The Awakening, by Kate Chopin, is a novel one is supposed to have read already–in prep school, perhaps, or certainly in women’s studies. I am not surprised I missed it in high school–what was shocking in 1899 New Orleans probably would have caused a similar stir in 1999 Pascack Hills–but come on, at Vassar? How I managed to attend Intro to Women’s Studies, English 170 Texts and Contexts:Politics and Poetics of the Erotic* , Sense and Sensibility: 17th and 18th Century Women’s Literature and so on without ever encountering it is beyond me. Luckily, I found a copy at a wonderful used book store in Montclair, NJ this winter and rectified the oversight.
I urge you, if you haven’t read The Awakening, please borrow my copy or pick it up for yourselves. It is awesome–both in the colloquial and actual meaning of the word. Don’t be put off by the fact that it was written so long ago–it is not taxing in the least nor will it put you to sleep. The content is absorbing, the society fascinating, the characters alternately frivolous and painfully deep–but this is not a sociology text. The writing and structure of the story are exceptional. And, a hundred and ten years later, it is still pretty scandalous.
Edna Pontellier, a young New Orleans society wife and mother, and her family spend the summer at Grand Isle, LA in the company of a young man named Robert LeBrun. As the Edna and Robert begin to fall for each other, he abruptly leaves for an extended trip to Mexico. When Edna returns to New Orleans, she has an “awakening”–she begins to shed her old life, throws herself into the pursuit of art and vows that she will never belong to anyone again. She explains to her friend Adele (with whom she has more than a little homoerotic tension…):
I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself. I can’t make it more clear; it’s only something which I am beginning to comprehend, which is revealing itself to me. (53)
Ms. Chopin also couldn’t make it more clear, with this passage, that life will not end happily for Edna. I had forgotten, having not read a book from this time period in a while, the fate that inevitably befalls transgressive women. Ms. Chopin, though, gave plenty of clues along the way to signal Edna’s untimely demise. For example, Edna, learning to swim during that summer trip to Grand Isle, finds herself too far from shore and despite her proximity to other bathers, has a vision of death. Less overt, Edna strays so far from society’s expectations that it is impossible to imagine she will avoid repercussion: she has an affair with Alcee Arobin, a man of dubious reputation who is neither her husband nor the man with whom she is in love.
Mr. Pontellier is not evil yet he is far from sympathetic–although, perhaps a reader from 1899 would feel differently–his faults lie in his expectations of Edna. What he wants from her is conventionality. He goes to see a doctor on her behalf, attempting to relay the problem:
Well, it isn’t easy to explain…She lets the housekeeping go to the dickens…She’s got some sort of notion in her head concerning the eternal rights of women; and–you understand–we meet in the morning at the breakfast table. (72-73)
Poor Mr. Pontellier–all he wants is a nice clean house, a subservient wife and some sex every now and then. Not surprising. What did surprise me was the doctor’s reaction–another transgressive figure! Even though he says this is a passing phase and secretly suspects the real problem is another man, his advice is essentially this: give her some space and let her do what she wants. This adds an interesting perspective to the novel and narratively provides Edna the leeway to make the decisions she does.
The novel is book-ended by Edna’s two visits to Grand Isle, the first of which ends in promise–the start of her Awakening. The second, ends. She realizes that no matter how much she wants Robert eventually “the thought of him would melt out of her existence, leaving her alone” (127). She slips onto the beach and strips out of her bathing suit, thinking: “How strange and awful it seemed to stand naked under the sky! how delicious!” (127). Then, she walks into the water, swimming out on her own until she is too tired to swim any longer.
This scene recalls one only a couple of pages earlier, in which Edna meets Robert, by chance, in a beautiful hidden garden she only knows about because she, against custom, often takes walks alone. She says:
I always feel so sorry for women who don’t like to walk; they miss so much–so many rare little glimpses into life; and we women learn so little of life on the whole. (118)
Even in suicide, Edna is a real “proto-feminist”–she is not killing herself for a man, not for betraying her husband, not because she can’t be with Robert, not because Alcee Arobin is in love with her, too–but because she feels that, as a woman, she will always be a possession and she does not want to be possessed.
If Edna was alive today, would her life have turned out differently? It is hard to say. Her choices–abandoning marriage and motherhood, particularly motherhood–are still unpopular ones.** The outcry inspired by the 2006 article by Ayelet Waldman, who admitted to loving her husband, Michael Chabon, more than her children, comes to mind. But, perhaps today, knowing that neither the title of wife nor mother were titles she wanted for herself, Edna would have had the option available to her to avoid marrying and having babies in the first place.
*at first I wrongly identified the course as “Sexuality/Textuality,” but then I remembered the course’s actual title–the misidentified one came from a paper I wrote, hilariously entitled: “Sex/Text/uality in Written on the Body and the Pillow Book.”
**Case in point: a friend is reading The Awakening with her college students right now and apparently the kids have no sympathy for Edna or her choices.
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening and Other Stories. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.