Monday, January 31, 2011
The Awakening by Kate Chopin
First published in 1899
Source: I own a copy but this time I listened to it on Librivox
Edna Pontellier, 28-year-old wife and mother of two, is summering with her family at Grand Isle as they, and so many other wealthy New Orleans families, have done for a number of years, when her thoughts and feelings begin to make her question the life she has chosen.
In the late 19th century, Edna's path was quite set from the moment she was born. A young woman was expected to play a little piano, to paint a little, and to learn to become the wife and mother she was destined to become. Nothing more was to expected, nothing more was to be hoped for. But Edna had never fit the mold. She didn't marry her husband, Leonce, because she was in love with him; in fact, she appreciated not being in love with him. She married him for dignity, because he loved her and because her family did not approve. When the boys are young, though, Leonce begins to believe there is a shortcoming in his wife; he can't name it but knows that she's not a "mother wife." In this, he is right. Edna loves her boys, but more in the way that an aunt would rather than a mother.
At Grand Isle, Edna begins a flirtation with one of the sons of the owner. Robert LeBrun attaches himself each summer to one of the women staying at the resort but the women never really take him seriously. It is not until Robert leaves for Mexico that Edna realizes how deep her feelings for him have become. Her "mantel of reserve" has been loosened and once the family returns to New Orleans it becomes obvious that Edna is unable and unwilling to go back to life as she has known it.
As someone who is something of a modern day "mother wife" (I stayed home for a dozen years to raise my children), I had a hard time connecting with Edna at first. But I also had to acknowledge that doing that was my own choice, a choice I could quite easily not have made. A choice Edna did not have. When Kate Chopin wrote this book, it was considered quite shocking. After all, Edna eventually abandons her family and carries on an adulterous affair, something that would even today raise eyebrows. Today, it's considered a major achievement.
Chopin has populated this story with a wealth of characters representing all facets of life in this time period. Edna's friend Adele Ratignolle is the epitome of what a wife and mother was expected to be at that time. Mademoiselle Reisz, a single woman pursuing her own passion without regard to convention, becomes Edna's role model. Leonce is a man who loves his wife but thinks of her as not much more than a possession. The secondary and minor characters in the book are all in place for a reason, making it a book that is ideal for teaching.
But this story is much more than a lesson. It is a beautifully written work that is every bit as relevant today as it was more than 100 years ago.