Title: The Awakening
Author: Kate Chopin
Year Published: 1899
This short story follows Edna Pontellier, wife and mother of two children living in Louisiana sometime in the late 19th century. She and her family vacation at the southwestern tip of the state at Grand Isle every summer. Throughout the pages we see Edna slowly realize there’s more to life than tradition, she wants to be independent and a person, not just known as the wife of Mr Pontellier and a mother with the sole purpose of keeping up appearances and following his orders.
This is triggered by her time spent with Robert Leburn, the son of the owner of the cottages Edna’s family stays in while at Grand Isle, who’s relationship starts out as a simple friendship and casual affection to passion and love. Along with Adèle Ratignolle, who represents what Edna should be – devoted to her husband and children. And Mademoiselle Reisz, who is the exact opposite – unmarried and does what she wants with her life, in her case, a musician.
Since Robert cannot act on his love – remember, Edna is married – he leaves to Mexico, meanwhile Edna returns to New Orleans. Prior to her awakening, Edna would host social callers. Upon her return home, she foregoes the expectations of her husband and paints instead. Ultimately, we see Edna return to Grand Isle, go for a swim and the end can be interpreted in whichever way you chose – Edna’s act to rise above tradition, or to defeat.
I think what makes a book a good book in one’s mind is if you keep thinking about it even after reading the last page.
The Awakening is the only story I read in school that left such an impression that I still think about it today. I think initially I was drawn to the fact that even though Edna ultimately committed suicide, I couldn’t exactly feel sad for her and felt conflicted. Was it for the best to prove that she did gain her freedom? Or was she insane to forget she had two children? Wouldn’t you want to stay alive if only for the sake of your children? And because of that it sounds bad to say that I think her decision was the best option.
And then there’s Robert. Is he a hero for leaving because he really did love Edna? Or did he really just leave for his own sake to forget about her so he could live his own life like nothing happened?
Back when The Awakening was published, it apparently caused a scandal and Kate Chopin didn’t write much between then and her death in 1904. If I read it back when it was published, I probably would’ve thought Edna was crazy. But today, I lean towards a pioneer. She was the first woman in her circle to ‘awaken’ to what life could be and how dull it’d be if she continued living the way society expected her. Even coming to a closer conclusion to my questions since the first time I ever read it, I still feel it’s one I’m going to pick up again in the future. Maybe my views will continue changing.
Ironically, I was at a beach in Trinidad when I re-read this book for the first time. Staring at the ocean, I couldn’t help but think as I looked out into the seemingly endless horizon.
The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation.
The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace. – Kate Chopin
Spoken by Mademoiselle Reisz, I could imagine as the character who is living her life against tradition, she holds on to these words to get through life.
The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. – Kate Chopin
A phrase from a song sung by Robert. Later Edna would catch herself singing the same phrase.
Ah! si tu savais
Ce que tes yeux me disent
Ah! if you knew
What your eyes tell me
Get your own copy here. (Penguin English Library of course 🙂