Monday, June 4, 2012

Review: The Awakening

This is a post participating in Allie’s Victorian Celebration, hosted at A Literary Odyssey.

Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) has been celebrated as the story of a woman breaking free from convention and society’s expectations, but my reading of the novel doesn’t give Edna Pontellier such credit.  Chopin originally titled her novel A Solitary Soul, which describes the central conflict far better than the official title, requested by her publisher.  Throughout The Awakening, Edna strives to be what her friend Mademoiselle Riesz calls “a brave soul – the soul that dares and defies” (86).  Chopin’s original title would have better called attention to this endeavor, rather than the actual title which is less ambiguous about Edna’s success (or failure).

As the introductory essay in my copy points out, a lot of the personal awakening Edna experiences is not actually a progression to something new, to idealized self-actualization, but a reversion to childhood impulses and a refusal to assume responsibility for anyone or anything but her own desires.  Chopin is intensely aware of the tension between evolution and reversion and thus, her overarching metaphor is that of circularity – the circularity of past, present, and future:

“For the first time she [Edna] recognized the symptoms of infatuation which she had felt incipiently as a child, as a girl in her earliest teens, and later as a young woman.  The recognition did not lessen the reality, the poignancy of the revelation by any suggestion or promise of instability.  The past was nothing to her; offered no lessen which she was willing to heed.  The future was a mystery which she never attempted to penetrate.  The present alone was significant; was hers, to torture her as it was doing then with the biting conviction that she had lost that which she had held, that she had been denied that which her impassioned, newly awakened being demanded” (61).

Throughout the course of the novel, Edna becomes increasingly childlike in her inability to reflect on past experiences and contemplate future consequences for her actions.  The meanings of “forward” and “backward” become all tangled up until their meanings reverse.  Consider a circle.  It is a line, formed in such a way that the line can be drawn in either direction.  For Edna, “forward” into acceptance of adult responsibilities becomes “backward,” and a retreat into adolescence and the new awakening of sexual desires becomes advancement:

“Mr. Pontellier had been a rather courteous husband so long as he met a certain tacit submissiveness in his wife.  But her new and unexpected line of conduct completely bewildered him.  It shocked him.  Then her absolute disregard for her duties as a wife angered him.  When Mr. Pontellier became rude, Edna grew insolent.  She had resolved never to take another step backward” (76).

In the midst of her growing readiness to do as she likes in the search for personal fulfillment, Edna seems unwilling to hear anything that might contradict her new understanding of self-actualization.  She gradually withdraws from her friend Madame Ratignolle because of her pregnancy (symbolizing familial responsibility) and unwanted perception (“‘In some way you seem to me like a child, Edna.  You seem to act without a certain amount of reflection which is necessary in this life’” (130).)

Edna is, in many ways, defined in opposition to the people around her.  Her husband is not abusive, nor particularly demanding, but Edna’s relationship to him is created largely through duty and responsibility.  She does not love Mr. Pontellier, and had no illusions of love when she married him because it made her family unhappy.  Through her friendship with Madame Ratignolle, Edna is forced to observe a stark contrast:

“Mr. Ratignolle was one of those men who are called the salt of the earth.  His cheerfulness was unbounded, and it was matched by his goodness of heart, his broad charity, and common sense.  He and his wife spoke English with an accent which was only discernible through its un-English emphasis and a certain carefulness and deliberation.  Edna’s husband spoke English with no accent whatsoever.  The Ratignolles understood each other perfectly.  If ever the fusion of two human beings into one has been accomplished on this sphere it was surely in their union” (75).

On Grand Isle, the island on which these wealthy families spend their summer holiday before returning to their winter homes in New Orleans, there is a curious mix of named and unnamed individuals.  Members of Edna’s society are named, but her association with them is also accompanied by the constant background presence of “the little black girl,” “the lady in black,” and “the lovers.”  These are but archetypes, representing sorts of people rather than individuals.  An entire category of people are represented by one example, their presence pointing out to readers what Edna isn’t: Edna isn’t a servant, working for the betterment of others; Edna isn’t a religious woman, finding responsibility and comfort in a church setting; Edna isn’t happily and publicly in love.  The Awakening is a book of contrasts, truth demonstrated through opposition –as Chopin wrote, “The sudden and brief flare of the match emphasized the darkness for a while” (59).

