For 40 days, I am choosing a book from my personal book shelves. It will be a book that is insightful, intriguing, or illuminating about women. I will write why I think this book is a positive one and worth a read. This isn’t advertising for me or to promote any of my friends. It’s simply praise for good books.
Day 20, The Awakening and Selected Stories, by Kate Chopin
Kate Chopin’s original title for the story of Edna Pontellier was A Solitary Soul, and why it was changed—and by whom—is a little mystery for Chopin scholars. Both titles reflect Edna’s emotional state in this story of a woman who realizes her comfortable life feels like a stranger’s. It begins with the Pontellier family vacationing on a real Louisiana barrier island called Grand Isle (where, I should divulge, I spend many of my own childhood summers.) It is late in the 19th century, and Edna’s husband Leonce is a successful businessman who, like many men of his time and social standing, escaped the city for a cooler, healthier summer home. Leonce is fond of their two children and indulgent of his wife, but Edna is vaguely unhappy and dissatisfied. She is twenty-eight when she “wakes up” and realizes she is unsure of who she is and what she wants, that she has been defined as daughter, then wife, then mother, but who is Edna herself? She does not know.
During this summer on Grand Isle, she becomes enamored with a younger, idealistic family friend named Robert Lebrun. Here, the story could have evolved into a simple love triangle between a husband, wife, and lover, but Robert is honorable. Edna suspects he is in love with her, but he does not pursue her; instead, he abruptly leaves the island for business in Mexico. She is crushed. Summer ends, and the Pontelliers return to New Orleans, but Edna cannot return to her life as dutiful wife and mother. She eschews the social life she previously seemed to enjoy, to the point that Leonce notices and takes her to a doctor. They are advised that she suffers from a malady of motherhood—what today might be called depression—and is to be left alone until she somehow repairs herself. She will, the doctor assures Leonce, eventually return to normal. But Leonce must leave for an extended business trip, and so Edna has the opportunity to at last be on her own. She moves to a small bungalow, pursues new friends and interest in art and music, and has a brief affair that awakens her sexually. And then Robert returns from Mexico.
The Awakening is a short novel, written in a lovely and sometimes languid tone, with artful use of the unique language and culture in French Louisiana. Chopin describes Edna’s appearance and clothing in detail, both for color and as symbols of her changing psyche. Often bound with the novel are some of Chopin’s short stories. In her short work, Chopin reveals herself as a master at the simple, often surprising, plot. She introduces characters, problems, places in quick order, and writes with cleverness and craftiness. Some are so short, they are like a whiff and then are gone, and the reader is left impressed with how much occurred in so few words. To appreciate Kate Chopin as an artist, read both the novel and the stories.
Why is The Awakening a good read for women? Kate Chopin was largely forgotten from the time she published (1890s) until a revival of interest during the feminist movement of the 1970s. Now her work is read in women’s studies programs and she is appreciated for bravely writing a story about motherhood and marriage; about illicit love and sexuality; and a woman’s desire to find fulfilment unrelated to domesticity. Like Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina, Edna Pontellier is a tragic and complex character who seeks happiness, identity, and purpose. Edna Pontellier is intricate and puzzling, and Kate Chopin’s exploration reveals her solitary soul.