A century after the publication of Kate Chopin's novel, its themes -- a woman's awakening to the full potential of her sexual passion and her sense of being smothered by marriage and motherhood -- have become the staple ingredients of 'chick lit'. It is thus easy to overlook how revolutionary and shocking the events and ideas of this story must have seemed at the time. Then, the book was banned from public libraries in America; now, it is required reading in schools.
In many ways, both in theme and treatment, it resembles "Madame Bovary". Although Chopin lacks Flaubert's scope and breadth of vision, she reaches deeper into the soul of her heroine. Her style is restrained and elegant and some modern readers, accustomed to a pacier and more explicit treatment, may grow impatient at times. But there is beautiful writing here, embodying rich characterizations, strong evocations of time and place and thought-provoking moral ambiguity. An undoubted masterpiece.
I am reading The Women's Press edition, reprinted in 1987, which looks just like the 19th century novel that it is, not at all welcoming and with a front cover illustration that is frankly hideous. This is a great pity as the novel is well worth reading, even by a man. There is a helpful and informative introduction by Helen Taylor that I read after finishing the novel.
The novel was published in 1899, but probably finished long before, just 5 years later from a brain haemorrhage, aged 53. According to Taylor, Chopin's published work includes 3 collections of short stories, including "Bayou Folk" and "A Night in Arcadie"; a novel, "At Fault", which addresses another contentious issue, divorce; a few dozen children's stories and assorted poems, sketches and essays.
The attitude of the otherwise sympathetic, retired Dr Mandelet when the husband of Edna Pontellier, whose awakening to social and sexual satisfaction the novel describes, approaches him about Edna's `strange' behaviour "Has she been associating of late with a circle of pseudointellectual women - superspiritual superior beings?" is presumably amongst the less hostile male responses to the novel. Many men would agree with Edna's husband who "greatly valued his possessions, chiefly because they were his" - his possessions certainly included his wife.
But one suspects that a great many women of the time were shocked by the story when they read "Edna had once told Madam Ratignolle that she would never sacrifice herself for her children, or for any one". Similarly, they could not understand Edna's response to the domestic life of the Ratignolle family "The little glimpse of domestic of domestic harmony which had been offered her, gave her no regret, no longing. It was not a condition of life which fitted her, and she could see in it but an appalling and hopeless ennui". Madam Ratignolle is the character that most late 19th century women expected to be after getting married and even more men would have wanted to be married to. Edna also ignored her younger sister's wedding, once again showing an unhealthy independence of mind.
Edna gets so frustrated that, when she meets Alcee Arobin (would you trust a man with such a name?) "She wanted something to happen -something, anything; she did not know what". There is humour too, as in the very opening of the novel, the pianistic duo of the Furnival twins who can play a resounding "Zampa", "Poet and Peasant", and "Zampa" and ...., and Madame Lebrun's, clatter, clatter, sewing machine with "a little black girl sat on the floor and with her hands worked the treadle of the machine. A Creole woman does not take any chances which may be avoided of imperiling her health", clatter, clatter. At the other extreme, the final pages are wonderfully written and involve Edna taking charge of her life by doing something that she has taught herself.
Stylistically, the author is good at description, especially the beach scenes in the first part of the novel, and dialogue between two people but she avoids group discussions or interactions. The dinner party to celebrate the move to "her" new home, is almost entirely described in reported speech, at least until the effects of the alcohol has worked its wicked ways. This lack of ability or experience would probably have been overcome had Chopin written more or had more literary friends.
However, discouraged by the hostile reception of readers and shunned by many acquaintances and friends, she lost confidence and wrote nothing more. No doubt, there would have been a feeling that the author must have described her own experiences, not something that would be thought of a male writer of the time. In fact, as Taylor points out, Chopin's marriage was a very loving one and her husband very supportive, and no doubt proud of his wife. Sadly, he died from swamp fever in 1882 when his wife was just 32.
Chopin has the ability to delineate a character, often in just a few words. Dr Mandelet and Madame Lebrun are cases in point. One of the more interesting characters, maybe only second to Edna, is Mademoiselle Reisz, the piano teacher and recitalist, about whom Arobin has heard that "she is partially demented" and "extremely disagreeable and unpleasant" but whom Edna considers that "she says queer things sometimes in a bantering way that you don't notice at the time and you find yourself thinking about afterwards". She has gone through life true to her own standards and saying what she believes. As a result, has few friends. It seems that she may, at last, open up and establish a true friendship with Edna but she goes into her shell at Edna's dinner party and the opportunity is lost. Madamoiselle Reisz is how Edna would end up, with her drawing replacing the older lady's music.
