The Awakening by Kate Chopin
Written well over 100 years ago, the Awakening is a novel that explores a married woman's role within her family and wealthy New Orleans society, and that woman's struggle to determine who she is beyond the expectations of her husband and peers.
Kate Chopin's prose style offers a nuanced and sometimes ambivalent view of Edna Pontellier, the book's central character. Chopin writes primarily in English, though with a smattering of creole French, which is translated in many annotated copies of the book. Edna is a wealthy, privileged woman in her late 20's, who appears to have everything. She is married to a wealthy businessman with a penchant for making money. Mr. Pontellier, is an indulgent and doting, if somewhat inattentive husband. But his treatment of Edna is never unkind. It merely reflects the social expectations of a man of his era and class. In his pursuit of success, Edna comes to feel that she is one of Mr. Pontellier's exquisitely appointed belongings.
burnt beyond recognition," he added, looking at his wife as one looks
at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some
damage. She held up her hands, strong, shapely hands, and surveyed them
critically, drawing up her fawn sleeves above the wrists. Looking at
them reminded her of her rings, which she had given to her husband
before leaving for the beach. She silently reached out to him, and he,
understanding, took the rings from his vest pocket and dropped them
into her open palm. —The Awakening, Chapter 1
The novel opens at Grand Isle, a beach resort for upper-class New Orleaneans. Edna and her husband are staying at the resort for the summer, where the ocean provides a respite from the summer heat and a diversion for the residents. Mr. Pontellier usually goes to the city during the week to conduct his business affairs, then returns during the weekends to spend time with his family. The resort at Grande Isle is a collection of small summer cottages let by the owner, Madam Lebrun. Grande Isle is a place where time seemingly stands still, and the families needs are met by a paid staff of nannies, cooks, and other servants. The summer residents' time is full of idle pleasures, such as wading in the water (known as bathing during the late 19th century), playing games of cards, and listening to and playing piano music.
Grande Isle is a drowsy place, where the idle pleasures and whims of the residents are catered to. There, Edna meets and befriends Robert Lebrun, who becomes her constant companion while on the isle. The son of the proprietor, Lebrun is well known for his infatuation with the married women who come to the resort. Lebrun is portrayed as something of a man-child, and a joker, who can offer no real threat to the women who visit there. But over the months, a strong attraction develops between the two, and a sense of longing is awakened in Edna that she doesn't feel for her husband.
However, Robert's strong sense of propriety and honor prohibit him from cuckolding Mr. Pontellier, Edna's husband. Robert escapes (or perhaps is sent packing by his observant mother) to Mexico, where he goes to seek his fortune. Robert is younger than Edna by two years, and as an unmarried man, is perceived by the matronly women of approximately the same age, as a person to trifle with. His attentions to the married women are perceived as a social diversion, and not as something to take with any seriousness. Lebrun's social standing and young age make him a non-threat to Mr. Pontellier, who spends very little time at Grande Isle with his family.
Edna, as we discover through the course of the story, is a woman of strong passions. She realizes that her marital relationship, though cordial, is essentially platonic. Edna feels trapped and bored by her role as a wife and mother. Much of the day to day childcare of her children and management of her household is left to paid servants. Though she feels a fierce connection with and affection for her children, Edna feels that her participation in her estate's management is at best superfluous.
Edna has two young sons who adore their mother, and she has a life of ease and leisure. Despite this luxurious existence, Edna begins to feel that her identity as a wife and mother aren't enough for her. She begins to throw herself into her painting, for which she has a natural talent.
As the novel progresses, Edna's behavior becomes more capricious and even reckless as she crosses over the strongly drawn lines of her life in Louisana's New Orleans society.
New Orleans as a Setting for The Awakening
Edna first approaches the well-defined social boundaries of French Creole society, and eventually crosses them, until her friends in society must eventually abandon her companionship for propriety's sake. Chopin's use of New Orleans, and specifically French Creole society as a setting for her story adds an interesting dimensionality to Edna's struggle. Chopin describes the Creoles as people who are shockingly open about matters such as childbirth, which would be unthinkable in Protestant Victorian society, while amazingly chaste and conservative in their social deportment. The juxtaposition of openness with propriety creates an opportunity within the novel for Edna's story to emerge with a strong sense of truthfulness and complexity.
Edna has two love interests in the novel: neither her husband. Robert Lebrun is the man who arouses Edna's passionate feelings and awakens her new sense of self. He is young and naïve, though Chopin leaves many questions about character's motives and experience in a delicate fog of uncertainty. The reader must decide just how naïve Robert Lebrun really is.
