A three-dollar paperback is so hard to pass up. For three measly dollars I left Bruised Apple Books last week with a 1970s edition of The Awakening tucked under my arm: all 190 pages of the slim novel. Kate Chopin’s now-classic novella is about a 28-year-old married woman named Edna Pontellier. She has never realized it before, but her life as a wife and mother has become not only stifling and unfulfilling, but entirely unbearable. Her husband is kind and loving, but he’s a man and does not understand her need for personal fulfillment, for a life apart from her duties as a society wife and a mother. Her children and wonderful and she loves them, but she admits to herself that she wouldn’t be willing to give up her life for them–she would die for them, but she won’t give up her life for them.
In the course of the novel, Edna undergoes her “awakening.” She realizes how much fulfillment she receives from sketching and painting and befriends a musician to further deepen her artistic inclinations. She stops taking society callers on Tuesdays and instead leaves her home and walks around New Orleans by herself. She begins to sell her paintings. She loves her children but prefers them to be in the care of her mother-in-law. She begins to hate her marriage, even though she respects her husband. She does not conduct physical love affairs but falls in love with another man. She moves out of the manor that she shares with her husband, remains married and largely faithful to him, but takes another home a few blocks away, where she can live peacefully and independently. And at the end of the novel, she drowns herself when she realizes she will never achieve the fulfilling life she has worked so hard for.
Chopin wrote Edna in the late 1800s. She’s a remarkably modern woman living in this late Victorian world, and she’s always confused and has these feelings and wishes she cannot understand because there is little language for it yet. Chopin was generations ahead of her time with Edna. Still, a hundred years after Chopin wrote Edna, after first- and second- and third-wave feminism and all we have gained from these movements, people still hate Edna. This is disgusting to me.
Here are some quotes of Edna’s emotional turmoil and her perspective on life:
“I would give up the unessential; I would give up my money, I would give up my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself. I can’t make it more clear; it’s only something I am beginning to comprehend, which is revealing itself to me.”
“He could see plainly that she was not herself. That is, he could not see that she was becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world.”
“Even as a child she had lived her own small life within herself. At a very early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life – that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions.”
“It was not despair, but it seemed to her as if life were passing by, leaving its promises broken and unfulfilled. Yet there were other days when she listened, was led on and deceived by fresh promises which her youth had held out to her.”
“She’s got some sort of notion in her head concerning the eternal rights of women.”
“There were days when she was very happy without knowing why. She was happy to be alive and breathing, when her whole being seemed to be one with the sunlight, the color, the odors, the luxuriant warmth of some perfect Southern day. She liked then to wander alone into strange and unfamiliar places. She discovered many a sunny, sleepy corner, fashioned to dream in. And she found it good to dream and to be alone and unmolested.
There were days when she was unhappy, she did not know why—when it did not seem worth while to be glad or sorry, to be alive or dead; when life appeared to her like a grotesque pandemonium and humanity like worms struggling blindly toward inevitable annihilation.”
And here are some excerpts from one-star reviews on Goodreads:
“Chopin is spoiled, confused, and completely unaware of how the world around her really works.”
I think this is the point. I think Chopin really did know how the world worked because she makes her protagonist so confused and spoiled and not perfect. Edna is a real person, for God’s sake: confused and selfish and struggling. Yet people–and scarily, women–condemn Edna for her imperfections and vulnerability. She didn’t know what to do all the time. Do any of us?
“We are supposed to feel sympathy for a selfish woman with no redeemable qualities. Just because her marriage is bad it does not give her the right to be a lousy, despicable person. Get a divorce? Yes. Find new love? Yes. Abandon your children, be completely self-absorbed, commit adultery, and drown yourself? No, no, no, and no. This is my problem with the book. Drowning oneself and leaving one’s children without the guidance of their mother is a tragedy. The book would have you believe it is a triumph.”
Ugh, are you serious? Edna may be selfish, but that’s the point. She wants the freedom to be selfish and do what she wants, but the social structure has fettered her. I think the reviewer above fails completely to grasp nuances and sees things in terrible black-and-white. Edna is not a despicable person: she has flaws. Get a divorce? Like it’s so easy in 1896 Creole Louisiana, yes. Find new love? And be forever ostracized for it, yes, and live in poverty on the outskirts of society. And I’m sorry, but “adultery”? Is this the Bible?
The author of this review seems to find it unforgivable to “abandon” one’s children, and maybe he’s right. Maybe Edna is being a horrible person for abandoning her children to the coddling arms of their loving mother-in-law, to inherit the wealth of their father, to be brought up in a privileged society. Barf. Give me a break. It’s not like Edna is abandoning her children on the side of the road in rags and tatters, while she goes off and lives a life of luxury. While it is undeniably a tragedy to lose one’s mother, Edna’s actions were more desperate than selfish. I doubt she killed herself out of selfishness. Come on, man.
I also didn’t interpret Edna’s suicide as a triumph. Another huge flaw in this person’s perspective. It’s a tragedy on all fronts: that Edna was trapped, that her children lose their mother, that the man she loved could not find the courage to break with tradition and be happy with her. It’s a sad story. Edna’s suicide is not a triumph; it’s all a tragedy.
Some reviewers called her a “trollop” (what?), and others simply hated her because she was not “sympathetic.” Barf again. Is Humbert Humbert sympathetic? Do we appreciate him as a character? (He’s morally the most despicable literary persona I could think of.)
The point is that women today have a choice, for the most part, and Edna did not. She loved her children because they were hers, but she was not a good mother, nor did she want to be. Only those who truly want to be mothers should become mothers, because the alternative is to be caught in a life you don’t want. Edna gave up her life because it could never be fulfilling to her. That’s the real tragedy. But people still argue that a woman’s first duty is to her husband and children, regardless of her own wishes and desires. That’s what these one-star reviews are tantamount to: arguing against the independence of women.
“The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice much have strong wings.”
Okay, soapbox put away now. I am off to torture myself with some one-star reviews of Anna Karenina.