Despite the fact that I read Edna’s choices as juvenile and immature, rather than as a true awakening (as in D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover), I enjoyed The Awakening immensely and spent most of my time reveling in the pure sensuous delight of Chopin’s language.  All of the senses are continuously stimulated as the author describes music, food, clothing, the feel of different fabrics, cigar smoke and the perfume of flowers, and moonlight.  One brief paragraph, unimportant to the arch of the plot (and made all the more striking for being so), is a beautiful example of Chopin’s ability to caress all five senses:

“It was misty, with heavy, lowering atmosphere, one afternoon, when Edna climbed the stairs to the pianist’s apartments under the roof.  Her clothes were dripping with moisture.  She felt chilled and pinched as she entered the room.  Mademoiselle was poking at a rusty stove that smoked a little and warmed the room indifferently.  She was endeavoring to heat a pot of chocolate on the stove.  The room looked cheerless and dingy to Edna as she entered.  A bust of Beethoven, covered with a hood of dust, scowled at her from the mantelpiece” (106).

Posture, too, is important.  Compare, for example, the rigidity of Edna’s father’s posture with that of Mademoiselle Riesz: “Before her pencil he sat rigid and unflinching, as he had faced the cannon’s mouth in days gone by.  He resented the intrusion of the children, who gaped with wondering eyes at him, sitting so stiff up there in their mother’s bright atelier.  When they drew near he motioned them away with an expressive action of the foot, loath to disturb the fixed lines of his countenance, his arms, or his rigid shoulders (92); “She sat low at the instrument, and the lines of her body settled into ungraceful curves and angles that gave it an appearance of deformity” (86).  One of these characters represents the confining bonds of societal expectations and responsibility to one’s family.  The other is a musician whose art has the potential to awaken “strange new voices.”  Can you guess which is which?

The matter-of-fact tone of the novel is, at times, extremely funny.  For example: “[The cake] was pronounced a great success – excellent if it had only contained a little less vanilla or a little more sugar, if it had been frozen a degree harder, and if the salt might have been kept out of portions of it” (33).  However, despite its funny moments, this isn’t a funny book.  Aside from a few witticisms, the narrative seems distanced and impassive.  Its matter-of-fact tone presents actions and thoughts emotionlessly, without analysis or justification.  Actions simply happen; thoughts simply are.  It’s like watching Edna through a microscope, an odd feeling for a limited-omniscient book that reveals some internal monologue.  Readers know what Edna is thinking, but rarely how she feels about it, or if her emotion is revealed, we have difficulty connecting to it.

If you haven’t read The Awakening, I’d encourage you to try it, and as I mentioned, it makes a great comparison piece to Lady Chatterley’s Lover.  It was also the first American South-themed book I’ve read in a long while – too many English books lately!  In contrast to English Victorian sexual politics, The Awakening expresses a very different ideal.  Its exquisite use of language makes the novel’s prose even more sensuous than its plot!

One final digression: my edition (Bantam Classic) has a fabulous introduction by Marilynne Robinson.  Normally, I would regret reading an introduction containing spoilers, as this one does, but not in this case; the essay was meandering but marvelously written, pointing out what details I should pay attention to as I begin to read.  Not knowing what to expect with this book, it was nice to have some guidance as to what description and events are of special importance later.  The excellence of Robinson’s writing was also a firm reminder that I simply must read her novels, and soon!

