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Reading American Classics: Kate Chopin’s THE AWAKENING

It’s interesting to read an end-of-the-century novel from the opposite side of the intervening twentieth century, for though there is in Chopin’s novel no preoccupation with the remorseless cycle of measured time, the intervening hundred twenty-three years–and all their evolutions, both cultural and literary–are going to be part of the modern reader’s context.

Be aware: this is somewhat spoilery.

As the novel unfolds, it is very difficult to like Edna Pontellier. In these days of two paychecks being required just to survive, on top of the endless drudgery of housework, car maintenance, and children’s needs, Edna’s dissatisfaction with a life of social engagements, fine dinners that she did not have to prepare or clean up after, and congenial hours of just sitting about on porches chatting idly, make it very hard for a modern reader to sympathize with her.

While she is obsessed with her perceived bonds of slavery, she spares not one thought to the nameless women of color who labor unceasingly in the background doing the drudge work that is an inescapable part of daily existence. The woman who appears to be the primary caretaker of Edna’s two boys is not even vouchsafed a name; she is dismissed as “the quadroon,” a racial epithet that relegates her to an importance somewhere beneath parlor furnishings, which are at least noticed by callers.

Chopin’s evocative depiction of life in Louisiana a hundred years ago is fascinating both for the differences and for the moments that resonate with our own experience. Adele Ratignole’s childbirth scene, with its pain and emotional intensity. The ability of children then, as now, to invent games on the dusty ground. Sitting through an amateur theatrical. The sensory details, and the emotional dynamics resultant all transmit that spark of verisimilitude–the scents of flowers. The stickiness of clothing in hot weather. How musical artistry stabs through our primal emotions like a hiltless knife. The moment of realization when the warmth of friendship kindles into lust.

The novel’s overarcing theme appears to be self-discovery, but it reads to me more like self-involvement. Restless, emotionally stifled Edna is “awakened” first by Madamoiselle Reisz’s music, and then by a midnight swim when she dares, for the first time, not to wade, but to strike out into the dark waters and test that elusive nexus between heightened physical endeavor and death.

Her desire to free herself from all her perceived shackles of wifedom and motherhood veer when she discovers, belatedly, her lust for Robert Lebrun, and again when she forsakes the serene, generous, but ambitionless friendship of Adele Ratignolle. She tells Robert that she loves him; he responds in kind; in a desperate act of martyred honor Robert leaves, and Edna shrugs off the world and takes another swim, this one toward the eternal darkness.

It is interesting that Edna’s very last images are not of any of her putative loved ones, but of vivid and unconnected sensory details–The spurs of the cavalry officer clanged as he walked across the porch. There was the hum of bees, and the musky odor of pinks filled the air. Throughout the novel the presence of solitary lives wink in and out like fireflies: the parrot, the quadroon, Madamoiselle Reisz; even the lovers, who are never named, nor do they interact with anyone else in their total mutual absorption.

Edna connects with four different people, two men and two women, however ephemerally. Each of the four is connected to the rest of their community through a different thread of the lacework of life: Adele and Robert as mother and gentleman, respectively, of society; Madamoiselle Reisz as the artist, and Arabin as the sensualist.

All four live the lives they want to live, the latter two as singles, Robert as a son and brother, and Adele as wife and mother. It is Robert and Adele who, as members of the community, each make sacrificial acts: Robert in leaving to save his and Edna’s reputations (he leaves twice) and Adele through childbirth.

Each act is painful, each is a necessity to sustain the implied greater good of the community. Madame Reisz leads an independent existence, having everything she wants except (it is implied) sex. It is she who encourages Edna to “take flight” and though she speaks in terms of art, one wonders if in fact the spinster is encouraging Edna to give her the vicarious thrill of passion that she, old and ugly, desires. She certainly knows what it is that Edna wants–as does Adele, who tries to save Edna from cutting herself off from all the other presumed connections of her life in order to satisfy this illicit desire. And of course Arabin represents the life of illicit desire, never responsible, mostly shunned, with no permanent connections outside of the endless quest for gratification.

