I first read The Awakening as part of an undergraduate Narrative Fiction course, and so far it remains my favourite novella—if not my favourite book. I’m currently working on a stage-play adaptation as part of a Script Adaptation course, so now is the perfect time for a close re-reading.
Written in 1899 by Kate Chopin, its publication was met with charges of immorality, ruining Chopin’s literary and social reputation in a tragic example of life imitating art. While it retains some aspect of Chopin’s earlier work (short stories that were often trivially described as “local colour”), The Awakening moves beyond these, into what were deemed socially unacceptable areas—particularly for a female writer—and contains an early-modernist style that at first holds readers at a distance but then gradually draws us into Edna’s psyche, a shifting narration that formally echoes the shifts in Edna’s own situation.
The introduction to the Penguin edition of the book contains a self-defence that Chopin initially wrote against her critics:
Having a group of people at my disposal, I thought it might be entertaining (to myself) to throw them together and see what would happen. I never dreamed of Mrs. Pontellier making such a mess of things and working out her own damnation as she did. If I had had the slightest intimation of such a thing I would have excluded her from the company. But when I found out what she was up to, the play was over and it was then too late.
The Awakening opens in 1899 at Grand Isle, Louisiana, with Edna Pontellier on summer holiday with her husband Léonce. Chopin moves us beyond the archetypal marriage plot: Edna is twenty-eight, already married and with two young boys; she is “fond” of her husband and children, but clearly not one of the “mother-women [that] seemed to prevail that summer at Grand Isle”, like her friend Adèle Ratignolle, mother of three (and trying for four). When Léonce disapproves of Edna’s sunburn, he looks at her “as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage”.
In his novel The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides writes that “there are some books that reached through the noise of life to grab you by the collar and speak only of the truest things”. How could The Awakening, derided in its time and now regarded as a feminist classic, reach through these years and grab me, a male with no thoughts of either marriage or children? Perhaps Eugenides also has the answer: “People don’t save other people. People save themselves.” Edna’s struggles against society, her conflicting desires of romance and independence, the pursuit of growth as an artist: all have relevance beyond the social mores and local colour of late 19th century New Orleans. While moving beyond the marriage plot, Chopin has also transcended literary realism: the critics were not ready for her. Unlike Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart in The House of Mirth, Edna Pontellier is not a tragic heroine, to be punished at the climax. Rather than being driven to it—although she certainly is to some extent—it seems that Edna has taken control and determined her own fate, maybe even to Chopin’s surprise. She has saved herself.
Edna’s awakening begins with the seductive voice of the sea: “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 freedom of learning to swim in the ocean for the first time stirs something within her, while Chopin’s language brings a foreboding of Edna’s ultimate fate. “The voice of the sea speaks to the soul.” While her friendship with Robert Lebrun threatens to become something more, it’s in her confidences and intimacy with Adèle Ratignolle, the satisfaction she gains in her painting, and the shattering effect that Mademoiselle Reisz’s piano playing has upon her (and her alone), that we truly see the changes being wrought inside her.
Is this novella the archetypal Künstlerroman, the story of an artist’s growth to maturity, or a story about desire beyond marriage? Like most good literature, it bristles against categorisation and is simultaneously neither and both. Edna’s pursuits of art and independence—including the independence she finds in her “no strings” affair with Alcée Arobin—are conflicted with her desire for romantic love with Robert Lebrun, and ultimately with the ambivalent love she has for her children.
The internet abounds with readers who don’t identify with Edna’s situation and can’t understand her happiness. Well, I can’t identify with or understand such readers. From the moment that Edna begins to “loosen a little the mantle of reserve that had always enveloped her” until the very end when she observes that “bird with a broken wing […] beating the air above, reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water”, this novella leaves me reeling; inexplicably, perhaps. But such is its power. Why do I cry in the last few pages?
She could not have told why she was crying. Such experiences as the foregoing were not uncommon in her married life.
An indescribable oppression, which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar part of her consciousness, filled her whole being with a vague anguish.
She was just having a good cry all to herself.
I couldn’t possibly put it into words.