The Awakening, published in 1899, follows Edna Pontellier on a journey of self-discovery. The book is labeled by some as one of the first feminist works, with a healthy skewering of the upper class lifestyle of the late 19th century.
The main plot follows a summer romance between Edna and Robert Lebrun after they meet during a summer on the Gulf Coast. Edna enjoys Robert’s company and he serves as the catalyst to her seeking independence. Constant companions, the two of them spend hours, sometimes days, together. Their conversations, and Robert’s genuine interest in her, awaken a longing in Edna to be rid of her life as it is. Married for social status with children because it is the womanly duty. Edna feels trapped. Robert is her escape.
As Edna wrestles with her fear of breaking out of societal norms, Chopin uses the lovely metaphor of Edna learning to swim that summer to illustrate how free she feels as she embraces her “true self”. What was once terrifying and unknown is now joyous. Edna and Robert enjoy most of the remaining summer in each other’s company. However, with Edna a married woman Robert eventually leaves, saying he has business in Mexico. Edna, hurt, returns to New Orleans.
Once in the city Edna quickly tosses aside what society expects her to do: host weekly visits with friends, oversee the house and watch the children. Instead she walks the streets alone, goes to the race track to bet on horses and takes up sketching. Those around her believe she’s acting odd or ill, but Edna herself feels liberated.
Edna begins a fling (at least an 1899 version of a fling) with a suitor, Alcee Arobin, and throughout that courtship we see Edna address sexuality the first time. The underlying desire to break free that Robert stirred up grows during her time with Alcee until finally they kiss. A lustful kiss. It was interesting to read about a woman straying from her husband without the author adding shame or guilt. Chopin allows Edna to completely embrace her own individuality, her own “I will do as I please” mentality without apology. Edna does feel awkwardness after, but not regret. If anything it emboldens her.
Edna eventually moves out of her husband’s mansion into a small “pigeon-house” down the street, the “first house that ever felt cozy”. Chopin writes about a woman leaving her family to live alone without any condescension, and truly explores the psychological state of Edna as she essentially starts a new life for herself. She has moved past the social pressure of keeping a loveless marriage for status and the implied “job” of raising children. Chopin explores, realistically, what an independent woman would do in that time.
Robert returns to New Orleans, to Edna’s shock, and the two eventually meet one evening in the “pigeon-house”. There they confess their love for each other and Edna gives Robert her first passionate, loving kiss. With the truth finally laid bare, the two plan on spending all their time together. But not soon after Edna rushes to a friend giving birth, where she is reminded of her own children and what she would lose by abandoning them. She then returns to find a note from Robert saying he has left for good. Crushed, Edna returns to the Gulf where they first met and swims as far as she can before losing strength and drowning.
The end shocked me, but it seemed like Chopin admitting that while many women may have the aspirations to do what Edna does, society at the time would not allow it. Robert wouldn’t bring the shame of infidelity to Edna or her husband, and Edna couldn’t completely forget her maternal duty. And to drown, to die by the very thing that the previous summer had been so joyous, was especially poignant. You must be strong to fight a current of injustice, or inequity, or even bias. Perhaps too it served as a sort of foresight that while maybe women of Chopin’s generation could not easily do it, future generations of women could live as Edna did as easily as swimming.
A final, lighter note: this book taught me the word perambulation which I hope to use as often as possible.
Thank you for reading,