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The Awakening is often seen as one of the classic feminist novels. It was assigned to me as part of a college class, and I though I didn't enjoy it, I was able to see the greatness of the novel. The lost and confused character of Edna Pontellier is one of epic proportions.
However, I think the best part of the entire novel is the language conveyed by Chopin. She constantly discusses the strength possessed in the individual. Many critics have gone on to perceive that Chopin was an extreme feminist, and that her message is only directly conveyed to women. While I do believe in the power of women, I must say that I am annoyed with that kind of statement. This book should be able to apply to both men and women.
Chopin's imagery and symbolism are breath-taking. They really make the reader consider what is going on with each character. For example, the constant ebb and flow of the ocean shows the constant change in mood of Edna's behavior. Because Edna consistently wants more than she already has, she finds herself frustrated. Ultimately, the book is up to the reader's interpretation. I found it a great a read and a book that really made sense in my life even if it was written over one hundred years ago.
Mikhail Gorbachev, the last President of the Soviet Union, is often quoted with the sentence, "He who comes late is punished by life." Kate Chopin (1851 - 1904), author of The Awakening experienced after its publication: "She who comes early is punished by life."
Chopin began writing when she was widowed at the age of 32 to support herself and her six children, her stories and sketches were published in magazines and were well accepted as was her first novel At Fault, she gained national recognition during the 1890s as a member of the local-colour movement focusing attention upon the distinctive regional cultures of America. She lived in New Orleans and northwest Louisiana for many years where she got to know the Creole culture. In 1899 her second novel The Awakening, a novella rather of only 116 pages, was published ending her literary career with a bang because of its scandalous content. It slumbered for about 70 years and was then awakened (!) by the women's rights movement.
What was considered scandalous at the turn of the last but one century? The story begins at Grande Isle in the Gulf of Mexico where wealthy Creole families from New Orleans spend their summer holidays, in fact the women and children do, the men only come down for the weekend. We get to know 40-year-old Mr Pontellier, his wife Edna, 28 years old, and their two small sons. There are two other families and a pianist whose names are mentioned as well as two lovers and a woman in black who remain anonymous. With the exception of Edna all protagonists are flat, we learn more about the ones whose names are mentioned than about the others, but they don't change, they never surprise, their function is merely to interact with Edna thus showing the different facets of her character. I see the nameless lovers and the woman in black as symbolic whose significance becomes clear only later on.
Robert Lebrun is visiting his mother who runs the holiday facility as he does every summer playing with the guests' children and flirting with the ladies. This summer he's the constant companion of Edna who's only two years older than he is. Edna is not a Catholic Creole but a Presbyterian from Kentucky and feels a bit of an outsider among the other guests, Robert's attention flatters her and does her good.
Madame Ratignolle, a woman of Edna's age she has befriended asks Robert to leave Edna alone. "She is not one of us; she is not like us. She might make the unfortunate blunder of taking you seriously." This remark takes the innocence out of the relationship, Robert is angry but has to admit to himself that he has indeed fallen in love with Edna. Head over heals he escapes to Mexico where he had been offered a job some time before.
And Edna? She doesn't think she loves Robert, in fact she doesn't think at all about her situation, but she isn't content, she feels unhappy. Once she's sitting alone on the porch at night crying her heart out, why, what for? "An indescribable oppression, which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar part of her consciousness, filled her whole being with a vague anguish".
Her marriage was "purely an accident", but with time she has grown fond of her husband, "realizing with some unaccountable satisfaction that no trace of passion or excessive or fictitious warmth colored her affection, thereby threatening its dissolution." Yet dissolve it does.
Why does Edna never talk with her husband? He adores her, he lives and works only for her and their children's happiness; Edna resents, however, that he views her as his personal property, she doesn't want to belong to him or anyone else. She knows that he wouldn't understand her, so instead of opening up to him, she simply drifts away from him.
When the summer holidays are over, Mr Pontellier has to go to New York on business for a long time, the children visit their grandparents, Edna takes a lover, buys a small house with her own money and for the first time lives a life which isn't dictated by anyone. How can it go on? Where will it lead her? She doesn't know and doesn't care. Then Robert comes back from Mexico and her husband is due to return, too, she must take some action, mustn't she? The solution Kate Chopin found for her protagonist was considered as scandalous by contemporary readers as her lifestyle.
The Awakening deals with many themes still discussed today: open marriages, women's liberation, the importance of sex, the 'mother woman' versus the 'career woman', changing morals and the role of the individual. I found the remark on the net, "This is an appropriate book for high school students to read" - lessons on this book can't be boring to be sure!
What has struck me most about Edna's character is the fact that she doesn't have a positive aim in life, she only knows what she doesn't want. On the one hand this can be a trick of the author's inviting the readers to think for themselves or - I favour this idea more - the author didn't know herself where to send Edna. There were no role models then, alternative life styles didn't exist yet, being a child of her time Kate Chopin could only describe the beginning of the journey, it was for the authors following many generations later to suggest possible destinations.
I think the book isn't only interesting for high school students, it's a good read for everybody who's interested in literature; it's a pleasure to read Chopin's descriptions of the landscape, the interior of houses, dresses, food - everything comes to life.
I've also enjoyed the book as a period piece, I read it during my winter trip to Puerto de la Cruz on Tenerife, a seaside resort comparably (vaguely) to Grand Isle, but oh, how the times have a-changed! A century ago the women dressed in long clothes when they went to the beach, Edna's friend even wears a veil to protect her face from the sun, Edna only wears a straw hat and carries an umbrella. Not that I would want to have to undress for half an hour before I could go for a swim, but when I looked up from my book and saw the hordes of half naked meat loaves shuffling along the promenade, I longed for a bit of the old decorum!
