The Awakening – Kate Chopin

28-year-old Edna Pontellier is married with two young children. We meet her in Grand Isle where she is staying for the summer. She returns from bathing with a young friend, Robert Lebrun, son of another resident of one of the cottages in which they are staying. He has a habit of attaching himself to one of the women each summer and is considered friendly and harmless.

However, Edna and Robert are not the first people we meet. In order to establish the dominance of Edna’s husband, the reader meets Mr Pontellier in the opening pages of the novel as he reads the financial news from the previous day. When Edna and Robert return to the cottage, he looks ‘…at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property…’. We are told shortly afterwards:

He thought it very discouraging that his wife, who was the sole object of his existence, evinced so little interest in things which concerned him, and valued so little his conversation.

It becomes exceedingly clear as the novel progresses that the idea of Edna being the only thing he lives for is nonsense; the only thing Mr Pontellier really cares for is money and every decision Edna makes must not reflect badly on him and his investments.

But Edna’s view of life and her existence is changing.

A certain light was beginning to dawn dimly within her – the light which, showing the way, forbids it…Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her.

She is already aware that she is not like other women when it comes to children – as is her husband who thinks that she ‘failed in her duty toward their children’, although he cannot provide examples to support his thoughts. Edna’s view of motherhood is highlighted through her friendship with Adèle Ratignolle who is beautiful, has had three babies in seven years and is discussing the possibility of a fourth.

…Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother-woman. The mother-women seemed to prevail that summer at Grand Isle. It was easy to know them, fluttering about with extended, protecting wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened their precious brood. They were women who idolized their children, worshipped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels.

Chopin uses a swimming metaphor to demonstrate that Edna is ready to break from society’s (that is the patriarchy’s) expectations of her. She has spent the summer learning how to swim, eventually having daily lessons with Robert. Despite this, she is still fearful of the water until one evening when Robert suggests a late night bathe following a party:

But that night she was like the little tottering, stumbling, clutching child, who of a sudden realizes its powers, and walks for the first time alone, boldly and with over-confidence. She could have shouted for joy. She did shout for joy, as with a sweeping stroke or two she lifted her body to the surface of the water.

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

Although some parts of The Awakening might not be as controversial as they were in 1899 – a western woman leaving her husband does not provoke the same scandal today as it would previously – there are certainly strands which feel as relevant as ever.

The idea of motherhood and how women should feel about it is particularly pertinent. Following an interview with Christina Hendricks in last Sunday’s Observer, many news outlets reported the piece by choosing to focus on her comment that she and her husband have chosen not to have children; Cameron Diaz recently felt she had to declare she has no intention of procreating, and barely a week goes by without the latest on Jennifer Aniston’s apparent despair at her childless status.

It’s also still very evident that women are fighting to find their space in the world, to be recognised as individuals with achievements that don’t have to be qualified with or by an acknowledgement of their gender.

Barbara Kingsolver writes the introduction to the new Canongate edition of The Awakening. In it she talks about being a late arrival to the book, discovering it in her first year of college alongside ‘…a choir of renegade women writers…’. That comment alongside this one:

I am also reminded that fiction by and about men is called “literature”, but this novel and others by women are regularly sent to a shelf called “women’s lit,” and more than a few male readers remain as uniterested in that shelf as Mr. Pontillier was in his wife’s conversation.

made me think back to my undergraduate years where I took a module in American Literature. Over the course of the year we studied a number of American classic works – Bartleby the Scrivener, Leaves of Grass, The Scarlet Letter – but only one by a woman, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Where was The Awakening? Why, aged twenty, trying desperately to find my way, wondering why I was so angry about having young men tell me I was ‘scary’ because I had opinions, did someone not put this book in front of me? Why wasn’t it required reading for the course? I can only hope that the current wave of feminism and this excellent new edition places Kate Chopin and The Awakening where they belong: on the literary canon.

 

Thanks to Canongate for the review copy.

0 thoughts on “The Awakening – Kate Chopin

  1. This is such a wonderful review, about one of my favourite and most life-changing books! I was lucky enough to be given The Awakening as compulsory reading when I was 21 for my course on American literature and I loved it right from the beginning. Mind you, the professor skipped the previous compulsory reading, Huckleberry Finn, so that she could teach us The Awakening. Isn’t that amazing? Not that Hucklberry Finn is not a worthy classic, but The Awakening did more for me than Finn would have done.

