The Awakening, by Kate Chopin

Edna Pontellier, a 28-year-old wife and mother, is on vacation with her two small sons. They are at a pension on Grand Isle where other families have taken refuge from New Orleans’ August heat, husbands joining them at the weekend. We see her first through the eyes of her 40-year-old husband, a prosperous businessman, as she returns from bathing accompanied by Robert Lebrun, the son of the pension owner. Mr. Pontellier criticises her for getting sunburnt, “looking at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage.”

Yet there is clearly an understanding between them as she, laughing, holds out her hand and he knows she is asking for her rings which she asked him to hold for her. Edna has a certain reserve that sets her apart. “Even as a child she had lived her own small life all within herself.” Although she does have friends among the other women on Grand Isle, she does not feel at home among them because she alone is not a Creole, with their freedom of expression and absence of prudery. Also, she is not a “mother-woman . . .They were women who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels.”

Almost imperceptibly, through one small scene and then another, Edna begins to recognise herself and “her position in the universe as a human being”. She begins to do the things that she wants to do rather than the things she is supposed to do, spending her days painting in an atelier she has created at the top of their town mansion, not attending her own “at homes”. I love that rather than defining herself by those around her, she tries to define herself from within, to become her authentic self, although at first she does not know what that is.

First published in 1899, The Awakening is as relevant to women today as it was then, when women—and men—were struggling to free themselves from Victorian tradition and authority. In her introduction, Sandra M. Gilbert places the novel in the context of fin de siêcle writers and their predecessors, such as Oscar Wilde, Gustave Flaubert, Walt Whitman, Emile Zola, and Guy de Maupassant. As Gilbert points out, though, Edna differs from George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke and Emily Brontë’s Catherine Earnshaw Linton in that their struggle ends with them "accepting their own comparative powerlessness." Edna never does.

Gilbert also points out the sensual images of the sea that permeate the book and suggests that Edna’s story may be a retelling of the story of Aphrodite. I had not considered these ideas when I first read this book in the 1970s. Reading it now, it seems deeper and richer than ever, and I appreciate more the structure and the subtle changes Edna undergoes.

Chopin achieves these almost imperceptible transitions by leaving some mystery around Edna’s feelings: she cries after being awakened and reproached by her husband, but "She could not have told why she was crying." This is appropriate since Edna herself does not understand for a long time what is happening to her. Her statements and the close third-person narration gradually become stronger as her feelings and goals become clearer. Also, much of our understanding of her feelings comes from what others say about her and from the descriptions of her surroundings. These seem only loosely linked to her journey at first, more obviously reflect her feelings as we go on.

The water of the Gulf stretched out before her, gleaming with the million lights of the sun. The voice of the sea is seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander in abysses of solitude. All along the white beach, up and down, there was no living thing in sight.

What book from the past have you reread and found better than you remembered?

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