In ‘The Awakening’ Kate Chopin tells the story of Edna Pontellier. She is 28 years old, mother of two small childeren and married to a devoted husband, who provides very well for her in a materialistic sense.
We meet Mrs Pontellier during her family’s summer stay at Grand Isle, off the Louisiana coast. During this summer Edna falls in love with a man slightly younger than herself. Through this passion, her perception of the world around her changes dramatically. Once the summer is over and the family return to their home in New Orleans, she finds it impossible to carry on with her life the way she had done before the summer. Instead, she acts according to her own inner voice, pursuing her own desires, instead of doing what is desired of a wife and mother.
Because of the adultery element of the novel, it was not well-received. The plot was too controversial for those times, the novel was published in 1899. Chopin published only one other novel, previous to ‘The Awakening’ and about one hundred short stories.
Although this is a short novel (novella?) at only a little over 100 pages, I tried to spread the reading over a couple of days. Mostly to enjoy it slowly and make myself savour Chopin’s writing. The writing is beautifully descriptive, the atmosphere and characters are capture within a limited number of sentences and words. The narrative is poetic at some points, like the following passage:
“The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.”
I love how Edna’s ‘Awakening’ is portrayed. Chopin uses different mechanisms to convey to the reader that she is beginning to acknowledge her inner voice. She achieves this through the plot, but also via language. In the first chapters, Edna is exclusively referred to as Mrs Pontellier, like the following passage:
“Mrs. Pontellier had brought her sketching materials, which she sometimes dabbled with in an unprofessional way. She liked the dabbling. She felt in it satisfaction of a kind which no other employment afforded her.”
But later this changes, as in the following
“Edna worked several hours with much spirit. She say no one but a picture dealer, who asked her if it were true that she was going abroad to study in Paris.”
As Edna gradually becomes aware of her own passions, desires and identity, Chopin achieved that I felt more connected to her. I love that already in the beginning Edna is convinced that there is part of herself that is entirely her own, not determined by her children, husband or society.
“She had all her life been accustomed to harbor thoughts and emotions which never voiced themselves. They had never taken the form of struggles. They belonged to her and were her own, and she entertained the conviction that she had a right to them and that they concerned no one but herself.”
This contrasts heavily to the description of Mrs Ratignolle, Edna’s friend, who belongs to the following category of women: “They were women who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals…” Then, when she returns to the New Orleans home, Edna’s change in outward behaviour comes as a shock to her husband
“It sometimes entered Mr Pontellier’s mind to wonder if his wife were not growing a little unbalanced mentally. He could see plainly that she was not herself. That is, he could not see that she was becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world.”
Eventually, her behaviour leads to trouble, yet she believes the following, in a conversation with her physician:
“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.”
I could go on and on, giving quotes and discussing why I think this is such great writing and composition. I have tried to put some of the most striking things in this post, I encourage everyone who may read this to pick up this book. It is beautifully written and guaranteed to make you think. I am very much in awe of how much Chopin was able to put in 115 pages.
I’ve read that this novel has been picked up by the feminist movement in the 1970’s. To me, the theme of this novel as I interpreted it, is still relevant in this time. Many young people are struggling to connect with their inner selves. They are unsure of who they want to be and what will make them happy. Meanwhile, young people are under quite some pressure, through the expectations of the people surrounding them and the many possibilities that life has on offer. Times have changed. But the issue of finding your way and dealing with other people’s expectations remains relevant. Which makes this novel a great achievement.
I look forward to rereading this in a couple of years and seeing how ‘The Awakening’ resounds with me then.