It appears that the illicit aspect of Edna’s desires is the driving force behind her quest. She tries one thing after another, from wandering about the streets as long as she likes to gluttonous eating and adultery, and then abandons them all. She can’t be bothered with anything that requires self discipline–not in watching over her children, or communicating with her husband, or even painting.

From the perspective of one who was young during the sixties and seventies, it is not surprising that this novel experienced a rebirth of interest during that period. It seems, looking back, that alienation and self-absorbed behavior were idealized during that time; novels and movies featured young singles who rejected everything but the pursuit of pleasure, and found that meaningless as well.Existentialist angst seemed the raison-d’etre of all art, because life was meaningless, and females felt the shackles of fifties expectations: we were supposed to be Doris Day, conforming to a cheerful dedication of our lives to a male, who would in turn provide house, car, and children.

Nowadays we would call her behavior dysfunctional, and Edna certainly is a vivid portrayal of a dysfunctional woman. Despite Chopin’s mendaciously casual dismissal of her heroine in her response to the novel’s critical rejection as “working out her own damnation” one suspects that Chopin really did admire her heroine. All those reminders of how attractive she was in others’ eyes; the firm auctorial intrusion not permitting the reader any sympathy with Mr. Pontellier and his “worship of his household gods”–though it is he who spends the most energy in trying to understand his wife, to communicate with her, and to make her happy. It is he who has the strongest bond with the children, though the culture by that time had already disengaged fathers from active parenting–except in punishment and economic control. The culminating moment of the book is Edna’s dinner party, where she is perceived as Aphrodite, the goddess of love–an ironic observation about a woman who doesn’t seem to have been capable of real love.

This is not to say that the novel doesn’t work. In fact, it is so well written that it functions on numerous levels, as a slice-of-regional life historical piece, and as an exercise is stylistic brilliance. As a cautionary tale during the early part of this century, when the nascent women’s movement was beginning to build up enough speed to cause cultural resistance. As a tale of alienation and self-absorption for the young adult reader, who is often alienated and self-absorbed, as it was for a period in our own recent history when such tales enjoyed their literary eclat. As a tale of dysfunction for contemporary readers, who are engaged in examing the literature of the past so as to find a way to redefine our own roles–gender roles, family roles, community roles–for the future.

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4 thoughts on “Reading American Classics: Kate Chopin’s THE AWAKENING”

  1. One does speculate on how often Joan Didion read The Awakening.

    It was so interesting, teaching The Awakening, to an undergrad literature class at Tulane, who were yet another, perhaps three generations along in feminism since Didion, and one in which Black students were at least a third of the class, which would have not quite been the case in Didion’s time. The discussions were so sharp and wide-ranging. Not the least was the foreshadowing of jazz improvisation in the descriptions of Madamoiselle Reisz’s music, which also function at times almost like a film’s source music to the narrative of Edna’s non-structured wanderings. Of course the unconscious, self-absorbed racism too.

    At the conclusion of the discussions, the class fairly was unanimous that The Awakening was not a feminist novel — a novel well worth reading for all the reasons we had discussed, but not a work of feminism per se — perhaps an anti-feminist work, that fit well with those of Edith Wharton and the Gilded Age. But whereas Wharton was focused on the wealthy striving and indulged societies of the Northeast — this is a purely New Orleans novel!

  2. It was particularly interesting to hear these young women (the guys, for a change, were mostly silent!), talk about the place of ennui and anomie in the lives of essentially affluent women as a comparison and contrast between The Awakening and Play It As It Lays. Whereas with Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth was about what the loss of affluence does to women. They were seeing this as a peculiarly American thing, as wealth is our class. But I thought we see all the same themes working out in many British and European novels of the 19th century, particularly the latter part of it, and particularly with the Brit and American writers, who spent so much time in each other’s countries, while staying in the same social stratas, as with Wharton herself, and Henry James, or from England, the Trollops, mother and son. (Mark Twain is, of course, in a class all of his own!). Wharton and James do merge them seamlessly, as with The Buccaneers and The Golden Bowl and Portrait of a Lady.

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