Kate Chopin’s The Awakening

A married woman with children she adores but does not “give herself up for”, with a fine husband who provides and spoils her, and with an enviable life in the upper class in 1899 would surely have lived a life of happiness and fulfillment, right?

WRONG!

Kate Chopin’s short novel about Edna Pontellier is simply riveting.  Chopin paints a seamless portrait of life in Southern Louisianna.  The novel opens with the characters vacationing on stretches of sandy beaches and enjoying lovely hammocks on long porches amidst lazy, hot summer days.  Later on, Chopin brings readers into the beautiful streets of New Orleans and into the living quarters of the well-to-do in 1899.  In this enchanting, romantic world of 1899 there is a woman who hungers for more than the traditional domestic life she has.  Edna Pontellier envisions a life of independence where she is not owned, where she has complete control of her life and does not have to bow to her husband’s will, to her children’s needs, or to public opinion.  Once again, in this second book I’ve read for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2012, I find a theme that is so relevant to modern readers.  The premise of a woman finding herself, her voice, her essential self is the main focus of today’s “chick-lit”.  Chopin was over 100 years ahead of her time.

I loved this novel!  I knew the subject of the novel before I started reading, but I wasn’t prepared for Chopin’s enlightened descriptions of the way a woman’s soul withers when she finds herself in a life that was not of her creation…even if it was of her creation – she would not have created it had she truly had a choice otherwise – clearly I don’t have Chopin’s skill of economy with words.

I liked that Mr. Pontellier was not villified – because it is not necessarily always the case that a bad husband is what makes a woman want to leave a marriage.  Mr. Pontellier was a wonderful husband by 1899 standards – he surpassed expectations actually.  But, Edna’s relinquishment of her duty had nothing to do with him, really.  It was her need to be her own person.  Mr. Pontellier offered Edna everything – except the freedom to be an individual.

Chopin’s novel in no way excuses Edna’s behaviour – her actions, condemned in 1899, may be deeply frowned upon in 2012 with both physical and emotional betrayal of her marriage vows.  This novel poignantly shows what an entrapped woman will succumb to if she cannot be truly free.  Ironically, many critics in 1899 wrote scathing reviews of Chopin’s work because Edna was not forced to atone for her sins.  I believe that Edna’s end demands criticism not because she deserved punishment, but because she deserved a chance to truly create the life she wanted, but was unable to do.

I highly recommend this classic.  It is short, well written, and as relevant to women today as it was in 1899.

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14 thoughts on “Kate Chopin’s The Awakening

  1. Great review, I believe that in many ways all women can relate to this story even in 2012. I can only imagine what a woman in 1899 had to go through to find her voice. In a way women of this time should be greatful to those before us that paved the way for an easier journey for us. Thanks Karen for this review.

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  2. I read this last year and I’ll be honest, my first reaction was “seriously?” But mainly I think because I am a woman of today, and I know we have the ability to be our own person and do the things we want to do, so it was hard for me to place myself in her position. And I know I would not take the drastic measure Edna did.

    After reading your review, it really made me think back to the book. I never really considered Chopin’s writing at the time in which she wrote to be so modern, if you will. I was not really in love with this at all, but your review has definitely opened my eyes and made me think more about it. So thanks! 🙂

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    • You’re welcome! It is difficult to place ourselves in the shoes of women of over 100 years ago – thankfully. And, it is hard to relate to Edna – but when she is put into the context of time, one can see she had so few options. She was actually quite courageous to move out and “leave” her marriage. Interestinng that her husband had to be absent in order for that to occur…I think the part that is most relatable is her “coming of age”. The realization of her independent true self -something we all experience (or, at least I think so) at some point. Thanks again for your comments!

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  4. I loved this book, and think you have written a wonderful review of it. I have to admit that I was startled by the ending, and kept looking for more pages! You make an excellent point that Mr. Pontiellier was not villified – it would have been easy to do, and certainly unfair. I think this is a great book with a message that is relevant today!

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    • Thanks Sarah! I’m so glad I came upon your challenge….it has been wonderful and a big, well, challenge. In case you missed it, I added to my original post on The Awakening about a week later, entitled “Have You Read The Thing?” Anyways, I’m having lots of fun reading and writing about these classics.

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  5. Pingback: Short Stories by Kate Chopin | Book Marks

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  7. I don’t actually remember the ending. Isn’t that where she drowns herself? Or am I confusing it with another book? Isn’t that atonement (if you want to call it that) enough? I was disappointed to see that she did not end up living her life the way she wanted to. She came so far only to give up at the end.

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    • Yes, she does drown and I agree with you, that is atonement enough. I too was very disappointed that she could not live the life she yearned for. Thanks for reading & commenting!

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