One thing I really loved to do as a kid was swim underwater. To move through quiet water, tinged green and shot through with golden spears of sunlight, in a world where sounds are muted and movements are slow, created a place of solitary introspection that in retrospect seems invaluable to a sensitive child and regrettably lost as a busy adult. Reading Chopin's The Awakening brings back that lost feeling to me, and as I have just read it again for the first time since college, I wanted to get this down while I'm still blinking and bewildered from re-entry into the sentient world.
The Awakening recounts the last year in the life of Edna Pontellier, a twenty-eight year old wife and mother of two who comes to an awakening of self amidst the backdrop of the Creole society into which she has married during the late 1800's. To summarize: Edna, a Kentucky-born Presbyterian who married a wealthy French Catholic Creole and was subsequently transplanted to New Orleans, is spending the summer at a Creole resort on Grand Isle (an island about fifty miles south of New Orleans, between the Gulf of Mexico and Caminada Bay). The patrons are housed in a row of cottages occupied and run by high-society. The summer population of the island includes vacationing Creole women and their children, retired persons, and permanent residents. Working men join their families on the weekends. This proves to be a pivotal summer for Edna, a rather dissatisfied wife and detached mother, who, unlike her Creole sisters, is unwilling or unable to "efface [herself] as [an] individual and grow wings as [a] ministering angel."
As the summer progresses, Edna seeks fulfillment in the society of her friends, painting with watercolors, listening to music, and learning to swim. She gradually grows a fancied romantic attachment to Robert Lebrun, the handsome young son of the caretaker of the resort. Her sentiments are returned unspoken, and he, conscious of her marital status, does the honorable thing and takes himself away to work in Mexico.
Back in New Orleans at summer's end, Leonce Pontellier finds a marked change in his wife, who no longer exhibits the patience to go along with convention - receiving callers, making calls herself, etc. Instead, she wishes to be "let alone" - to paint, to read poetry, to walk alone a great deal and to wander into strange parts of the city. Advised by their family doctor to give his wife space, Pontellier departs on an extended business trip in the North; likewise the children are sent to spend time with their paternal grandmother in a more rural setting. Left to her own devices, Edna closes up the family mansion and moves into a quaint cottage around the corner, paying for her day-to-day living with money earned from her paintings she has sold and alternating her solitary activities with excursions to the races with Alcee Arobin, a playboy with whom she drifts into an affair even while brooding over Robert.
Things come to a head when Robert returns toward the end of winter. To Edna's hurt bewilderment, he avoids her as much as possible, finally putting his feelings for her into words only after Edna corners and confronts him. They are interrupted when Edna is called to the bedside of her closest Creole friend, a "model" wife and mother who wants her present at the birth of her fourth child, and who, upon completion of this event, urges Edna to "think of the children." Edna, wearied and sickened by the experience as well as mentally exhausted, returns home to find that Robert has fled, leaving her a good-bye letter that assures her of his devotion even as it ends their society. The confounded Edna flees back to Grand Isle. Unable to reconcile her passions, she swims into the Gulf until exhausted and drowns herself.
Well, I didn't say it would be the feel-good book of the year.
To finish up on the historical aspects, this book was quite naturally slammed by the critics of the time; Chopin's membership in the St. Louis Fine Arts Club was revoked, and The Awakening went out of print for more than half a century. Why? Was the subject matter of the book any more "shocking" than that of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina or Flaubert's Madame Bovary? No; it seems that Chopin's chief sin appeared to be that she showed too much sympathy toward Edna Pontellier; besides and because of the fact that it was a woman behaving thus, it left a sour taste of cui bono in the mouths of more than one appalled critic. Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary erred, but they met their untimely ends in the appropriate way - with the realization that they screwed things up. Edna Pontellier made it painfully clear that she was turning to suicide not out of guilt for her sins against society, but as a means of escape. The critics found this attitude "unhealthy" and the woman's conduct "degrading to the human condition."