Put the book on your reading list for your next holidays, it's short, intelligent, well written and cheap, it may only disappoint you sex-wise, I re-read a paragraph three times to make sure that that was *it*!
First published in 1899
A friend recently suggested that I read this book. I didnt really have any idea what it was about; finding out that it was about a woman trying to discover herself in the late nineteenth century did not make it any more appealing. I was surprised to find that the book was actually very compelling and beautifully written. Sadly, it caused such a scandal in American society for suggesting that a woman could have another life outside of her husband and children that Kate Chopin was discouraged from writing any more novels.
Edna Pontellier, a young woman belonging to the New Orleans Creole community, is married with two young sons. While spending the summer at a seaside resort, she begins to doubt that her role in life is simply to be a good wife and mother and starts to think about what she wants from life. This is partly because of an undercurrent of feelings for Robert Lebrun, the son of the landlady of the holiday properties in which she and her friends and family are staying.
Robert makes the decision to leave for South America, and although there has been no discussion of their relationship, Edna is devastated. On returning to New Orleans, she becomes restless and begins to refuse to carry out certain expected duties, such as having a day at home to receive ladies that visit. Her husband, concerned by the changes, nevertheless decides to give her free rein to do as she will, realising that he cannot keep her locked up. He even turns a blind eye when she decides to move out of the family home. But will Edna be able to find what it is she is looking for?
Edna Pontellier can be viewed in two ways. She is either a whingeing, moaning woman who ought to put up with what shes got and live with it; or shes a woman ahead of her time, suddenly realising that there is nothing apart from social boundaries to keep her from living as she wants. I did find her mildly annoying at first, but by the end, I found myself wanting her to find happiness. I did find some resemblance between Edna and Madame Bovary it is a long time since I read the latter, but I remember feeling the same way.
Although we are not anywhere near as bound by other peoples opinions these days, I did still recognise in Edna feelings that I have had myself the fact that freedom can be a double-edged sword too much can lead to you losing your way. It is hard to believe that Ednas situation caused so much controversy were not talking orgies here, so if youre hoping for some titillation, try elsewhere! but you have to remember the book was published in 1899 and for that time, Edna over-stepped social boundaries by a long chalk. I found her a refreshing, fascinating character, very realistically portrayed.
Kate Chopin adds another character, Adele Ratignolle, a close friend of Ednas, yet very different. Adele sees herself very much as a mother figure and gives birth to a succession of children, to the point that she is always suffering from some infirmity. She acts as a loyal wife to her husband and he, in turn, likes the fact that she relies on him so fully. Edna does not despise her friend, merely realises that she does not want to go down the path of being a dutiful wife and mother.
Leonce Pontellier, Ednas husband, is another interesting character. While he would much rather his wife conformed to societys expectations, he is surprisingly laid back about her behaviour and although he attempts to cover up for some of her more blatant indiscretions, he doesnt try to stop her from behaving as she will. I suspect he may be based on Kate Chopins husband, who apparently also put up with some of Kates less conventional habits.
Kate Chopin was born in New Orleans and was part of the Creole community described in this book. In this instance, Creole refers to wealthy white descendants of French and Spanish settlers in Louisiana, rather than Creoles from the West Indies and South America. Kate, being attractive and highly intelligent, was much sought after in New Orleans society; unfortunately, she had a love of solitude and hated social occasions. In her husband, Oscar Chopin, she found a man willing to accept her eccentricities. Her writing consisted of three novels, of which The Awakening was the third, three sets of short stories and a selection of essays, poems and childrens stories. (Adapted from the introduction to the book).
I really enjoyed this book. I think it is particularly suited to women in their thirties, particularly those who have lost their way a little because of too much choice and can sympathise with Ednas predicament. It is very much a thinking persons book if you like action, forget it, there really is very little. However, for a book that concentrates on one womans view of the world, it is very readable. Kate Chopin kept the chapters short and the language snappy and I found I galloped through the book very quickly.
There is a lot of emphasis on society at the time, of which there are some very vivid descriptions. The sea is a recurring theme, with Edna initially frightened of it and unable to swim, but once she has learned, she wants to get as far away as she can. This is an interesting use of imagery against the storys plot. Very vivid and effective.
The ending was slightly disappointing in that the story doesnt quite end as I hoped; but it was still very good and made me think. I think that the message of the book was very forward thinking for a woman of her day use your freedom widely, but be prepared to stand your ground. Im sure that if Kate Chopin had known that her work would still be read and valued today, she would be delighted. What a shame she was so far ahead of her time that society could not accept her beliefs and she never wrote another novel. I highly recommend this book, with the caveat that if you are not a new man, you will probably find it tedious.
The version that I read had an interesting introduction by Helen Taylor, a senior lecturer in American literature at the University of Warwick. This set the novel in context, explained a little about society at the time and provided other useful information. I found this very informative and would recommend that if you get hold of the same version, you read it before the story itself, rather than the other way around as I did.
The book is available from Amazon for £1.90. Published by Dover Publications, it has 128 pages and there is no mention of an introduction. ISBN: 0486277860. Penguin also do a version with an introduction and a collection of Chopins short stories for £7.00 from Amazon. The version that I have is unfortunately not available on Amazon or play.com.
A minor masterpiece, The Awakening was a scandalous book when it arrived from the turn-of-the-century presses. With a heroine who found her husband dull, married life dreary and confining, and motherhood to be bondage, this revolutionary book is still relevant to many.