Thoughts on "The Awakening" by Kate Chopin

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.

52277In 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.

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  • I think this deserves a reread. I only read it once when I was a junior in high school.

  • “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.”

    Interesting. I was thinking about exactly this today. Because I’m a liberal in a conservative workplace and conservative city and am originally from an even more conservative community, a large part of my social interactions involve this outward vs. inward life. The beauty of the internet age is the ability of a person to feel less alone with this outward vs. inner life conundrum. You can find others experiencing the same dilemmas as you or who have similar worldviews as you. At least now if I had to move back (god forbid) to the middle of nowhere Alabama, I could eventually cultivate friendships with others in the area who might not be such extreme conservatives. But to be left out on the fringes of society and ostracized for not conforming to societal norms without any type of refuge could surely be torturous.

    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.

    Yes. And some women who thought that they wanted a life with children find out that its not for them. But we’re still not truthful enough as a society to allow women to say this and for them to really be heard. I’m sure quite a lot of child abuse and neglect comes from this fact alone. I knew in my early 20s that I was too selfish to have a child. In my 30s, I felt the selfishness ebbing a bit and finally had one. Still, there’s a constant internal fight between wanting time for myself and not having it. I have great respect for those friends of mine who are childless by choice because they know themselves. Still, people can’t stop asking when they’re going to have kids or insisting that they’ll change their minds. No. Sometimes it’s just best to know yourself rather than to have to deal with existential and escapism needs later. I’ve seen that play out, and it’s not pretty.

    • Thanks for your feedback and I completely agree. It’s never easy for anyone to live on the fringes of society for their personal beliefs or preferences, and ostracism should never occur. Openness of the mind to others’ ideas and philosophy is the mark of a civilized society but it seems we still have not mastered that. I also agree completely with your remark about people insisting women will change their minds about having children! I have always felt ambivalent about kids and everyone always tells me I will change my mind. But I know my own mind, and that honesty with oneself is the most important thing!

  • V

    I really enjoyed this book and have to say that some of the 1 star reviews are missing the point. Yes, Edna is spoiled, but she is seeking something beyond her pampered lifestyle. She is trying to find herself in a society that forces her into an inauthentic role.

  • Oh, I remember when we read this book in my high school senior English class in Texas. I fell in love with the book almost immediately; everyone else hated it and thought Edna was the worst. person. ever. It made me really sad and disgusted—don’t they realize that by condemning Edna, they are condemning themselves?

    I think your last paragraph really drives the point home. I don’t want to have kids; never have, probably never will. I avoid telling people this because I sometimes get the “but all women want children!” reaction. I do like children, I just don’t like the idea of raising one. And when “mother” is the ONLY label a woman can aspire to, that’s horrifying! I can think of a “friend” who’s currently pregnant and really excited about it, even though she already has another kid that she’s not taking care of. It’s a horrible situation because she thinks that by being a mother, she increases her legitimacy as a woman, even though she’s a terrible (i.e., non-existent) mother to the kid she already has. I wish she were just free to make her own “selfish” choices – i.e., not have kids if she doesn’t want them, and not feel insecure about it. Argh. I share your frustration!!!!

    • My mother is possibly the most nurturing person in the world. She’s kind and generous and just showers us with advice (almost always unsolicited) and lives to make my sisters and me happy. She’s the kind of woman who takes such joy and pleasure and meaning from being a mother, and my sisters are the same way. They truly desire children and the family life, and I know they will be amazing mothers because of their personalities and natures. They know their minds. Being a mother is one of the most important jobs a woman can have, that I believe entirely. Raising children well is not easy. It’s a huge responsibility caring for other lives that you have brought into the world. That’s why I believe that only women (and men) who are aware of the responsibility and who truly want to be parents should become parents. And if you don’t, be brave enough to admit it because not only are you hurting yourself, but you’re harming your children as well.
      I’m like you! I don’t necessarily see myself as a mother, and I’m always reluctant to tell people because I consistently get the response, “you will change your mind.” Maybe I will, but the assumption that because I’m a woman I must want children is an attitude I find closed-minded. Women should be free to remain childless and proud, if that’s what they want. /Lengthy response 🙂

  • Thanks for your comments. I think you’re right about most of them. But maybe look again at the end of Chapter 27 and the beginning of Chapter 28? Your saying that Edna “does not conduct physical love affairs” misses what Chopin had to do to be published in her times. As we note on our website, Chopin’s description of Edna’s response to Alcée “reflects literary conventions of the 1890s. Kate Chopin almost certainly would not have found a publisher for the novel if she had included more sexually explicit phrasing.”

    • Yes, rereading that passage I do understand the implications, thank you for pointing that out to me. I definitely did not read between the lines there, but I do think it may be left to interpretation. In either case, I loved re-reading that passage for the description of Edna’s emotional turmoil. I think it further humanizes her and still proves my points. Thank you for stopping by and for your feedback.