So the book got panned - then. Now, it's used in college courses, but don't let that scare you into not reading it. The Los Angeles Times may have called it "unhealthily introspective" when it first came out, but none of the early critics deny - and many of them admit - that this is a story both beautifully and masterfully written, bright and rich with descriptions so vivid one seems to experience them personally. Like the idle summer days of my childhood that seemed to blend into one another and amplify each sensation, Chopin's charm draws me in - I feel the deep warmth of the sand on the beach at Grand Isle; see the red wine in one character's glass gleaming like the heart of a ruby; hear the lazy, close sound of buzzing bees mingle itself with the sound of a child's faulty piano playing from a distant room and through an open window; smell the musky, heavy odor of pinks on the warm air; taste the rich dark coffee served in a modest, leafy, garden café located in a suburb of New Orleans. The author's style pulls one in, much the same way ocean will quietly draw you along, so subtly that you never notice until you look up and find that you're far from the shore. There is no finding fault with this author's writing, for all that she wasn't one for revising.
So what, then, of the plot - of the tale itself?
I think that because I am a woman, this story touches me in a way that it could not perhaps reach a man. Although I do not necessarily condone the main character's actions in every instance, still I sympathize with her on a number of different levels - sympathize with her inner turmoil, caused by her outward circumstances, the restrictions of society and the indoctrination of mores, and her own tempestuous nature - I sympathize with her and can identify with her in a vague way though we are from different eras. One critic states "Quite frankly, the book is about sex." The critic is a man, and though I may not have the advanced degrees that this man holds, still I will venture to say that his diagnosis is premature. Certainly the book is about sex, but more, it is about passion, and not just physical passion.
Even today, in this country, women suffer from preset notions as to what their place in life resides. Edna Pontellier married unwisely - one could say that this was her own mistake and that she needed to live with it - the "you-made-your-bed-now-lie-in-it" philosophy. The author states:
"Her marriage to Leonce Pontellier was purely an accident, in this respect resembling many other marriages which masquerade as the decrees of Fate...She fancied there was a sympathy of thought and taste between them, in which fancy she was mistaken. Add to this the violent opposition of her father and her sister...to her marriage with a Catholic, and we need seek no further for the motives which led her to accept Monsieur Pontellier for her husband."While I feel the fault lies in part with herself, it believe it also rests with what was considered a woman's place in those days (and in some cases, these days). Women were expected to marry, and women who were not married held no value; worse, a woman thought herself of little value unless a man were interested in her. Painfully enough, I know too many women suffer under the same delusion these days, harboring the notion that unless they are deemed of value by a man, then they are of no value, and that marriage is not a gift, but a necessity. Edna was expected to marry - and marry well - by her family; girls were expected to marry young in the society in which she lived, and being an "old maid" was considered a fate worse than death and one worthy of both pity and scorn. Edna's dissatisfaction with her match and her neglect of those actions considered her wifely duties appalled the critics of the time as much as did her extramarital affair.
Even more damning in the eyes of the critics was Edna's approach to motherhood. Consider the following:
"She was fond of her children in an uneven, impulsive way. She would sometimes gather them passionately to her heart; she would sometimes forget them...Feeling secure regarding their happiness and welfare [while they were away with their grandmother], their absence...seemed to free her of a responsibility which she had blindly assumed and for which Fate had not fitted her."Naturally her inability to be fulfilled by motherhood and wife-hood alone made her an object of criticism both inside the story and out; even her closest woman friend did not censure her, but rather pitied her - as one might pity a person born without eyesight or a limb. One character in the novel relates (a male character, no less) that "Youth is given up to illusions. It seems to be a provision of Nature; a decoy to secure mothers for the race." Chopin certainly is not denouncing either marriage or motherhood - she who experienced both - but rather, pointing out that they need not be the end-all in scope for some or even all women.
Besides the conventional mores of the time, Edna's sensitive temperament must also contend with her own upbringing, with the atmosphere in which she was reared. When her passionate nature yields to Arobin's advances, she feels "a dull pang of regret because it was not the kiss of love which had inflamed her..." for of course women were not to feel such passion, and if so, only in the presence of love. Edna yearns for an artistic temperament which "dares and defies," but cannot reconcile a new found sense of freedom and independence with responsible motherhood.
When women wrote on such themes as these in olden times, they generally did so in order to preach. Kate Chopin wrote her novel not to preach, whether to condemn immorality and the besetting sin of suicide or to make a political statement; rather, The Awakening is an honest, perceptive look into one particular type of human nature and its reactions it undergoes when its stirring awareness of itself encounters the rough walls of societal boundaries and upbringing. Tolstoy counseled restraint and sublimation; Kate Chopin sought self-discovery, and counseled not at all.
The cover of the original 1899 edition of The Awakening, and the frontpiece from A Night in Acadie. The images were found on the University of North Carolina's Documenting the American South web site. A full electronic text of The Awakening can be found on this site.