Review: The Awakening, Kate Chopin

 The Awakening was a book that truly surprised me, not least the fact that it was published in 1899.  This is most likely the earliest feminist novel that I can ever remember reading.  My copy came with a bracing foreword that instructed me that although the protagonist’s name was Edna, it was the only aspect of the novel which had dated.  I finished it and agreed more or less.  I have never read The Doll’s House or indeed watched it on stage but it seemed that the two stories have a fair number of themes in common.  The Awakening considers the concept of the self outside the defined roles of wife or mother but it is not a particularly comfortable read.

It opens with Madame Edna Pontellier vacationing along with a host of other French Creole families.  Edna’s great friend is Madame Adele Ratignolle but she is being languidly wooed by Robert, although of course nobody ever takes Robert’s attentions seriously.  Leonce Pontellier is vaguely dissatisfied with his wife and feels she is insufficiently attentive.  Predictably, Edna falls in love with Robert and is silently aghast when Robert decides to leave, recognising that the relationship is doomed.  Adele Ratignolle is the perfect nineteenth century woman, adoring her husband and children and she chides Edna gently about her duties but Edna is awakening.  Far beyond her desire for Robert, she wishes for more.  She wishes for herself.

I struggled to connect with this novel.  The prose is beautiful, the writing dream-like and the subject matter is one that fascinates me.  I think that it was Oscar Wilde who said that in falling in love with one’s self, it was the beginning of a lifelong romance.  Yet it is also a difficult relationship for an outsider to understand.  There is a lot going on with Edna internally but she is a mystery to those around her and I never felt as if she quite engaged me as a character even though I felt for her predicament.  When the wives are discussing the lengths they would be prepared to go to for their children, Edna remarks that she would be willing to lay down her life for her children but not her self.  It is a fascinating thought – even now society expects parents to sacrifice everything for their young.  One stops being a one and rather considering the individual’s wants, desires and cravings, the children must come first.  Yet, is it really so unreasonable to wish to keep your own sense of self intact?

Edna paints, ignores her husband and sets up her own house outside the marital home – she blossoms.  Yet, does this actually improve her situation?  Does turning away from her lukewarm marriage give her a better life?  Earlier this year, a character in The Archers discovered her husband’s infidelity.  Having listened to said soap opera since 1991, the Tuckers feel like family members and I commented to my mother gloomily that a divorce would only make Hayley’s situation harder because her life was intertwined with her husband’s family.  In becoming Madame Pontellier, Edna has bartered away too much and there is something so bleak about this that I found it hard to warm to the novel as a whole.  The Awakening felt a little too poetic – or even like a story at the centre of a ballet, graceful and beautiful but somehow cold and without passion.

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The Awakening by Kate Chopin
Published by H. S. Stone on 1899
Genres: 19th Century, Classics, Feminism & Feminist Theory, Fiction, General, Literary, Women, Women's Issues
Pages: 303

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