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,

AR

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3 thoughts on “The Awakening – Kate Chopin

  1. I find it interesting that you never mentioned the impact on the children. Or did the author never mention that? There are lots and lots of women who have no problem ditching their family to “find themselves”. Maybe setting it back in an earlier time romanticizes it. Maybe people need to find themselves before they make commitments, or at least before they make children. I’m surprised you were swept away by a story of infedelity ant the abandoning if children. I’m all for people finding themselves. Maybe the author, in the surprising end, was counting the cost.
    Just some thoughts.

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  2. But yes, it is unfortunate to find yourself in a marriage without love. Yes there is the freedom today to remain single without social stigma. I think there were women even then who were strong and independent who did not marry. Social justice does not equate to the lack of family values. The author has Edna struggle with her maternal instincts. As a mother, I view the story differently. A person does not, in my opinion, get to be selfish any more after having children. A person does live up to the responsibility that those children are. And in my opinion, that choice is a worthwhile and valuable one, and should weigh heavily on the decision in the first place. So while the author doesn’t place guilt or shame in Edna, the story is a tragedy on all levels – including Robert who loves the unattainable. And perhaps that is the underlying message. That today’s freedom can keep such a tragedy from playing out in our time. That is a worthwhile message – yet, the tragedy still plays out.

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  3. Perambulation is a good word. Using it once a day would be a challenge. Without having read the book, I will only address the review – I see a poignant celebration of selfishness – “I will do as I please”. There is nothing noble about abandoning your children. There is no injustice, inequity or bias implicit in parents upholding their responsibilities. A loveless marriage is a tragedy but marriage is as much a formation for a family as a celebration of love. Edna got married (a choice … influenced by society but part of the human condition); had children (a choice which then means that you stop living just for yourself or for yourself and your spouse). Was her husband abusive or just not passionate enough? Love is a two-way street. Marriage is a covenant. Robert respected that more than either Edna or her husband. Doing what you please is fine only if what you do only affects you. Once you marry or have a child what you do doesn’t affect just you. i feel sorry for Edna but she could have made other choices in the beginning and at the end.

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