A few weeks ago I (accidently) found a second book group – or they found me – on Twitter – I can’t remember which – calling themselves a feminist book group, I had to give them a try. Whether or not I manage to keep up with two book groups meeting two weeks apart remains to be seen – but I definitely intend to go along to the first meeting of this one in a couple of weeks. The book chosen to be their first read was Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, a book which seems to have had quite a resurgence in the last year or two.
In the stifling atmosphere of late nineteenth century Louisiana society, Edna Pontellier lives with her husband Lѐonce a creole businessman and her two young sons, dimly aware that she is not quite as traditionally maternal as the other wives around her; hers was very much a society marriage.
“The mother-women seemed to prevail that summer at Grand Isle. It was easy to know them, fluttering about with extended, protecting wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened their precious brood. They were women who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels.”
As the novel opens the Pontellier family are holidaying away from their New Orleans home on Grand Isle on the Gulf of Mexico at a resort managed by the Lebrun family. Here are other families from their New Orleans circle, spending their summers in small cottages on the estate, days of idleness and evenings of relaxed sociability. Robert Lebrun is very much a fixture of these summers, just a couple of years younger than Edna, he is considered charming and altogether harmless despite his yearly habit of attaching himself to one married woman or another. His flirtations are smiled upon, he is no threat to any of the husbands, and he will unleash no scandals nor take part in any real impropriety. Edna and Robert are rarely apart this year, and their friendship raises no eyebrows nor elicits any special comment at first. Edna becomes gradually more infatuated with Robert, until her friend Adèle Ratignolle reminds her pointedly of her duties to her family.
“The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamouring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation. The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.”
This is the summer that Edna finally learns to swim; her fear and delight in her sudden acquisition of the ability to do so, a metaphor for the awakening which is already taking place within her. Edna wrestles with her traditional duties of motherhood – and her longing to be always with Robert. Robert, perhaps sensing that things could so easily get out of hand between him and Edna, causing scandal and misery and upsetting the pleasant easy existence he has so far enjoyed, suddenly leaves for Mexico – citing business opportunities as his excuse.
Back in New Orleans Edna finds herself unable to simply slip back into her normal life. Struggling at times to understand herself and how she feels, Edna longs for a freedom that her position as a wife and mother does not allow her. She strikes up an odd, unlikely friendship with Mademoiselle Reisz, a musician who much older than Edna represents the woman she might have been able to become, had she, like Mademoiselle Reisz grown up independent of her family, and had the opportunity to follow her own path. Mademoiselle Reisz was also at Grand Isle that summer, and is another friend of Robert Lebrun, and Edna is envious of the letters he sends her from Mexico, and which she is allowed to read.
“Even as a child she had lived her own small life within herself. At a very early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life – that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions.”
Edna begins to pull away from the society in which she exists, she moves out of the family home and into a small bungalow nearby and takes to spending time with a renowned rake. Her husband; away on business for lengthy periods of time, reacts sharply by advertising in the local press that the Pontellier family home is undergoing refurbishment – thus saving face with New Orleans society. Robert’s return to New Orleans heralds Edna’s devastated realisation of the impossibility of her desires, and the escape that she seeks.
First published in 1899 – this novel was controversial when it first emerged – and it would seem it still divides. I am though, surprised by how many one star reviews I have seen for it – readers seem to take their dislike of the central character and her actions out on the entire book – I can’t help but find that bafflingly short sighted – but hey we can’t all like the same things. The Awakening is an extraordinarily good novel, written with delicacy and subtlety, there is none of the density that can be found in other novels of this period. The writing style has a more modern feel to it than might be expected – it is very much a novel of that realistic school of some French novelists.
The Awakening is a feminist novel of liberation Edna refuses to conform or sacrifice her wants for her husband and children – but sorry, I actually liked her.