The Awakening by Kate Chopin: A review

I saw a reference to this book in The New York Times recently and it jogged my memory. I had actually wanted to read the book several years ago, but I guess newer and shinier books distracted me from that goal and I never got around to it. Well, it's time.

The Awakening was published in 1899 and it was controversial from the beginning. It was not outright banned but it was censored and denounced as immoral because it depicted a woman's sexual desire in a frank manner. It further outraged critics because it told the story of a woman who was not fulfilled by the roles of wife and mother and who chafed at the social constraints that the roles forced upon her. She wanted to be free and did not consider herself a "mother-woman". Rather, as the narrative states, she was "fond of her children in an uneven, impulsive way" and she did not constantly devote herself to their care.

The protagonist is Edna Pontellier. She and her husband, Leonce, and their two boys live in New Orleans and spend their summers on Grand Isle. However, Leonce is often absent on business and Edna is left with the children. She has servants who help her, none of whom are ever named. The nursemaid, for example, is referred to throughout as the "quadroon" and a young girl who is a maid is called the "young black maid".

Edna acknowledges that Leonce is the best of husbands, but she is restless and unhappy and not entirely without cause it seems. When her husband is at home, he spends most nights gambling at the casino and comes home around midnight after Edna is in bed asleep and expects her to wake up and listen to his conversation. On one such occasion, he is frustrated because Edna is unresponsive and he goes to the boys' room to check on them. He comes back and informs Edna that one of them has a high fever and calls her a bad mother. She hurries to check on the boy and finds him perfectly well with no fever. She returns to her bedroom and finds her husband fast asleep.

That's when I might have dumped a bucket of ice water on him, but Edna's response is to go and sit on the balcony and weep. The writer describes her whole being as overcome by a vague anguish. This incident seems rather representative of their relationship.

Edna finds comfort in her female friendships and begins to see herself as an individual who has the agency to control her own life. She seeks fulfillment through artistic expression and on Grand Isle in the absence of Leonce, she becomes infatuated with a young man. He seems to return her interest, but then he announces that he is going to Mexico. Edna is dazed and distressed by the news.

There is another young man on Grand Isle named Robert Le Brun, who has something of a reputation for the number of women he has romanced. Edna finds herself charmed by him as well and responds to his sexual advances. He is finally able to satisfy her desires.

While her husband continues to be away on business, Edna decides to send their children to their paternal grandparents for a visit. For the first time, she is unencumbered by wifely or motherly duties. She is able to freely indulge her impulses, her passion. And for this, critics of the time and some even today would condemn her for "abandoning" her children and being selfish. Of course, no one condemned the father for never being present for his children.

We see Edna awakening to her own identity and self-consciousness, to the wonders of her own body. She finds strength in her love of Nature, in her relationship with her friends, and in her art. And we realize that she will not be able to go back to the life of her pre-awakened self. She will never be able to tolerate that role again, and yet society offers her no other. The only way she will ever truly be able to break free is in death. And so it does not surprise us when that is the route she chooses. She walks into the Gulf and swims far out until she is past the point where she will be able to return.

The Awakening has been hailed as a great feminist novel. It gave a clear-eyed focus to issues faced by women and we still see women facing some of the same issues and judgmental attitudes more than one hundred years later. Edna was able to find her epiphany in acknowledging her own feelings and thinking her own thoughts. In this way, she was able to follow the lodestar of her own pleasure away from the suffocating strictures of patriarchy and onto a new and freer path.

Her story ended in tragedy, as I guess it had to given the times in which it was written. But still, she serves as an example and as a heroine to many modern women readers who admire her ability to break free of society's bonds.

Chopin's novel is well written. The language is sometimes archaic, but then it is over 120 years old. She never earned much recognition or success for the book in her short lifetime. I think she might be surprised to find it still being read today.

There are several short stories that finish out the book. They are all essentially in the same vein as the novella. Together, they stand as the attestation to Chopin's acclaim as a feminist writer.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars       

Comments

  1. She definitely seemed ahead of her time and not given enough credit. Her character's sad end reminds me a bit of Virginia Woolf's.

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    1. Exactly! I got that connection to Virginia Woolf, too, as I read the story.

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  2. I read this novel a few decades ago for a college course and remembered enjoying at the time. It would be interesting to reread this book once again at some point.

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    1. It's a book that could definitely benefit from a second reading. There's quite a lot to unpack there.

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  3. I had heard about this novel but I never knew much about it. Based on your description I see why it ruffled feathers. It is interesting in that a lot of nineteenth century novels portrayed bad behavior by husbands, but the heroines who were portrayed sympathetically still remained true to them I just finished Wilkie Collins’s Woman in White but there are many examples.

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    1. I think the realities were probably such that most women thought they had little choice. And ultimately even Edna's choices were between submission to society's expectations and death. I read Woman in White for the first time a couple of years ago. I was furious through much of it!

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  4. According to my records I read this in 2000. I recall being deeply moved. You have written a wonderful review.

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    1. It is a story that I think any woman would instantly identify with and be moved by.

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  5. Quite a modern plot, a woman awakening to her own desires and needs. I agree with the others, no wonder it caused such controversy. It gave me a bit of Anna Karenina vibe.

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    1. It sure it was shocking in 1899, but it would be considered quite mild by today's standards and almost chaste.

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