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?
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.