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The Awakening
Kate Chopin
publisher: Querido, Amsterdam, 1899



refered to by:
Madame Bovary: Patterns of Provincial Life
Gustave Flaubert


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When The Awakening was published it was considered so scandalous it was banned in the author's home-town library, and she herself was barred from the Fine Arts Club in the same city. What the novel has to offer, among other things, is honesty. To the eternal question of how women are to be disposed of as both objects and agents, Kate Chopin offers an antecedent question: why is there a problem? And she also asks: what if society cannot provide the answer?

As the novel opens, the protagonist Edna, age 28, her husband and two children, are ensconced for the summer at a lake retreat north of New Orleans, where they are a prosperous, socially prominent family. Edna is just beginning to realise that she is different from the other women around her - not so consumed by husband and family, more susceptible to outside influences. As the summer progresses, Edna finds herself periodically ravished by sensual experiences - she learns to swim, she responds with a kind of swoon to an evening performance of piano pieces by Frédéric Chopin (no relation). Eventually she falls in love with the son of the woman who runs the guesthouse and finds evidence that her affections are returned. When the family moves back to New Orleans for the winter, Edna must resume her bourgeois life, which includes much entertaining and formal visiting. Edna refuses, and begins to wander about the city, discovering places and ways of life she had never before been aware of. She takes instruction in painting and begins to sell her pictures through a dealer. Her actions only feed her dissatisfaction. She decides to utterly change the terms of her existence by moving out of the large mansion she shares with her family into a smaller house nearby.
Toward the end of the novel, Edna suffers a couple of disappointments that lead her to realise that even the terms of her new life cannot be borne. Her newly awakened sensuality must have a worthy object, but it does not - there is to be no outlet for her passions. In
addition, she can't, in the end, betray the honour of her children. Instinctively making a kind of death-before-dishonour decision, she swims out into the ocean and drowns, but not with a sense of fear, more with a sense of discovery and liberation.

It is very interesting to read The Awakening along with James, Wharton, and the other novelists of the turn of the 20th century, because they all had the same thing on their minds, but James and Wharton weren't straightforward about the sexuality implicit in their protagonists' dilemmas. Chopin, on the other hand, makes wonderful use of her exotic setting, evoking the heat, beauty and physicality of not only her southern Louisiana landscape, but also of the Creole society she lives in, where men and women are much more open about all matters of sexuality and reproduction, even though virtue and the appearance of virtue are as important to them as to those in James's and Wharton's milieu. Chopin is no less definite than the others about the effects of such an awakening, though Edna does not die in defeat, as Lily Bart (Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth) seems to. Rather, Edna recognises that once she has awakened, it is better to sacrifice her life than to sacrifice her new sense of herself. When she swims out, her suicide is far from despairing, and quite unlike Lily's overdose of sleeping pills in a dingy room in New York City.

The Awakening was Chopin's only novel - she died about five years after its publication - but it is well worth reading, not as much for the plot (though I think she makes a pretty good argument for Edna) as for the depiction of the gradual change of Edna's way of seeing the world and for the sympathy she shows her. Flaubert may have stated "Madame Bovary, c'est moi", but his empathy was not quite sympathy. Not so Kate Chopin. Edna is a woman throughout The Awakening, and her quest for a sense of authenticity is never demeaned.

- Jane Smiley, The Guardian, 29 April 2006

bookweb from:
Lezen&Cetera, Pieter Steinz
 
BOOKS BY KATE CHOPIN:

The Awakening
1899
Edna Pontellier, a young married woman with two small children gradually awakens – to her individuality and sexuality, and experiences love outside of her passionless marriage.
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