Tuesday, September 12, 2017


It's been a century and part of another now since Kate Chopin shocked the literary world with a thrilling time-lapse look at the blooming amid a perfectly proper pansy bed of a wondrously rebellious passion flower. (I’m still not completely satisfied with that sentence, and expect to revisit it—perhaps incessantly—for tweaks and twiddles long after I’ve hit the publish button. After all, the literary world is still tweaking and twiddling its opinion of Chopin’s The Awakening, and likely will continue to do so until the looming Apocalypse suspends all tweaking and twiddling, at least in this little corner of the Cosmos.)

Such outraged put-downs as “repellent” and “sad and mad and bad” and “poison” greeted The Awakening at its dawn in 1899, which seems odd now in that twenty years earlier Henrik Ibsen’s The Doll House, with an almost identical theme, met with a similarly hostile critical reception. More recent discussions of The Awakening suggest that Chopin’s neck was on the block because of its setting in Louisiana rather than in some “foreign” country.
The meanest put-down of The Awakening I have found (with help from Wikipedia) was Public Opinion’s "We are well-satisfied when Mrs. Pontellier deliberately swims out to her death in the waters of the gulf." {{Gasp}}

Oops, have I given too much away? Forgive me. The plot is...well, there really isn’t much of one: Edna Pontellier, 28, secretly thumbs her nose at her wooden Creole businessman hubby and his New Orleans society (she’s from Kentucky), allowing herself by increments to fall in love with the charming 26-year-old son of a friend. The increments take the length of a novella to unfold because that’s how long it takes Edna to recognize what is happening to her, that she’s becoming sensually alive and is craving—desperately--to break free of the web of cultural and marital obligations she’d entered with those horrific (for men, ordinarily) words “I do.”
That she and the wooden Creole businessman have two young’uns bothers her a little in this psychological metamorphosis we witness her undergoing, but not enough to keep her from swimming into the Gulf of Mexico, presumably to her death—either unwittingly or deliberately, of which we are not privy.
The two male leads in this story are Robert, whom Edna comes to realize she loves, and Alcee Arobin, the local lothario who seduces her after Robert flees, claiming it’s because he loves her, hence, we’re to assume, protecting her from the stigma a consummation of their love would bring upon her.

While the story framework is simple, the blossoming of Edna’s sensuality, given to us petal by glorious petal, kept this old goat reading as raptly as he presumes he might a James Patterson thriller, were he (the old goat) so starved for something to read. And Kate Chopin could write, bringing with her scandalous novel an enviable reputation for her short fiction. You know I’m going to give you some examples—no point in me trying to do justice with paraphrases to her exceptional skill.
Here’s Edna: “Mrs. Pontellier's eyes were quick and bright; they were a yellowish brown, about the color of her hair. She had a way of turning them swiftly upon an object and holding them there as if lost in some inward maze of contemplation or thought.
“Her eyebrows were a shade darker than her hair. They were thick and almost horizontal, emphasizing the depth of her eyes. She was rather handsome than beautiful. Her face was captivating by reason of a certain frankness of expression and a contradictory subtle play of features. Her manner was engaging.”

I like handsome, engaging women. Here’s a glimpse of her sorrow after a mild set-to with the wooden businessman she’d married for reasons practical rather than love: “She could not have told why she was crying. Such experiences as the foregoing were not uncommon in her married life. They seemed never before to have weighed much against the abundance of her husband's kindness and a uniform devotion which had come to be tacit and self-understood.”
Chopin explains that in the Creole culture husbands are never jealous, that the “gangrene passion is one which has become dwarfed by disuse.”
Kate Chopin
Perhaps it’s that understanding, or taking it for granted, that enables Edna to inch almost unwittingly toward what she feels is freedom-and-damn-the-consequences. Here’s her first clue to us that she’s catching on to something happening between her and Robert:Edna Pontellier could not have told why, wishing to go to the beach with Robert, she should in the first place have declined, and in the second place have followed in obedience to one of the two contradictory impulses which impelled her.
“A certain light was beginning to dawn dimly within her,—the light which, showing the way, forbids it.”
We may assume correctly The Awakening enjoyed a spirited revival, which came long after Chopin’s death, with the advent of modern feminism, in the 1960s. This attitude has matured some since then, at least from the perspective of Edna’s choices in asserting her independence

