The Awakening by Kate Chopin


The Awakening
Kate Chopin


Here’s a book I’ve been meaning to read for a long time.  I knew that The Awakening, published in 1899, represented an important expression of feminist ideas, a controversial subject at the time.  I did not know that it is also a story about depression.

How to be happy inside oneself.  That is Edna Pontellier’s chief struggle.  The novel begins at Grand Isle, a vacation resort in the Gulf of Mexico, off the shores of New Orleans.  Edna is twenty-eight, married to Leonce, a successful businessman and they are summering with their young boys and other wealthy families.  It is during this summer that Edna begins to question her marriage, her role as a mother and the choices that led to them.  A close relationship with Robert Lebrun, the son of Grand Isle’s proprietor, teeters on the edge of infidelity.

Edna’s outward appearance suggests happiness and success, but her inner self has always known something darker.  She begins to feel that above all else, she will not be happy until she tends to this side.  Instead of merging her outward persona with her private identity, however, Edna’s two beings bang up against each other.

Chopin writes:

At a very early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life – that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions.

Edna’s modern ideas are bound to shake up her life, during a time when women played submissive roles in marriage and society.  Women were expected to fit into the conventional scheme.  To sacrifice for their husbands and their children.  But Edna, in an argument with her friend Madame Ratignolle, states that she would never sacrifice herself for her children, or for anyone.

I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself.

From this point begins Edna’s awakening, and when Robert abruptly departs for Mexico, Edna suddenly feels that she has been denied his love.  Summer ends and nothing will be the same when the Pontelliers return to New Orleans.  Edna exhibits increasingly reckless and alarming behavior and it’s only a matter of time before something gives.

I’ll leave out the ending and simply state that its finish made me completely change my feelings about Edna’s character.  I was sympathetic and supportive at first, but her final actions make me think two things.  One, that Edna had a pretty good life before her awakening.  She had money, servants, and people to take care of her children.  While Leonce had certain expectations of Edna and her role as wife and mother, he took his role as husband and money-maker seriously.  It seems natural for him to think that she hasn’t held up her end of the deal.  My second opinion is that this first idea can’t apply to Edna’s character, because, above everything else, she is suffering from depression and no amount of logic or reason can change her thoughts.  How strange, however, to merge an awakening of feminist thinking with depression.  I’m left unsure of the story’s message.

Chopin’s book was not well received when it was first published, partly for its ideas and partly because of its racy subject matter.  It was nearly forgotten until the 1960s when Per Seyersted, a Norwegian scholar, rediscovered the book and its feminist message.

Kate Chopin was a well-known author of short stories for children and adults.  She married at nineteen and had six children.  She became a widow at age 32 and began her writing career.  Interestingly, her doctor suggested writing as an outlet to help her cope with sadness and depression.  (Source:  Wikipedia)

Click here to visit the Kate Chopin website for many interesting facts about the author’s life and her books.

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