Short but rich; while blunt and mysterious also; The Awakening by Kate Chopin remains of one of the most thought-provoking novels I have ever read. The words, for the most part, are clear (despite an occasional French or slang); the sentences are simple and sturdy; the paragraphs are tight; and the chapters are short, no more than two or three pages on average. But after reading this novel twice, I can’t quite break through the text to understand what it’s about.
(This is the version I read: Barnes & Nobles Classics, http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/awakening-and-selected-short-fiction-kate-chopin/1005693355)
Within the novel, Edna Pontellier is a woman of high class in late 19th century Louisiana, while married to the successful Léonce Pontellier, with whom she has two sons. The novel opens with the Pontellier family on vacation at a Grand Isle resort on the Gulf of Mexico. While there, we subtly learn of Edna’s displeasure with her life, especially as she spends most of her time with her friend Adéle Ratignolle, who encourages her to be more wifely and motherly. But Edna wants to feel meaningful as an individual, not just as a wife or mother. While on resort, she falls in love with Robert LeBrun, who takes her to the water where she does not know how to swim. She eventually teaches herself little by little to swim manageably. When she falls in love with Robert, she is “awakened” to the earnestness of this unhappiness in her life and “awakened” to a self within, that is not just meant to be a wife or a mother. This affair does not last, but the effect it had on Edna remains with her so deeply, that when the family returns to Louisiana, Edna grows more and more distant from her family and, after some time, separates herself from them to have her own place. The rest of the novel concerns Edna as a woman attempting to explore the depths of herself as an individual and expressing an inner life through painting. Edna has a friend, Mademoiselle Reisz, who is a renowned pianist. Mademoiselle Reisz is an inspiration for Edna, because she is an independent woman, with no ties to a husband or children. Edna’s predicament, however, is that she is a wife and a mother, and her self-exploration will be cut short, due to her family or her society. At the end, after Robert returns and leaves again, to tell Edna he loves her and that he cannot harm the reputation of a married woman, Edna revisits the ocean at the Grand Isle, where she had learned how to swim, and she drowns herself.
(Photo, taken from https://mixedupsaydee.com/2015/12/07/the-awakening-by-kate-chopin-an-analysis/)
After I read it the first time, I spoke with my cousin, who had been taught the novel in high school. My cousin hated it, because she saw Edna as a selfish woman, who cheats on her husband and abandons her family, only to kill herself, because she can never be satisfied. I, on the other hand, had read this novel shortly after I had read Dostoevsky’s The Demons, in which he writes: “He who kills himself only to kill fear, will at once become God,” of which God is “the fear of the pain of death.” I read this novel as a story of existential survival, with her suicide being a triumph of will, a total forfeiture of oneself to oneself, death as the eternal ecstasy to life and all its chains; for Edna teaches herself to swim in the ocean, the symbolic place of her awakening, but she chooses to drown there. When I went back to the novel years later, I could see Edna’s occasional petulance, her spitefulness, her unnecessary wickedness, her lack of thoroughness, especially in thinking things through. The novel can be an easy read…but only if you chose to ignore its ambiguity.
I think this would be a great addition to the syllabus for many reasons: 1) it is short, so it is definitely manageable for professors and students who have busy schedules; 2) it is an American novel, which also includes the French language and issues of race (with its subtle mentioning of indentured servants and peoples of mixed racial backgrounds); 3) it is not just a novel about a woman, it is a novel about an individual against herself, against her society, and against nature; 4) it revolves around the questions ‘What does it mean to be a self?’ and ‘What is human nature?’; and lastly, 5) it offers a provoking mystery about the role of nature in an individual’s life.
“The voice of the sea is seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander in abysses of solitude.”
― Kate Chopin,
Quotes on The Awakening:
A blog read (by someone else) on The Demons:
A blog read (by someone else) on The Awakening: