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. – Kate Chopin, The Awakening
Canongate Books have just republished Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening. In her e-mail to me their publicist wrote:
First published in 1899, this radical novel sent shockwaves through American society and continues to speak to readers over one hundred years later. Widely regarded in the States as one of the forerunners of feminist literature alongside Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and Flaubert's Madame Bovary, it is practically unknown in the UK—a fact we hope to change with this beautiful new edition, introduced by Barbara Kingsolver.
I have to say I hadn’t heard of the book and if pressed I would’ve said Chopin was a contemporary writer. The only example of early Feminist literature I was aware of (and have read) is The Yellow Wallpaper by a fellow American, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, which precedes this novel by seven years, although I did know Gilman also wrote Herland which is on my to-read list. Gilman was a prominent American feminist and a lecturer for social reform but in an interview David Chopin makes some interesting observations about his grandmother:
Kate was neither a feminist nor a suffragist, she said so. She was nonetheless a woman who took women extremely seriously. She never doubted women's ability to be strong. She came from a long line of strong women whom she loved and respected, the great-grandmother, grandmother, mother affiliation. She had strong women friends including intellectual women. Her lack of interest in feminism and suffrage did not have to do with a lack of confidence in women nor did it have a lack to do with a lack of any desire for freedom. She simply had a different understanding of freedom. She saw freedom as much more a matter of spirit, soul, character of living your life within the constraints that the world makes [or] your God offers you, because all of us do live within constraints.
I think she was an exceptionally talented and interesting woman and if I resist labelling her feminist or suffragist, or claiming her for a specific view of what women require or what women's independence requires, women's freedom requires. I resist it because I think she's much larger and more important than that. I don't think we do her any honour or further our own understanding by tying her to a particular political cause. I think she really was a dedicated and talented writer, who worked very hard to capture ineffable, delicate ideas and feelings in a prose that would do them justice. [bold mine]
A very brief summary then:
Edna Pontellier is an obedient wife and mother vacationing at Grand Isle with her family. While there she becomes close to a young man named Robert Lebrun. Before they act on their mutual romantic interest in each other, Robert leaves for Mexico.
From the 1982 film adaptation The End of August
Edna is lonely without his companionship, but shortly after her return home to New Orleans she becomes involved with Alcée Arobin. Although she doesn’t love Arobin, he does awaken various sexual passions within her.
Concurrent to Edna’s sexual awakening is her growing need for independence. Instead of spending her days concerned with household matters, she pursues her interest in painting. Since she has some capital of her own and a small income from painting Edna moves into a house of her own while her husband is away on business. At this time Robert returns, professing his love for Edna and his desire to someday marry her but, again, withdraws before anything improper can happen. Edna, increasingly struggling to cope with societal strictures, returns to Grand Isle where she first experienced her rebirth.
The Awakening is a book that can be read in a number of ways—everything from a künstlerroman to a Creole Bovary to a transcendental fable of the soul’s emergence—and there’s no reason why they can’t co-exist within the same framework but I’m not sure the book deserves to be called a Feminist text simply because its protagonist is a strong-willed woman; she’s not particularly interested in rights for women, only freedom for herself. There’s no proselytising, no burning of corsets (bras did exist in 1899 but probably weren’t commonplace), no wanting to emasculate every man she encounters. She simply wants to be able to do what she wants to do when she wants to do it. In some respects that’s a rather immature notion but as regards life’s freedoms she is something of a child despite being actually twenty-eight for most of the book, turning twenty-nine at the very end. I don’t mean ‘childish’ in a bad way, simply as a metaphor for innocence and inexperience; like all women of her time her world experiences have been limited to a “women’s sphere” cum gilded cage.
Birds crop up throughout the book (see here) beginning with a noisy parrot in the opening chapter but a particularly significant moment occurs when the pianist, Mademoiselle Reisz, puts her arms around Edna and felt her shoulder blades, “to see if [her] wings were strong”. When doing this she says:
The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth.
I suppose in some respects flying and swimming are related. At the start of the novel Edna learns how to swim and can’t get enough of it; there’s a childlike delight in the fact she can now propel herself through water unaided. If you’re looking for a feminist metaphor here, sure, you can read it that way; she’s no longer supported by a man only it’s not only men. Chopin notes:
Edna had attempted all summer to learn to swim. She had received instructions from both the men and women; in some instances from the children. Robert had pursued a system of lessons almost daily; and he was nearly at the point of discouragement in realizing the futility of his efforts. A certain ungovernable dread hung about her when in the water, unless there was a hand nearby that might reach out and reassure her.
But that night she was like the little tottering, stumbling, clutching child, who of a sudden realizes its powers, and walks for the first time alone, boldly and with over-confidence. She could have shouted for joy. She did shout for joy, as with a sweeping stroke or two she lifted her body to the surface of the water. [bold mine]
Yes, she’s a woman, and, yes, once she gains confidence she does say “[s]he wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before,” but one can read too much into that. Her discovering the freedom being able swim affords her is significant though:
She turned her face seaward to gather in an impression of space and solitude, which the vast expanse of water, meeting and melting with the moonlit sky, conveyed to her excited fancy. As she swam she seemed to be reaching out for the unlimited in which to lose herself.
I’m not sure if this is her epiphany or if that comes later but considering how the book ends—she returns after her testing out her wings to the spot where she learned to swim—it’s significance can’t be overlooked. Here at Grand Isle, for the first time it seems, she discovered the pleasure of being alone; indeed the book is subtitled ‘A Solitary Soul’.
From the 1982 film adaptation The End of August
“Oh! I don’t know. Let me alone; you bother me.”
She liked then to wander alone into strange and unfamiliar places.
But after all, a radiant peace settled upon her when she at last found herself alone.
When Edna was at last alone, she breathed a big, genuine sigh of relief.
I want to be let alone. Nobody has any right—except children, perhaps—and even then, it seems to me—or it did seem—”
She doesn’t want to be a man—although she’s clearly fond of men and men certainly feature in what passes for her plans for the future—nor is she clamouring for a divorce but when she finds herself freed for a time from not only her husband—who’s really not a bad sort and far more understanding than the husband in The Yellow Wallpaper—but also her children—whom she loves dearly but doesn’t feel a need to centre her life around—she finds contentment in the simplest of things: painting and reading, visiting her (as opposed to ‘the family’) friends and not having to oversee a household. At one point she goes to visit the Ratignolles and, on parting, notes:
The little glimpse 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.
From the 1999 film adaptation Grand Isle
It’s important to remember that the book’s title is called The Awakening. Edna takes time to wake up to the reality of her life. One of the most significant early moments is when she informs her husband that she’s thinking of becoming an artist:
“I feel like painting,” answered Edna. “Perhaps I shan’t always feel like it.”
“Then in God’s name paint! but don’t let the family go to the devil. There’s Madame Ratignolle; because she keeps up her music, she doesn’t let everything else go to chaos. And she’s more of a musician than you are a painter”.
“She isn’t a musician, and I’m not a painter. It isn’t on account of painting that I let things go.”
“On account of what, then?”
“Oh! I don’t know. Let me alone; you bother me.”
It sometimes entered Mr. Pontellier’s mind to wonder if his wife were not growing a little unbalanced mentally. 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. [bold mine]
It takes time to awaken. It takes time to become. The realisation may feel sudden but there will have been a journey even if it is only a relatively short one. Edna Pontellier’s journey towards self-actualisation takes a year, a little less. As rebirths go it’s fairly smooth sailing. She doesn’t have to fight for her rights. She tells her husband, no, and he takes it. The first time this happens her husband, Léonce, has come home and finds Edna lolling in a hammock on the porch:
“Edna, dear, are you not coming in soon?” he asked again, this time fondly, with a note of entreaty.
“No; I am going to stay out here.”
“This is more than folly,” he blurted out. “I can’t permit you to stay out there all night. You must come in the house instantly.”
With a writhing motion she settled herself more securely in the hammock. She perceived that her will had blazed up, stubborn and resistant. She could not at that moment have done other than denied and resisted. She wondered if her husband had ever spoken to her like that before, and if she had submitted to his command. Of course she had; she remembered that she had. But she could not realize why or how she should have yielded, feeling as she then did.
“Léonce, go to bed,” she said. “I mean to stay out here. I don’t wish to go in, and I don’t intend to. Don’t speak to me like that again; I shall not answer you.
He doesn’t drag her to her feet and give her a good slap. No, instead he draws up the rocker, hoists his slippered feet on the rail and waits out the night with her. He may not understand but he is understanding. And continues to be throughout the whole book.
From the 1999 film adaptation Grand Isle
Of course by today’s standards the book is tame and more people nowadays will be offended by the ways coloured people are referred to as blackies, negroes, mulattos, quadroons and, in one instance (and this was a new one on me), a griffe which is, apparently, a person of three-quarter black to one-quarter white ancestry. The last slaves were freed in 1865 so no parallels are drawn between slavery and the role of women apart from one early in the book:
“You are burnt beyond recognition,” [he husband] added, looking at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage. She held up her hands, strong, shapely hands, and surveyed them critically, drawing up her lawn sleeves above the wrists. Looking at them reminded her of her rings, which she had given to her husband before leaving for the beach. She silently reached out to him, and he, understanding, took the rings from his vest pocket and dropped them into her open palm. She slipped them upon her fingers; then clasping her knees, she looked across at Robert and began to laugh. [bold mine]
This doesn’t make Léonce a bad man because as we’ve seen already he clearly cares for his wife’s wellbeing. He’s also a man of his time and behaves as he sees others behaving. He has a business to run and is (perhaps overly) concerned about how he is perceived in the local community so it’s actually to the man’s credit that he doesn’t rein his wife in.
Tame as the book is by today’s standards the book was not well received. In her preface to the Norton critical edition of the novel Margaret Culley writes that The Awakening
…met with widespread hostile criticism and the book was removed from the library shelves in St. Louis. Chopin herself was refused membership in the St. Louis Fine Arts Club because of the novel. In 1906 it was reprinted by Duffield (New York); but then it went out of print and remained so for more than half a century in this country.
To be fair not all reviews were negative. C. L. Deyo in his review wrote:
It is sad and mad and bad, but it is all consummate art. The theme is difficult, but it is handled with cunning craft. The work is more than unusual. It is unique. The integrity of its art is that of well-knit individuality at one with itself, with nothing superfluous to weaken the impression of the perfect whole.
It was very much the exception. The novel “leaves one sick of human nature” complained another critic; “it is not a healthy book” said one more. (See more here.) The public reaction devastated her. In July 1899 she even went as far as publishing a retraction in Book News, a literary journal:
Having a group of people at my disposal, I thought it might be entertaining (to myself) to throw them together and see what would happen. I never dreamed of Mrs Pontellier making such a mess of things and working out her own damnation as she did. If I had had the slightest intimation of such a thing I would have excluded her from the company. But when I found out what she was up to the play was half over and it was then too late.
“She was broken-hearted,” her son Felix said, and in the remaining few years of her life (she died in 1904) she produced only a few pieces, half a dozen stories and a few poems. How sincere—or indeed accurate—her retraction is who can tell? Me, I don’t buy it. I was only a few pages into the book and I already could see the writing was on the wall; she knew where this story was going from the jump.
I do, however, think the book was misread by many. In 1895 Grant Allen published a novel called The Woman Who Did about a young, self-assured middle-class woman who defies convention as a matter of principle and who is fully prepared to suffer the consequences of her actions which is perhaps why certain reviewers saw The Awakening as part of the “overworked field of sex fiction”. Is there sex in the book? Yes, but Fear of Flying it is not; blink and you’ll miss it. Kenneth Eble in his essay, states bluntly: “Quite frankly, the book is about sex.” It is not. If sex was what Edna was after then she misses a lot of opportunities. She chooses to have extramarital relations twice and that takes up a couple of lines in a book of a hundred and fifty-odd pages. When Robert, the male friend who she met on holiday at the start of the book and whom she falls for in a big way, returns towards the end of the novel (having done the gentlemanly thing and removed himself from the path of temptation) does Edna throw herself as him? No, she says, “I’d rather talk about you, and know what you have been seeing and doing and feeling out there in Mexico.” Chopin tells us earlier on that Edna “was almost devoid of coquetry.” She’s not a flirt. She’s not a tease. But she does enjoy the company of men:
There were one or two men whom she observed at the soirée musicale; but she would never have felt moved to any kittenish display to attract their notice—to any feline or feminine wiles to express herself toward them. Their personality attracted her in an agreeable way. Her fancy selected them, and she was glad when a lull in the music gave them an opportunity to meet her and talk with her.
The book’s ending, now, that’s another thing entirely and very much open to interpretation. My own reading of it is that the symbolism suggests she’s overreached herself—or is in imminent danger of doing so—and freedom comes at a price. Also once a caged animal, no matter how well cared for, has tasted freedom there’s nothing that would lure it back. I personally don’t think Edna does overreach herself; if anything she takes baby steps. I take umbrage on Edna’s behalf. It’s as much as I can say without revealing the ending but a lot has been written about it and I’m not sure I have a lot to add other than what I’ve hinted at here.
The thing about Edna, though, is that she’s actually a bit of a Romantic and I’ve never really seen Feminists as Romantics (as opposed to romantic feminists); they’re pragmatists, realists, women with their eyes open who see the world for what it is which is why they want to change it. There’s a part of me that feels Edna is being indulged and that her husband’s going to turn up any day with a short leash and drag her off to the Continent; he’s a patient man but even he has his limits. Of course we’ll never know because the book ends before his return. What if? What if? What if?
Some books can be read, enjoyed for what they are and forgotten. This is not one of them despite the sad fact that for years it was forgotten. There are layers here and much has been written about it since its rediscovery in the mid-sixties. I’ve read a fair bit in preparing this article but most of it I can’t talk about without saying too much which I’ve probably already done. The book is dated, without a doubt, but it’s more than a historical curiosity. I agree with her grandson in his estimation of the book. In chapter six Chopin writes:
In short, Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her. [bold mine]
That moment comes to us all eventually, the men, the women, the feminists, the romantics, even the deluded and, yes, there are those who think that Edna’s kidding herself. Read the book. Think about it. Make your own mind up.
If you are interested in learning more about her then The Kate Chopin International Society’s website is a good a place to start as any. As I’ve said, a lot has been written about this wee book over the years and the web contains a wealth of information from a variety of angles. The following list is a little long but if you’re serious about studying the book I’ve probably saved you a good couple of hours work. You’re welcome.
Kate Chopin: A Re-Awakening (PBS documentary, transcript)
Loss of Self and the Struggle for Individuality in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (need to download PDF)
The Awakening - Multiple Critical Perspectives (only an extract but looks like an interesting book)
The Criticism Surrounding the end of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (only read once you’ve finished the book)
Kate Chopin's At Fault: The Usefulness of Louisiana French for the Imagination (Not directly about The Awakening but as there’s so many French references in the book you might find it of some use)
The Awakening Study Guide (a bit basic but a decent enough overview although I would’ve thought more would’ve been said about the French expressions)