★ ★ ★
The Awakening by Kate Chopin | 1899 | Del Rey | Project Gutenberg $0
Edna Pontellier is a young woman living comfortably in the beautiful city of New Orleans. She is fond of her husband and proud of her sons but finds it impossible to accept that for women it is a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals. She fights back in the only manner she knows.
I put The Awakening on my Classics Club list because it is often included in studies of feminist history, which is a subject that I find very interesting. Plus, not gonna lie, it’s short. So I went into this story knowing nothing more about it than that.
I somehow managed to avoid finding out what happens to Edna (the main character) before reading, and I think this really affected my reaction to the story. So if you haven’t read it yet, please keep in mind:
This review contains spoilers.
Here, have a bit of a line break while you think about whether you want to go on reading this review or not….
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I wasn’t really expecting Edna to commit suicide, in part because the few reviews I had read before even putting The Awakening on my to-read list made only oblique references to her “choice to leave” or similar.
Now that I understand what they mean, I’m particularly confused by the negative reviews that complain about Edna being generally unrelatable/immoral and condemn her gradual, then suddenly final abandonment of her family. I would argue for a more empathetic view of the situation.
I think the ending of the story shines a particularly illuminating light on the main character’s previous thoughts + actions. The woman is depressed or otherwise mentally unwell. She is having a crisis. This crisis is caused by her being “boxed in” to a particular role by her culture, a role she is not suited for but cannot wholly escape except in one way.
She begins to have an emotional affair with one man, then a physical affair with another; she sends her children away to live with her husband’s family and leaves her husband. Her instability is obvious to everyone around her, and at one point a doctor encourages her to come to him for help. But what kind of help could he really have offered, in this era before psychotherapy and SSRIs?
This was all terribly shocking behavior to the Victorians that were this story’s original readers. Of course a modern reader, especially a socially conservative one, might also think her actions are repugnant — but we also live in a culture where women can have careers and don’t have to marry well or risk lifelong poverty/seclusion, where having children is a positive choice rather than the default assumption, where people can get divorced if their marriage falls apart instead of being unhappily trapped forever. It’s impossible to judge Edna by modern standards when she didn’t have the advantages of modern options.
Well, anyway, this was a depressing story, and not at all what I was looking for when I was hoping for a bit of “light” summer reading. On to the next one….
- Overview at the Kate Chopin International Society
- Curriculum at Edsitement by the National Endowment for the Humanities
- Review at The Guardian
Publication information: Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. Chicago: Herbert S. Stone & Company, 1899.
Source: Project Gutenberg.
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