Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Awakening (1899)

It's not hard to figure out how Kate Chopin's short novel has earned its reputation as a landmark of feminist literature, for the timing of its publication, on the brink of the 20th century, as much as for its subject matter. The "awakening" of the title—interesting to note Chopin's original title was A Solitary Soul—is not just sexual, though it's that too, but more generally a revelation about the limited choices a woman has in society as conducted. Edna Pontellier, our hero and more or less a fine figure of Southern womanhood, is in her late 20s at the time of the story, married, the mother of two, living out the life of the genteel Southern upper middle class in and around New Orleans—a housewife, by which is meant a sanctioned kept woman. On a summer vacation she falls in love with a man not her husband, who feels the same toward her, and accordingly he flees the scene because he has no prospect to "have" her—by which is meant, explicitly, more than sex. He wants, in the parlance, her to be his. A sexual fling alone will not do. Edna can't get her head around this and therein lies the still resonant crucial conflict. Ultimately she makes herself sexually available to him, but it's not good enough. She realizes she has little choice in giving herself up to any man. They are the only terms she is offered, she comes to realize. Her only choice is which man, which she gave up anyway when she married (and certainly when she had children), and by the way it was a very limited choice in the first place. She pushes at these strictures on herself, taking up artwork and distancing herself from her children (Raoul and Etienne by name), but the strictures only tighten. I had some problems following Chopin's language and way of telling the story, which tended toward rote and droning and was often unclear about what was going on in basic terms. In that way, and only that way, it hasn't dated so well. There's a kind of inevitability to The Awakening—if Chopin hadn't done it someone else would have, and indeed the flood of novels, plays, and movies about women coming to just such epiphanies followed all through the 20th century. There are better examples, more coherent and urgent, but Chopin's occupies a unique historical vantage, not least for being so harshly reviled and shunned in its time.

In case it's not at the library.


  1. I taught this a couple of times, paired with Thelma and Louise.

  2. Right around the time you published this review, I learned that "The Awakening" would be the first reading assignment in the "More Southern Women Writers" lifetime learning course I'd just signed up for (despite having been a writer all these years, my first literature course since the spring of 1968!) I liked the book for its theme of feminine liberation from the Victorian male power structure, and I was a bit surprised when we discussed the story in class last week, that several *female* members complained about Edna "neglecting" her children to seek her liberation. Another student and I pointed out that Edna's Victorian social position more or less required that her children be cared for by servants, rather than directly by her, and that her husband undoubtedly took pride in her idleness as a sign of his ability to provide and then some. I'm not sure how much that mollified all of my classmates, so maybe feminist liberation can still be a hard sell over a century later.

    I made it through most of the Victorian euphemisms in Chopin's writing without too much trouble, but her one word choice that really rankled me was when her narration continually referred to one of the child-care servants as "the quadroon," never by any given name. That's such a stupidly racist coinage to start with, and indeed sounds like it should be the name of an insect rather than a mixed-race human. I read somewhere that Kate Chopin was quite a Confederate sympathizer during the Civil War (when she was just a teen), so maybe she could have stood some other kinds of liberation. But "The Awakening" is definitely worth a read.

    Richard Riegel

  3. Thanks Richard. That's a good point -- I noticed that word going by too, and winced. Amazing how things change in just a few generations.