affection, thereby threatening its dissolution. (p. 33)
Edna’s father was in the city, and had been with them several days. She was not very warmly or deeply attached to him, but they had certain tastes and common, and when together, they were companionable. His coming was in the nature of a welcome disturbance; it seemed to furnish a new direction for her emotions. (p. 113)
As a young girl, Edna had passionate crushes on men who were out of her reach. The attentions of Robert over the summer vacation had offered an opportunity for the flirtations and self-confidence that were just again coming to the surface. The music played on the piano by Madamoiselle Reisz hit her heart at a time of vulnerability; the same with the sea and her mastering the ability to swim that gave her a sense of freedom in the new wide expanse of her world.
These are all indications of a self-centered individual, seeing people not as they are, but as they relate to her. Her willingness to serve her father during his visit is balanced by his personage welcomed by her friends. Her unwillingness to go to her sister’s wedding is both a strike at her husband ("She says a wedding is one of the most lamentable spectacles on earth.") and a rather selfish notion not to make an effort for her own sister’s celebration of happiness–illusionary or not in Edna’s opinion. While her life is easy with a doting husband and the help of servants, I could easily see the price she and her peers had to pay in the loss of self. But what Edna’s bid for self expression comes down to is just an extension of her own ego rather than being symbolic of all women of her time. The gesture is there, but for not quite the right reasons, so my sympathy is not totally with her.
Perhaps if it were the content and proper Madame Ratignolle that had been struck by the lightning of revelation and rebellion, I might take this as a more social question of its time.