Kate Chopin
In a group discussion hosted by NPR’s Diane Rehm five years ago, author and Time columnist Judith Warner said she “felt very bad” about not sympathizing with Edna Pontellier. “I felt like a bad feminist and a bad person...” she said. “But I found her really narcissistic and childish… She seemed to me to just have so much frustrated narcissism and be so kind of limited in her ability to think. She can feel to a great extent, but she doesn't seem to be all that capable of rational thought. And even in that depiction, I wondered, it's almost as though Kate Chopin is reprising all of the stereotypes, the dominant stereotypes about the nature of women that were dominant in her time and, of course, it lasted for a very long time afterward as well.”
Rehm cited a Facebook posting on the subject from someone called Susan: "I first read it right after I finished college when I was single. I was inspired by the way Edna took control of her life the only way she could. I read it again after I was married with children and I was appalled at Edna's selfishness. I wondered if Edna had somehow changed while the book was on the shelf. It's amazing how differently I saw her character as my life circumstances changed. It's still one of my favorite novels."
My favorite scene is a brief conversation between Edna and my favorite supporting character, a wise old physician referred to only as “Doctor Mandelet.” The doctor has just asked Edna if she intends to accompany her husband on a planned trip abroad.
"’Perhaps—no, I am not going,’ she answers. ‘I'm not going to be forced into doing things. I don't want to go abroad. I want to be let alone. Nobody has any right—except children, perhaps—and even then, it seems to me—or it did seem—‘ She felt that her speech was voicing the incoherency of her thoughts, and stopped abruptly.
"’The trouble is,’ sighed the Doctor, grasping her meaning intuitively, ‘that youth is given up to illusions. It seems to be a provision of Nature; a decoy to secure mothers for the race. And Nature takes no account of moral consequences, of arbitrary conditions which we create, and which we feel obliged to maintain at any cost.’
"’Yes,’ she said. ‘The years that are gone seem like dreams—if one might go on sleeping and dreaming—but to wake up and find—oh! well! perhaps it is better to wake up after all, even to suffer, rather than to remain a dupe to illusions all one's life.’"

[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]


  1. Matt, thanks for an excellent review of THE AWAKENING. I intended to read the book often but never did. Now I know I must read a paper book at the earliest. There is something about bold and brazen literary heroines from around that time and until the early 20th century. Caroline "Sister Carrie" Meeber from the namesake novel "Sister Carrie" (1900) by Theodore Dreiser and Lily Bart from "The House of Mirth" (1905) by Edith Wharton come to mind. Both were very good novels.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Prashant. I stumbled onto this reading a piece on Wallace Stevens (whose poetry seems too esoteric for my taste). The Awakening was mentioned in some context, and it sounded intriguing.

  2. I have a list of classic novels I want to read in the next few years, and this book did not make the list. Maybe because it was published before 1900 and I seem to be prejudiced against books written so long ago. But now that I am enjoying reading the books by Jane Austen, I realize that is a silly prejudice. Anyway, this seems like a book I should definitely read.

  3. This book has been languishing on my shelves for years. I have read Chopin's stories and enjoyed them but have somehow or the other not picked up this book. Thanks for an insightful review, Mathew, though I will try to get the textual details out of my mind before reading the book. I agree with the comment on the facebook. I have also found that with age and change in circumstances my outlook has changed towards certain books, characters, and movies.

  4. Forgot to add, do not like the covers at all (esp the first one). They seem more suited to chic-lit.

    1. Marketing, I should think, Neer--aimed at the younger set, as this novella is taught in many freshman college lit. courses. Plus, narcissism seems to be gaining in rampancy, and the villain again is marketing: pamper yourself, it's all about you, commitment is for suckers. Or maybe it's evolution responding to population glut. Ultimately, tho, either way, the hucksters rule.

  5. I gave up on these sorts of books ages ago, Mathew. I've gotten too old to commiserate with this sort of tale especially as it ends in the 'heroine's demise. Jeez, I've had enough of that to last a life time. One of the better explanations (if you could call it that) of why one woman does what she does to preserve her own sanity is - believe it or not - written quite brilliantly by Carol Lea Benjamin in one of her mysteries, WITHOUT A WORD. This book is part of a mysteries series featuring a NY dog trainer/detective who, with her dog in tow, solves mysteries. In WITHOUT A WORD, she solves the mystery but in a way so as not to add hurt to the man who has hired her to track down his missing wife, the mother of his daughter. I know, sounds ultra cozy, but not. I believe this is Benjamin's tour de force, because in it she manages not only to solve a murder (not really connected with the missing wife) but also, in rather brief and finely tuned fashion to explain why a woman might leave her husband and daughter and make it almost understandable. At any rate, I've managed to stray from your post a bit, Mathew. THE AWAKENING sounds like something I might probably have read when I was young and impressionable. :)

    1. Might be a good thing you didn't read it then, Yvette. ;) I shall check out Without a Word. Thanks for the recommendation!