The weakest character by far is the cause of all Edna's troubles, Robert Lebrun who disappears for most of the central part of the novel and reappears at the end with a whimper.
Looking at other reviews on Google, it seems to me that too many readers are polarised - either finding no fault or not finding a thing to praise. The situation is more complex, however, and such polarisation prevents rational discussion.
Taylor's introduction raises a number of points.
Why was it left to a Norwegian academic, Per Seyersted, 1921-2005, to write Chopin's biography and to preparing the Complete Works, both published in 1969?
Why did it take other women so long to appreciate Chopin? After Cyrille Arnavon published a critique on the novel in the late 1940s, Kenneth Eble highlighted the book, which he called "the forgotten novel" and, in 1962, Edmund Wilson in his book, Patriotic Gore, included 6 pages on her work.
Why did "the avant-garde publishers, Herbert S. Stone and Co. who published "The Awakening" in 1899 return the manuscript for her third set of short stories "without comment"?; clearly, avant-gardism only goes so far.
I am certainly going to order Per Seyersted's two books (maybe after I finish the hovering and cook the dinner).
The lot of women in the 19th century wasn't a terribly impressive one -- many of them had been reduced to babymakers and inoffensive "property" for the men.
And Kate Chopin caused a massive scandal when she wrote about one woman who drifted from societal normal in "The Awakening," leading to a world of exploration, love, and ultimately tragedy. Her misty, vaguely dreamlike writing can pull a reader into the world of 1900s New Orleans and its society, but her heroine sometimes feels more like a vessel than a fully-realized person.
Edna Pontellier is the wife of successful New Orleans businessman Léonce, and mother of two lovely young boys. Yet she is dissatisfied by her life, and feels no connection to the other wives and mothers, who idolize their motherhood and subservience. And when she encounters handsome young Creole Robert Lebrun while on vacation, she begins to "awake" to the feelings she has left behind during her marriage.
Distancing herself from Leonce and her sons, Edna begins exploring art and emotions that have been denied her by the strictures of her society -- as well as an affair with the flirtatious Alcée Arobin. She even moves out into a cottage of her own, much to the horror of those who thought they knew her. Her romantic feelings have not moved on from Robert, but his return makes her realize how different she has become...
Kate Chopin's most famous work is often cited as a sort of proto-feminist work, with a woman rebelling against the male-dominated role she has been given. The fact that a story about a woman abandoning her husband and kids caused such a scandal only adds to that belief.
But that's a rather restricted label to give such a versatile author, and "Awakening" is a book with too many facets to be so restrained. In many ways Chopin resembles a Southern version of Edith Wharton, exploring the stultifying society that she once dwelled in, and the often-tragic consequences of people -- particularly women -- who dared to step outside those unforgiving boundaries.
Chopin's lush writing elevates this story even further, weaving an atmospheric, vaguely dreamlike web around everyday New Orleans. She makes readers feel the heat of a summer's day, the remote beauty of a party, the eerie majesty of an empty sea. And though "The Awakening" is infused by a feeling of languid dreaminess, Chopin creates a feeling of tension and inevitability that grows as the book goes on. It's almost a shock at the book's finale, when that tension releases in a quiet burst of poetic language.
And to her credit, Chopin is able to make her points about women and society without setting up straw-men. Such characters as "angel of the house" Adèle Ratignolle and the stuffy Leonce (who sees Edna as his personal property and expects her to obey) are examples of the usual society of the time, yet Leonce is a fully realized character who loves -- but can never understand -- his wife.
Perhaps the biggest problem is that Edna herself is at times rather thin as a character. While she has many conflicting desires, she sometimes seems like a mere vessel for all those desires to be displayed over time. But there are some scenes where she does seem like a fully realized person, such as when she meditates on her lack of housewifely virtues, is struck by wild mood swings around her sons, and befriends Mademoiselle Reisz.
"The Awakening" is more than just an early feminist novel -- it's an exquisitely written story about the roads that our own desires can take us down, and the tragedies that can come from it. A must-read, if nothing else for Kate Chopin's powerful writing.