Alcée Arobin is Edna's second love interest. Arobin is a rake and a scoundrel. The men despise him and most women see him as being up to no good. He is a well-known womanizer who spends much of his time with a 40-something year old woman friend who uses her marriageable-aged daughter as a pretext to meet younger men. Chopin's portrayal of the pair, and their visits to the racetrack are nothing short of sleazy. Despite, or perhaps because of Arobin's reputation, Edna and Arobin find each other, and embark upon a series of meetings that have only one possible outcome. But whereas Robert's relationship with Edna is complicated by Robert's sense of social propriety and his feeling of love, which compel him to do the right thing, no such love exists to complicate Edna and Arobin's passion.
Another character of interest is Madam Reisz. Madam Reisz is an older woman who lives alone. She is an accomplished pianist, and a misanthrope. In this role as an outsider, Reisz and Edna strike up a friendship. Reisz is a peculiar type of woman. She is bold and completely lacking in social graces. But she also sees much and understands even more. Madam Reisz appreciates Edna's passionate nature, but as the novel comes to a close, Madam Reisz questions Edna's behavior and criticizes her for her capriciousness.
Like many stories involving matters of the heart, the main question I kept asking myself was, how will it end? Chopin's story of Edna's life-changing awakening is a sensuous and intellectual feast that explores a woman's psyche without approving of her character's actions. I appreciated the story even more because I read it well on the path to middle age, instead of as a high school or college student. I recognized and related to Edna at 28. Edna's decisions and their consequences are the meat of Chopin's novel, and I will not spoil that part of the story for you. However, I heartily recommend this story for its richness and depth. Chopin writes a deep character novel of substance in a relatively few short pages. This makes the novel an excellent summer read, perhaps with your toes in the sand as you listen to the waves lap the shore.
To be an artist includes much; one must possess many gifts - absolute gifts - which have not been acquired by one's own effort. And, moreover, to succeed, the artist must possess the courageous soul. The Awakening, Kate Chopin
The Awakening, a Feminist Text Ahead of Its Time
After Kate Chopin published The Awakening in 1899, her publishers sent back her second novel without an explanation and refused to publish it. At the end of the Victorian era, this novel shocked and offended many readers. With its sexual themes and its plot which portrayed a mother and a wife rejecting her duty to her family, critics felt that the novel failed to adequately villify its heroine's behaviors.
However, Chopin was one of many artists and writers who portrayed sensuality in their work. Consider the Pre-Raphaelite paintings or the impressionist pictures of Degas and others. Chopin's great sin was that she portrayed a sensual side of womanhood that was meant to be "above the pale." Had she been writing about a character such as Lolita, one might argue that the reactions against the novel wouldn't have been so strong, since a character like Lolita has no room for redemption. As Edna begins to live more for her art than for her family and husband, she enters a territory that Virginia Woolf would later describe in "A Room of One's Own," wherein Virginia Woolf classically states 'a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction'. (Interestingly, Edna does seek a room of her own, which she pays for from the proceeds of her painting. I sometimes wonder if Virginia Woolf was a fan of Chopin.)
The Awakening was largely forgotten until the 1960s and 1970s, when feminist movement gathered momentum and labeled it as a feminist work before its own time.
Edna Pontellier, A Courageous Soul?
Chopin's portrayal of Edna Pontellier is, in my opinion, ambivalent. She represents Edna's internal struggle and consequent behavior as something that is happening almost outside of Edna's conscious awareness. Once Edna embarks upon her path of "artistic freedom", Edna's behavior seems to become less and less self-aware. Edna's passion carries a price.
Separate from the morals and values of her society, Edna seems to be spiritually lost at sea. Her husband and children pay a price for her behavior, which she disregards.This easy disregard for one's family is what continues to make the novel relevant and still shocking and unsettling to today's reader. It is difficult to imagine a mother, even today, who would not make some small sacrifice of herself for her family's sake.
Though Chopin indirectly addresses this issue in the novel, it is secondary to the plot of Edna's dalliances. What this novel is not is a story about Edna Pontellier's relationship with her husband and children. Edna's family lose their power over Edna, and as such, she no longer takes any thought of sacrifice or commitment to them.
I like that in writing this novel, Chopin remains somewhat detached from these moral and ethical issues. The detachment allows her to tell Edna's story without moralizing or sentimentalising the result. What is a rich character novel could otherwise easily become a morality tale.
Chopin, a Master of Description
Kate Chopin, though not a prolific novelist, is a writer's writer. If you are an aspiring writer, I recommend that you read this story purely for Chopin's prose style. Though the work is considered a precursor to feminist writing, preceding even Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, this work is beautifully written and detailed. Chopin's description of the places in the novel (Grande Isle, New Orleans, a Garden where she takes her meal, her boudoire—are defined with delicate precision).
Part of Chopin's talent is to know what to leave out, as well as what to leave in. Ah, to be as gifted as Chopin!
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