Review: ‘The Awakening’ by Kate Chopin

the-awakening-and-selected-storiesI started reading Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening” a couple of years ago. Like many books I attempted to read during the semester, I only made it through a few chapters and set it down, never to pick it up again. Thankfully, my roommate had a copy on our bookshelf. No more excuses.

First published in 1899, the novel is a portrait of 28-year-old Edna Pontellier’s abandonment of her family, her seduction, and her awakening to desires and passions that threaten to consume her. It disturbed early critics and the public, leading to its banishment for decades. But not it is hailed as an early vision of women’s emancipation. In her introduction, Marilynne Robinson has this to say:

This seems to me a higher order of feminism than repeating the story of woman as victim … Kate Chopin gives her female protagonist the central role, normally reserved for Man, in meditation on identity and culture, consciousness and art.

The only writing of Chopin’s I had read before was her short story “Desiree’s Baby.” It was one of the short stories we read during junior year English class in high school. Aside from that, I knew very little of Chopin or “The Awakening.” Like many of the books I’ve read for this challenge so far, I saw this book on many lists — i.e. “Books to Read in Your 20s” or “Books Every Young Woman Must Read.” A college professor of mine, when hearing I hadn’t read it yet, told me I needed to (which prompted my failed first attempt.)

A feeling of exultation overtook her, as if some power of significant import had been given her to control the working of her body and her soul. She grew daring and reckless, overestimating her strength. She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before.

—p. 36

I loved the character of Edna Pontellier. Chopin wrote about her so beautifully, and there were many times when I felt a connection to who she was. She was an outsider in her life — she grew up Protestant in Kentucky and married a Catholic Creole man. Edna doesn’t marry him for love, though she does marry him because of his adoration of her (which never truly fades at any point in the book). She has two children but isn’t a “mother-woman” — her close friend at Grand Isle, Adéle, is (“the embodiment of every womanly grace and charm”).

It is at Grand Isle, where the Pontelliers are for the summer, when Edna’s “awakening” begins. Part of it is her friendship with Robert Lebrun. Another part of it is her friendship with Adéle. But with each chapter I read, I never really got a sense of her “awakening.” Sure, there were slight changes and realizations, but, as Robinson says in her introduction, those gave “a new urgency to old impulses.”

The novel was initially titled “A Solitary Soul,” a fact I wish I had known before I had begun reading. Robinson suggests that it would be a different book if published under that title, and I have to agree. Edna was an outsider in a culture she was not raised in, and she was also raised not to discuss things that trouble her. This she admits to Adéle and Doctor Mandelet.

There were hints that a couple of characters might have been in and overcome the same emotional state as Edna faced. One was Adéle, which gives more understanding to their friendship. Another is Mademoiselle Reisz, the pianist who only seems to like Edna and my favorite character. Edna spends a lot of time with the pianist, especially when returning to New Orleans. True, one of the reasons for her visits is to read letters that Robert sent from Mexico to Reisz. But the other is the way the music affects Edna’s consciousness.

I think this is a novel I will have to read every couple of years. Sections that affected me this time around might be read differently when I’m 28, Edna’s age. Or when I’m 35. Chopin’s writing is so poignant and elegant that I don’t think I’ll ever tire of reading “The Awakening.”

The years that are gone seem like dreams—if one might go on sleeping and dreaming—but to wake up and find—oh! well! perhaps it is better to wake up after all, even to suffer, rather than to remain a dupe to illusions all one’s life.

—p. 147

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