I’m on a reading roll this month – which is awesome, after the poetry writing roll took precedent last month. With The Awakening by Kate Chopin, I’ve finished a fourth book from my list of fifty for The Classics Club. This selection was brought to you by Tyler’s Book Club Classics (find the link to the book club at the bottom of the post, and her review here).
If you haven’t read this gorgeous novella, I must warn you, there are spoilers below the cut!
Title: The Awakening
Author: Kate Chopin
Published: April 22, 1899
Setting: Late nineteenth century, Grand Isle (off the coast of Louisiana) and New Orleans
Primary Character: Edna Pontellier
My Edition: Public Domain e-book
Restrictions of Time Period
The Awakening is a story that you have to read with a strong consideration of the time period. Much of what Edna does would not raise eyebrows today, but during the late 1800s, it certainly caused a stir. Not because of the illicit romance, though anything more explicit may have made the book unpublishable. Instead, Edna’s true “failing” is her lack of desire to fulfill traditional roles of womanhood. Her children are only of mild interest to her, and she even finds herself with a headache when trying to create a menu for her household.
It’s easy for other characters to write off Edna’s behavior as fleeting. In my opinion, this attitude is one of the major reasons the story has to end the way it did. Something permanent was needed to show the members of her society that her changes were real, not just a general ennui. Only Doctor Mandelet seemed to have any inkling of the seriousness of her feeling, and he came to her too gently and too late. Did I like the ending? I’m still not sure. But I feel like there wasn’t another recourse that would allow Edna to live the lifestyle she wanted. It didn’t help that the men in her life kept doing things for her own good, rather than considering her feelings on the matter.
Edna is set up as a sexual being from the beginning of the novella, albeit rather gently. Her passionate interest in celebrities is contrasted with her apathy toward her husband. Passion rekindles in her during the opening chapters on the Grand Isle, but not toward Léonce Pontellier. Though it’s initially directed at the young Robert Lebrun (which drives him, in his conflict between love and propriety, to literally flee the country), Edna realizes over time that even her love for him is fleeting. In contrast, her interest in Alcée Arobin is purely sexual. In a way, he’s the only male character that provides her with what she wants. He doesn’t ask any more from her than she asks from him.
All three of these romantic entanglements are unsatisfying to Edna, however. She seeks and finds, to a degree, satisfaction in herself and her art. But unfortunately, satisfaction in the self is fleeting and in contrast to all she’s ever been taught in society, and it can’t keep her from her sadness.
Classic literature is often fairly plot-driven, with characterization falling to the wayside. I’d say The Awakening is one of the earliest pieces that I’ve read that defies this structure. The novella is so focused on the metamorphosis of Edna that plot seems to almost entirely disappear. I loved her evolution, but readers should definitely avoid this story if they like solid plot lines.
Having a (well-written) character-driven story means having insight into human behavior. It means events occur not because they fit into some pre-ordained outline, but because the character feels the motivation (or lack thereof) to do something. Much of The Awakening follows where Edna’s desires lead her. She wants to paint; she paints and sells her work. She doesn’t want to attend her sister’s wedding; she defies her father and her husband and stays in New Orleans. She has relationships with men regardless of propriety. She changes her home, she goes where she wills, and ultimately, she chooses not only her manner of life, but her manner of death.
Pop Culture Connection
While a cursory Google search failed to find many references to The Awakening in modern television or literature, I did discover a list of stage adaptions of Kate Chopin’s works. Apparently the novella lends itself well to theatre and dance. Otherwise, the classic is only translated into two rather obscure film adaptions, though it did receive recognition in a 2010 episode of HBO’s Treme. Finally, at least one fan liked to book enough to create a false movie trailer starring Kate Winslet!
Though this book is rather melancholy, here’s a beautiful moment to remember:
There were days when she was very happy without knowing why. She was happy to be alive and breathing, when her whole being seemed to be one with the sunlight, the color, the odors, the luxuriant warmth of some perfect Southern day.