Literary Wives: The Awakening by Kate Chopin

Why did I not read Kate Chopin’s The Awakening much, much sooner?* Thanks to the Literary Wives book club, of which I am now a member, I have finally read this wonderful book, and I couldn’t have been happier with the club’s selection for June. What an exquisite reading experience!

Set in and around New Orleans, The Awakening tells the story of Edna Pontellier, a young wife and mother. During her summer vacation at an island resort, Edna falls in love with Robert, the son of the resort owner. When she returns to New Orleans at the end of the summer, her love for Robert helps her to start making her own decisions. She begins to take drawing lessons to become a better painter, she starts to stand up to her husband, and she finally moves out of their shared house. Events climax when she has an adulterous affair and meets Robert again. (Just in case you don’t know the ending, be warned that I am giving it away in the last paragraph.)

Published in 1899, it is no surprise that readers at the time were shocked by the frank portrayal of Edna’s thoughts and actions. It was still a social taboo to even consider that being a wife and mother might not be enough for a woman. And as Chopin points out herself, many women might not even have realized that they felt trapped by the social norm:

But the beginning of things, of a world especially, is necessarily vague, tangled, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing. How few of us ever emerge from such beginning! How many souls perish in its tumult!

How I love this quote! I am especially struck by how timeless it is. It reminds us that it not only takes self-awareness, but also courage to build a world for ourselves that might not be compatible with the world we live in. Yet it also hints at the consequences this upheaval can bring.

Edna is slow to realize that she is not altogether happy in her current state. Her marriage to Mr. Pontellier was “purely an accident.” Edna felt flattered by his attention, after she had twice fancied herself in love and both times was disappointed. She has convinced herself that a lack of passion in her marriage is a good thing, because that means she can’t be disappointed a third time. Additionally, her husband is not a bad man. He likes to provide for her and their two sons. Unfortunately, though, he has no interest—and maybe not even the mental ability—to find out who Edna really is and whether she is truly happy. It is beyond him to wonder whether Edna might need anything other than a doctor when she begins to behave in what is in his eyes a socially unacceptable way. I have to say, though, that I don’t blame him. He is not the kind of person to expect or handle anything that is out of the ordinary.

I found it interesting that Edna begins to realize that she is not satisfied with her current life when she is confiding to Madame Ratignolle, who is the embodiment of social perfection. By all appearances, Madame Ratignolle has a happy marriage, and she relishes in being a wife and mother. She is pretty, polite, and perceptive. It is Madame Ratignolle who first realizes what is happening to Edna and who tries to warn Robert that Edna is different from the women he has previously paid attention to. Madame Ratignolle is in many ways the opposite of Mademoiselle Reisz, an unconventional spinster who is content to live with her supposed eccentricities and her music. What they have in common is an awareness of society’s constraints, though they deal with it differently: Madame Ratignolle doesn’t seem to feel them, and Mademoiselle Reisz doesn’t seem to care about them. It is not surprising that as Edna begins to become aware of who she wants to be, she is drawn more and more to Mademoiselle Reisz. I think it is a strength of the book that at least in my mind, Chopin doesn’t hold one of these two women over the other. There is no judgment that one is better than the other.

At times, while reading this book, I couldn’t help but think of Madame Bovary. While Edna never struck me as out of control as Madame Bovary, I sometimes couldn’t help but be a little confounded by her naiveté. She doesn’t seem to consider the consequences of her actions at all. Did she truly think her husband would have no objections to her moving out of their house? I also couldn’t decide if her affair with Arobin was a deliberate decision on her part or whether she let herself be seduced by a man who has no scruples taking advantage of women. I found her surprisingly passive in this regard. All of her recent actions were driven by her love for Robert, so why would she then go with Arobin?

This brings me to Robert, the wimp. Out of all the characters in this book, I have the least sympathy for him. He is the boy playing with matches, and then not being able to handle the fire. I don’t think he has any nefarious intentions, like Arobin does, when he pays special attention to one or the other of the resort guests. But, like Edna, he does not consider that his actions might have consequences. I do think he is surprised when he finds himself in love with Edna and when he realizes that Edna is in love with him as well. But it is easy enough for him to leave for Mexico, fully expecting that time and distance will take care of inconvenient feelings. When he returns to New Orleans and finds that Edna has changed in a way that would make it possible for the two of them to be together, he can’t commit. He is as little prepared for an unconventional life and its consequences as Mr. Pontellier is.

With Robert’s rejection of Edna, her death is almost a given. What a sad thought! It is heart-breaking that Edna’s decision to finally make her own choices ends in suicide. I would have liked to see her stronger, but that’s easy to say. Maybe if she had been better prepared to deal with disappointment, she would have been able to carry through with living life according to her own standards. How telling that I put those two things in the same sentence: disappointment and leading an independent life. In that respect, I wonder how much has changed in the 100+ years since the book’s publication.