    You just nailed something very important and that is the so-called “child-less women”. I refuse to use that term because “-less” implies a lack of, in negative terms and I don’t really think that some of the very successful women you mention like Diaz and Aniston lack something. I think they made a choice. However, reading gossip sites is my guilty pleasure and recently I came across a post about how Diaz is totally sincere about not wanting children, but how Aniston has always said “one day…”. This pretty much shows that despite the money, the success, the hair!, the clothes, the boyfriend(s), it can be dangerous for a grown-up and professional woman to admit she does not want children.

    I’m really glad you read, reviewed and included The Awakening in your blog and in your life and I do hope that even though it has not come into your life at the stage you wanted to, it has helped you. Because I think these kind of books help you heal what the patriarchal society hurts so badly.

    I was also taught in the same course a few lessons on the short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins-Gillman about the atrocities male doctors thought of and did to women who suffered from post-partum depression in the early 20th century. It is not the same as The Awakening, but it tackles those supposedly unmentionable and terrible ways to feel as a new mother.

    • Thanks, Elena. I think your professor did the right thing – I don’t have much time for Huck Finn!

      The line about Jennifer Aniston was written tongue firmly in cheek – I deliberately used the language of the glossy mags as it’s clear it’s ridiculous. I agree too that it seems to have become clear in recent years that Aniston doesn’t want children but seems to be afraid to say so. I don’t think it’s affected Diaz’s status in the way that some people might have thought it would. Ideally, I wish the question was never asked – whose business is it if someone wants children or not? – but as we try to reach that stage, I wish more women in the public eye would stand up and say they’ve made a choice not to have children. Perhaps then people will stop seeing it as some sort of unnatural state. I had a very odd encounter with someone I went to school with the other day that links to this. She stopped me on the street – I haven’t seen her in at least two years – and told me she wanted to show me a photograph. She preceded to show me a picture of her young child. She then showed me a picture of the young child of someone else we went to school with who I haven’t seen in maybe four or five years and then went on her way. It was as though she thought she was validating herself and the other woman by proving that they’d procreated.

      I just wish I’d read The Awakening earlier so I had more courage to tell some of those people who thought I was scary where to get off!

      I was assigned ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ on a module the previous year. I’d never read anything like it before, found it utterly baffling and wasn’t enlightened any further by the lecture we had on it. I was well into my twenties before I began to understand what it was about. Interesting that I loved ‘Heart of Darkness’ because lecturers took the time to go through it in detail – I must have covered it three times at university – but the same wasn’t true of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’. I tell you what did change my life at 20/21 though: Virginia Woolf. Thank goodness for the PhD student I had who assigned us ‘To the Lighthouse’ and ‘Orlando’; it felt like the world made sense all of a sudden.

      • Oh we had a young, female psyquiatrist come to explain us how accurate The Yellow Wallpaper was and most of us really got scared. I was told for the first time that it was okay not to want to have children, and even if you had them, you could not feel at easy. It led to a discussion and deconstruction of motherhood and how patriarchal society contructs it. That is why the text was so relevant to me.

        And yes, Virginia Woolf always changes your life. How could she not? Her issues are – sadly, very sadly – still our issues, but articulated in such a beautiful and meaningful way…

  2. Good stuff. I was lucky enough to take an undergraduate degree which did include The Awakening on a reading list. Must give it another read sometime. Think I’ve got a volume of shorter pieces by Kate Chopin – will dig it out if you want a lend?

  3. I just read an excellent review yesterday of this wonderful book over at Vishy The Knight, so good to know it is being appreciated by appreciative male readers! I loved this book and A Reflection, the short piece of prose that prefaced the edition I read. Love that it is being reissued and rediscovered.

    • Thanks for linking to that, Claire, it is a good review. Interestingly, I know quite a few men who love this book and the first person who told me to read it, probably 7/8 years ago, was a man. It’s great that it’s been rediscovered, it’s such a powerful story.

  4. This one sounds great, Naomi; the kind of lesser-known classic that appeals to me. Despite my reluctance to add yet more books to the shopping list, I might have to make an exception here. The new edition looks lovely, too.

    • The new edition is beautiful and it is definitely a book worth reading. I’m really hoping it doesn’t stay lesser-known for long either, it still has a lot to say about women being treated as people.

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  7. Great review & reaction to The Awakening and yes wish someone had brought it to my younger self’s attention!

    I studied it last year as part of a third yr degree level 19thC lit module and absolutely loved both the story itself, and analysing the text inside-out but all the critical debate & contextual info that surrounded it too. Highly recommend Routledge’s Sourcebook (Inc a 1890s fascinating Harper’s Bazaar article on literature heroines) & Emily Toth’s biog… they confirm it actually evokef both good & bad reviews and dispels the myth it was banned.

    Looking forward to reading Beside the Sea by V. Olmi to compare.