The Awakening has this going for it: unlike a lot of the classic “fallen women” novels, like Madame Bovary and Tess of the D’Urbevilles, this one’s written by a woman. Is Edna “fallen” or “awakened”? Depends on your perspective of course.
The Awakening takes place in late 1800’s New Orleans. It begins with the Pontellier family, Edna, husband Leonce and their two children, taking a family vacation at an ocean-side resort. Edna is bored and dissatisfied with her marriage and with motherhood. The people she meets during this vacation cause her to question her existence, and she takes those questions (and romantic infatuation) back home with her.
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.
This book was terribly controversial when it was published in 1899, and sadly, it pretty much ended Chopin’s writing career. Chopin was a fairly successful short story and essay writer until this novel was published. This book was criticized for presenting women as having sexual needs, and for presenting a woman as sympathetic even though she doesn’t put her children’s needs ahead of her own.
The interesting thing about the story is that Edna has pretty much everything you could want on the surface – a beautiful home, servants to do most of the work, friends and a social life, and two children who don’t seem terribly demanding. She doesn’t love her husband, but he’s not mean or abusive in any way.
I wanted to be much more sympathetic towards Edna but I struggled. We see Leonce as a fairly forgiving, if conservative, husband. He gives her quite a bit of freedom, only insisting that she meet certain social “requirements” like staying home one day a week to entertain visitors. When she starts refusing to take care of the children and maintain the house, he actually talks to the local doctor because he’s concerned. The doctor’s response:
“Woman, my dear friend, is a very peculiar and delicate organism… it would require an inspired psychologist to deal successfully with them. And when ordinary fellows like you and me attempt to cope with their idiosyncrasies the result is bungling.”
I realize I’m not supposed to see Leonce as the sympathetic one, but as Edna becomes increasingly dismissive of her marriage and children, I sort of felt for the guy. He goes away on a business trip and she basically upends their life – and then he comes back and fixes things.
But this is one of those books that has to be read in the context of its time. Do women have the right to express themselves, to feel passion, to feel free? Absolutely. Could I be happy in a loveless marriage with someone I had nothing in common with? Of course not. I take those simple, basic freedoms for granted.
Edna actually pursues two relationships in this book – one is romantic, one is purely sexual. Edna seems to be under the illusion that she’s in control of her life and her own desires, but sadly that isn’t the case. The two men have some say in the matter, as does her husband and society at large. The women around her inspire her to flaunt convention, but within acceptable limits. Edna disregards those limits.
Another interesting aspect of the book is that Edna’s increasing self-awareness is marked by her artistic expression as well. Of course well-off women of the time were expected to dabble in the arts, but Edna takes it more seriously than that. However, her friend Madame Reisz, a musician, cautions her that being a true artist requires sacrifice and a certain temperament. I seem to be reading a lot of books recently where art plays an interesting role (The Goldfinch, Tell the Wolves I’m Home are two).
At the same time we do have certain responsibilities to our families. No one is free to do whatever they want, whenever they want. Edna says at one point that she would die for her children, but she won’t live her life for them. I found that fascinating.
Thanks to The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, I knew how this novel would end, and that colored my reading of it. I hate to know how stories end, even in a classic.
Still, this book raised a lot of interesting issues in a fairly short read. Do we like Edna as a character or do we find her selfish? Is the husband repressive or sympathetic? Is Edna’s love for Robert real and is his for her? Is it possible for Edna to truly live her life as an independent woman, and what are the societal and emotional costs? Is her awakening liberating or destructive?
I read this novel for the TBR Pile Challenge and the Classics Club Challenge.