It’s taken me more than a week to write a post about Kate Chopin’s novella The Awakening. At first, I was at a loss even to write a synopsis. The story seems simple, but once I began, I realized that it’s subtle and complex in ways that make it hard to condense. It begins with a vacation at Grand Isle near Louisiana, and the events of that vacation have a ripple effect in the life of one woman, small waves at first, then larger and larger, experience and passion, until they overwhelm sense and propriety and convention and — depending on your point of view — they either defeat her or bring her to triumph.
The woman is Edna Pontellier. She has the perfect life: a comfortable home, a wealthy husband, and two healthy children. In the maternal Creole society she frequents, the children should be her crowning glory. Is it her fault she does not feel quite satisfied? On vacation, Edna meets Robert LeBrun, whose attention and sensitivity offer her a chance at the physical intimacy and expression that have always been missing from her life. Once Edna experiences this new taste of liberty, she begins to make other changes. She refuses the conventional social round, she takes up painting, and finally she moves out of her home to live on her own, leaving her family and old life behind. Although her awakening is a sensual one, the focus of the book is not sex, but independence: Edna is alone for most of the novella, and her most passionate vow is never again to belong to anyone but herself. In the end, however, the only way she can preserve that fierce independence is through suicide, and our last view of Edna Pontellier is when she strips naked on the beach and swims, strong and alone, out far from shore.
My first instinct when reading this book was to compare Edna to other fictional women who had been pushed out of social conventions — often to a tragic end — by having an affair. I was thinking of Emma Bovary, of Anna Karenina, even of Effi Briest. But the comparison doesn’t work. Although Edna is often annoyingly selfish and even childish with regard to her husband and children, it’s clear she didn’t choose her marriage or her way of life, and her affair is the catalyst of her awakening, not the awakening itself. For Edna, a certain degree of self-absorption is required in order for her to understand who she is and what she wants — questions we are all encouraged to ask ourselves twenty times a day in modern life, but questions that were completely foreign to women in 1899. Once she understands what she wants, she is capable of sacrifice and tenderness. The only thing she is unwilling to give up is that hard-won independence, cost what it may.
I thought The Awakening was powerful, well-told, and beautifully written. It makes a fascinating contrast to other books of this kind. I can see why it would cause more scandal than, say, Anna Karenina: Edna Pontellier is not punishing herself, she is saving herself. But I can also see why modern college students, who have always been encouraged to “be themselves,” would have trouble relating to this without extensive background. What do you think? If you’ve read this, did you relate to it, and why?