Be sure to check out the reviews of the other book club members:

Kay of What Me Read
Ariel of One Little Library
Eva of Paperback Princess
Kate of Kate Rae Davis
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

And join us on August 7, when we discuss Zadie Smith’s On Beauty.

(*I know why… for the longest time, I had confused this with Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, but let’s not talk about that.)

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21 comments

  1. It’s brilliant, isn’t it? I read it just before I started uni, and was blown away by how ahead of its time it is. I also love her collection of (very) short stories, called Portraits.

    And I’ve been meaning to read On Beauty for years… though not a literary wife…

  2. I’m very late to ‘The Awakening’ party.
    The book is on The Guardian 1000 books must read List.
    Your review has moved the book up a notch on my TBR pile!
    Thanks for a great review!

  3. I wont read your last paragraph b/c I think I’d like to read this one. Then I will probably think: Why didn’t I read this sooner?! I didn’t realize it was written so long ago. Maybe the author had a modern sensibility ?

  4. Between you and Naomi, I think I’m going to have to reread this one sometime! It’s been far too long but I remember really loving it. I think my reaction now would be more complicated – as a mom, wife, and older human, ha ha!

  5. Oh, I didn’t take Robert that way at all. I think he was behaving according to a code. He was in love with a married woman, he doesn’t even dream that he can have her, so to him his only honorable course is to go away. He has no concept that she might agree to something else. What I found disappointing was her slide into the affair with Arobin and the implication that after that she would go from one man to another.

  6. Skipping your review for now as this book is in my tbr and I’d rather not know too much about the story before I read it. That said, I couldn’t help but see your opening comments in my reader – so glad to see that you loved it so much!

  7. “This brings me to Robert, the wimp. Out of all the characters in this book, I have the least sympathy for him. He is the boy playing with matches, and then not being able to handle the fire.” This really made me laugh – it’s so perfect.

    I really liked that you compared Madame Ratignolle and Mademoiselle Reisz. You make a good point that both women help Edna figure out some things but neither is judged as being better or worse than the other. Chopin was miles ahead of her contemporaries not pitting women against each other!

    I hadn’t read this before because I hadn’t heard of it! So your confusing it with another novel was well ahead of me! Glad I got to read it – was surprisingly accessible and, as you say, exquisite!

    • You are right, this book was miles ahead of its times. It is too bad that contemporary readers found it so scandalous that it pretty much destroyed Chopin’s writing career. What a great intro to the Literary Wives club for us!!

      • It looks like she died a few years later anyway. At least she left this for us!
        It was kind of nice that the book was so short, in terms of introducing us to Literary Wives! But I feel like there was so much room for more story.

  8. Great review, TJ! So many things to talk about…
    I’m glad that you brought up Madame Ratignolle and Madame Reisz – it is indeed significant that the author doesn’t judge them, or elevate one above the other. I remember that Edna mentions the fact that she doesn’t even want what it is that Madame Ratignolle has, which as you say is “the embodiment of social perfection”.

    I was also puzzled by her affair with Arobin when it seemed obvious that it was Robert who she wanted. The only thing I can think of is that, at this point, she didn’t seem to care what happened to her, or that “she wanted something to happen – something, anything; she did not know what”. Anything to make her feel more alive?

    I also loved that quote you picked out – and found the book and its subject timeless. The book really made me think about what has really changed over all this time? And, yes, Robert is a wimp. And he’s going to have to live with that now.

    • You are right, Edna has no desire to become like Madame Ratignolle, and I like that this is stated without ambiguity. I can only imagine what contemporary readers thought when they read her statement that she doesn’t want her children to consume her. I’m sure there was much outrage, and many who silently agreed with it.
      Do you think she knew that Arobin was seducing her? She must have been aware of it, with his reputation. But I couldn’t help thinking how passive she was. I would have liked her to say “stay,” rather than “leave” and then ignore when he doesn’t listen. But maybe that would have been too outrageous.
      I noticed that you picked the same quote for your review. It’s a good one!

      • I think she knew, but didn’t care anymore what happened to her. My feeling was that she was depressed at this point. It was disappointing, though, especially because I suspected Robert was going to come back.

        It would be interesting to have a better understanding of people’s reactions to the book back then. How many were truly outrage, and how many were just pretending to be? (Women, that is – obviously the men wouldn’t have liked it.) Or maybe, once again, I’m assuming too much that women then would be thinking the same way as women do now… ugh, I’m not good at putting myself in the time period of this book!

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