(Above: Kate Chopin)
Though I’ve been meaning to for years, it was only this week that I finally got around to reading this perfectly titled classic novel. I found it to be, though not a “happy” novel, both brilliant and beautifully written. The Awakening is the story of Edna Pontellier, the Kentucky-born wife of a New Orleans businessman “on the rise” named Leonce Pontellier. It takes place spanning the course of a summer through early winter in New Orleans and the “rich people’s retreat” of Grand Isle (see the bottom center of the map below).
In her late twenties, Edna is coming to the realization that the future life that stretches before her will be an unhappy, or at least unfulfilling, one. She is merely filling a role that society expects of her and is losing her own independent existence. Enter the charming Robert Lebrun, who is one of many catalysts for Edna’s “awakening.” Other catalysts come together in chapter 10 of the novel, which consists of 5-6 pages of the best writing I’ve encountered this year. The other catalysts? Edna, who has all her life struggled to learn to swim, finally “gets it” and is able to swim out further from shore than she has ever dared to venture:
“That night she was like the little tottering, stumbling, clutching child, who of a sudden realises its powers, and walks for the first time alone, boldly, and with over-confidence.”
Another catalyst is Edna’s having listened to a piano performance earlier in the day by Mademoiselle Reisz:
“I wonder if I shall ever be stirred again as Mademoiselle Reisz’s playing moved me tonight, I wonder if any night on earth will ever again be like this one. It is like a night in a dream. The people about me are like some uncanny, half-human beings. There must be spirits abroad tonight.”
The theme of spirits or other strange forces being “abroad” recurs several times during the novel. In this case, young Robert describes her fate by making up (I assume he makes it up) a strange legend about the 28th of August, the date of her swim and, ostensibly, her awakening:
“On the twenty-eighth of August, at the hour of midnight, and if the moon is shining – the moon must be shining – a spirit that has haunted these shores for ages rises up from the Gulf. With its own penetrating vision the spirit seeks someone mortal worthy to hold him company, worthy of being exalted for a few hours into realms of the semi-celestials. His search has always hitherto been fruitless, and he has sunk back, dishearted, into the sea. But tonight he found Mrs. Pontellier. Perhaps he will never wholly release her from the spell. Perhaps she will never again suffer a poor, unworthy earthling to walk in the shadow of her divine presence.”
Now, young Robert is just unwittingly being his usual, charming self, and doesn’t realize that something very like what he has playfully described really HAS happened to Edna that day and night, and the rest of the novel unfolds as she works out the consequences of being “awakened.”
I learned after reading that Chopin’s work was censored and suppressed by her contemporaries, and that it was only in the 1960’s that she resurfaced and became celebrated as a pioneer of feminist fiction. One might think that a reader like myself, a middle-aged man, might not have much to gain by reading works like “The Awakening.” Not so. For my part, the story of a soul’s (ANY soul’s) struggle to free itself from artificial confinement and become what it may is worthy reading for any person – man or woman, young or old, rich or poor.
Have you read Chopin? What did you think of her? I’d previously only read her short story, A Shameful Affair a few years ago (part of a former book club’s “short story month” and, truth be told, picked by a member only because of it’s brevity and the seeming promise of salaciousness in the title). I own The Awakening as part of a volume that contains other stories of hers. I’ve already read one (“Wiser than a God”) which I also thought was very good.