With its forthright exploration of female sexual desire, depression and female emancipation, The Awakening, first published in 1899, was such a shock to readers of the time that it was shunned and then forgotten for decades.
This short, but penetrating novel was rediscovered in the 1960s, and is now thought of as a landmark of early feminism.
The Awakening tells the story of Edna Pontellier, a twenty-eight-year-old wife and mother of two boys who comes to reject the conventions of her married life and sets herself on a path of self-discovery. A path which brings her the freedom and stimulation she so craves, but a path that will lead to unforeseen and devestating consequences.
The Awakening is a period work certainly, but what strikes the most is the timelessness of the story itself. Where marriage and romantic relationships continue to exist, this book will not date.
Here is a couple who live a seemingly happy life on the surface. They are young, attractive and wealthy and are ‘summering’ at Great Isle, a holiday resort near to New Orleans. Edna stays at Great Isle with the boys, while her husband Léonce goes to work in the city. Léonce is not cruel to his wife by any means. She is well looked after, if somewhat disregarded.
There is a sense that now she is his wife and the mother of his children that no further effort is required between them. He will play his part – working, going to the club, providing for the family and Edna must behave as is expected of her.
When the story opens, Edna is returning from the beach and is appraised by Léonce
“You are burnt beyond recognition,” he added, looking at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered damage
Edna has resigned herself to this way of life, to being Léonce’s property, mainly because she does not know of another way to be. Yet she knows that she is not happy. She is prone to weeping, which she cannot explain, tears that come “like a mist passing across her soul’s summer day”.
Several things happen over the course of the summer to prompt Edna’s awakening. She becomes friends with the resort owner’s son Robert Lebrun. Theirs is an easy friendship and in Robert she finds a man who is interested in what she has to say, in the fabric of who she actually is.
Their friendship is conducted in plain view and it is telling how little attention Léonce gives it. He simply does not consider that his wife might become interested in another man, or that another man might become interested in his wife and as such, sees no problem in leaving the two alone, allowing their relationship to grow.
A second, and possibly more important thing happens to Edna over the summer months.
She learns to swim.
Her embarrassment over her fear of water leaves her paddling on the shore while all the other holidaymakers bathe in the sea, but she forces herself to try to learn to swim, until one night, she loses all fear and swims out further than any of the other women in her party have swum.
She turned her face seaward to gather in an impression of space and solitude, which the vast expanse of water, meeting and melting with the moonlit sky, conveyed to her excited fancy. As she swam she seemed to be reaching out for the unlimited in which to lose herself.
This episode marks a turning point for Edna. That night she sleeps outside in a hammock despite her husband’s demands that she come inside. It is perhaps this discovery of her own self, her own body and the power that it has that is more important to Edna – more important than her growing feelings for Robert.
She perceived that her will had blazed up, stubborn and resistant. She could not at that moment have done other than denied and resisted. She wondered if her husband had ever spoken to her like that before, and if she had submitted to his command. Of course she had; she remembered that she had. But she could not realize why or how she should have yielded, feeling as she then did.
This marks the end of Edna’s yielding. The Pontellier family return to New Orleans after their summer break and Robert sets off for a new life in Mexico but Edna can no longer submit to her old life. She loses interest in looking after the home and begins to defy her husband. She stops accepting visitors and stops apologising for not wishing to be part of their social set.
There was with her a feeling of having descended in the social scale, with a corresponding sense of having risen in the spiritual.
She decides she wants to work, rents a house to paint and live in by herself and takes a lover. Here is a woman determined to live life on her own terms, unfettered by what her husband and what society expects of her.
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. I can’t make it more clear; it’s only something which I am beginning to comprehend which is revealing itself to me
Edna’s awakening is so much more than a sexual one and that is what gives the novel its timelessness and its power. She questions everything – her role as a wife and as a mother and her need to be true to herself drives the novel to its devestating conclusion.
Over 100 years on, this is still familiar territory. Women still need to push boundaries and break rules in order to live the kind of life that they want. We still need women like Edna, women who will break what needs to be broken in order to feel fully alive.
Whatever came, she had resolved never again to belong to another than herself.
The Awakening is an incredibly powerful book. Kate Chopin is skilled at bringing Edna’s inner turmoil to life with an economy of language, but never sacrifices truth or emotion.
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