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Review: The Awakening, by Kate Chopin

The Awakening and Selected Stories, by Kate Chopin, published by Penguin Classics. ©1984. Edited with an Introduction by Sandra M. Gilbert. The Awakening was first published in 1899.This novel earns its horrifing reviews at publication in 1889 as well as its stellar reception upon its modern discovery as a contemporary novel in the latter part of the twentieth century—and both for the same reasons.

Edna Pontellier, the wife of an upper class man who makes his monetary and social fortune on the stock market and other shrewd business deals, lives in New Orleans as her husband’s ultimate, complimentary object that bears his children, keeps the house and servants, and socializes with the wives of business associates that will ensure her husband's financial success.

She is “awakened” while spending the obligatory summer on Grand Isle with the other high society women whose nursemaids tag along after their children and whose husbands stay away on business during the week only to return with bonbons and other extravagances on the weekends.

Edna falls in love with Robert, a young bachelor and the grown son of a family friend who spends his summers at Grand Isle as a sort of gopher for the older married women that includes flirting and supplicating their every need and fancy.

Edna awakens to the gradual and then sudden no-turning-back realization that she belongs to no one for no reason, not her husband, not her children, and ultimately, not even her Robert whom she realizes she would in time, eventually discard thus leaving her all alone, wanting no one and no thing.

Edna’s situation illustrates the conundrum of realizing what one so desires, wants, and ultimately needs for the soul, but cannot fulfill because of the physical limitations and circumstances of ones station in society. This novel, written long before its time, runs parallel to the core of the Women’s Liberation Movement of the ‘60s. It's easy to imagine Edna as a 1950 housewife who awakens to the calling of her own independent spirit (the character of Laura Brown in Michael Cunningham’s The Hours?). No wonder the critics of 1899 were horrified by Edna's despondency and her ultimate refusal to play the dutiful wife, mother, and well-to-do society woman.

This is not a book I would recommend a woman should read if she is contemplating divorce, an affair, or for that matter, suicide. Doing so might only deepen the melancholy of depression that accompanies such crises.

Edna struck me as a woman slipping into depression from the very first pages of the novel. Without knowing she’d ultimately have an affair or commit suicide, her depression seeped out through the passages of inner dialogue and her vacillation between manic and depressed episodes.

The fact that her inner voice could not know or understand exactly how or why she felt made a big impression on me. Kate Chopin’s narrative expressed the ambivalence and confusion that comes with experiencing conflicting and/or new emotions for the first time under circumstances that were once habitual and dreamlike, but now are perceived with a new illuminating, but simultaneously blinding light.

In the end, Edna does indeed leave an out for herself, however she does not choose to take it. She contemplates that no one, not even Robert “need not have thought that they could possess her, body and soul.” However, she interjects that “Perhaps Doctor Mandelet would have understood if she had seen him—but it was too late...” (176). Yes, I believe he would have understood. If she had sought him out, she would have survived her torture, her dilemma, her crisis, and risen beyond it all to greater personal and spiritual heights (perhaps even finding a soul mate in her haunting pianist-friend, Mademoiselle Reisz). Instead, she remained within her psychological isolation, never reaching out to others, as if she was her own grand island put asunder by the seductive, but cruel waves of the Gulf.

Craft comments:

  • The story unfolds and deepens gradually until the accelerated and final conclusion.
  • Chopin allows us to experience her husband, her children, her friends along side Edna.
  • This is told with a bit of an unpredictable omniscient voice that often snaps in and out of the inner thoughts of main characters within the same sentence.
  • The narrator certainly knows much more than Edna does and knows her better than she knows herself.

If you’ve read The Awakening, please share your thoughts on story or craft by submitting a comment below.


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