Things I’m reading:
Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson
A Journal of Theomusicology (Black Sacred Music, Vol. 8, No. 1), Jon Michael Spencer, ed.
God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible, Adam Nicolson


  1. Thanks for this very thoughtful review. It's been a while since I read this book, but I do remember being sympathetic to Edna's desire to break free, even though I didn't find her a likable character. For me, the problem was in the style itself, that you described so well: "Its matter-of-fact tone presents actions and thoughts emotionlessly, without analysis or justification. Actions simply happen; thoughts simply are." I couldn't fully understand or sympathize with Edna, because I didn't have enough of a grasp on her motivations.

    It's very useful to compare it with Lady Chatterley's Lover in this respect. To me, what was missing here was exactly the sort of discussion of inner thoughts and motivations that Lawrence has and that allows you to connect with the characters. I cared about Connie; about Edna, not so much.

    I'd really like to read Marilynne Robinson's introduction now. Thank you for recommending it :)

    1. Thanks for your comment! You're absolutely right about the inner monologue that allows readers to connect with Connie. Have you read any other Lawrence? Is that a consistent device throughout his books?

      And yes, the introduction is lovely...and the Bantam edition is a small, unassuming little paperback so I can't imagine it would be very hard (or expensive) to find!

    2. The only other D.H. Lawrence book I tried to read was Women in Love (not knowing that it was a sequel to The Rainbow). It was a nice enough book, but actually closer to this style than to the one in Lady Chatterley's Lover. But since it did have bursts of Explaining Things to Mortals, I was fine with it. For some reason I never finished it, but I'd definitely revisit it.

  2. "Its exquisite use of language makes the novel’s prose even more sensuous than its plot!"

    I think you're spot on, there. The prose is what really appealed to me (although the plot is interesting, of course). Still, this is one of those books where I just felt I could get almost physcially wrapped up in the prose and language... such a great experience. I haven't read Lady Chatterly's Lover, yet (tried and quit), but I definitely need to go back and make the comparison someday.

    Good luck with the rest of your Celebration reading!

  3. I have to disagree with you a bit about the nature of Edna's awakening. In modern life, we are all encouraged to think about ourselves all the time: what do you want, who are you, what do you want to be? But those questions were totally foreign to women in 1899. Edna had to be self-absorbed for awhile -- and what we might perceive as childish -- in order to understand who she was and what she wanted, something we start to resolve today when we are actually children. Once she resolved it, she was capable of sacrifice and tenderness. A real awakening, then.

    I love your observations on the prose and the humor!

    1. But for whom did she sacrifice? She made the choice to abandon her children, deciding that she could and needed to follow through on her earlier comment that she wouldn't put them above herself. She showed tenderness to her new lover and would-be lover, but not to a longtime friend going through labor. I find that then, as now, too much encouragement to think of one's own needs and desires leads to a loss of community. Of course, I'd love to hear your thoughts! And you're absolutely right to remind me of the difference between expectations of women then vs. now. I'm just not sure I can agree with her choices, regardless of time period, and I think Chopin made a real effort to create parallels between Edna's actions during the book and her memories of childhood. What do you think - do you celebrate her awakening?

    2. Right: she was willing to give up quite a lot (wealth, comfort, different kinds of self-interest) for her lover. I don't think she was the least bit interested in community, because the one thing she was not at all willing to give up was her new-found independence. It takes a long time to balance independence and community (our nation has not found that balance yet) and Edna had only a few weeks! I am not supposed to find her sympathetic, but I don't have to find her sympathetic to understand her choices. Today, we have so much time to understand how to "put on our own oxygen mask before assisting others." Edna was never told that truism. She had to find it out for herself. And then there was no societal oxygen mask at all, for women like her. So in answer to your question -- I don't think "celebrate" is the word, but rather understand and pity.

    3. I like your interpretation a lot! I do pity her. I wish she had felt like she had more time to figure herself out. I wonder what she could have become - had she more time, I think she would truly have become a person we could all celebrate.

  4. Reading the brief paragraphs in your review reminds me of Madame Bovary. Like Chopin, Flaubert wrote beautifully too, and make small things seems more beautiful. I didn't quite enjoy Lady Chatterley's, but might try The Awakening someday...

    1. I will have to try Madame Bovary! Thanks for the recommendation!