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:
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.)