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A rude ‘Awakening’ - Kate Chopin’s initially hated tale of a 19th century house-wife is given its proper due

The Awakening “…should be labeled ‘poison,’” states the May 21, 1899 issue of the St. Louis Post- Dispatch, “too strong a drink for moral babes.” The novel is “a masterpiece,” gushes the New York Times Book Review almost a hundred years later. “Kate Chopin was long before her time in dealing with sexual passion…”

It is extraordinary that a book once reviled and condemned, one that nearly cost its previously respected author her reputation, is now considered spectacular and ground-breaking. This fact alone elucidates the changed face of the American woman, and society’s opinion regarding expectations of the life this woman is to lead.

The idea of females being more than property of their husbands and caretakers of their homes and children was prescient during this era, and Chopin’s revolutionary work was clearly ahead of its time.

We first meet Edna Pontellier, a young, high-society New Orleans house wife, when she is summering on sultry Grand Isle, in the Gulf of Mexico. Her days consist of chatter and gossip with the other wives on the breezy front-porch, running after her young children on the beach, and attending fancy socials at nightfall. She is to be nothing more than pretty arm-candy for her husband, an ornament to the sumptuous locale and sensual surroundings.

A subtle change, however, begins to occur. Edna strikes up a friendship, which finally develops into love, with a younger man also staying on the island. She gains a newfound strength and courage, and begins to realize how devoid of meaning and independence her life is.

Her desire to break free culminates in her decision to go for a swim late one steamy summer night. As she plunges into the tepid water underneath the clear black skies and glowing moon, “a feeling of exultation [overtakes] her, as if some power of significant import [has] been given her to control the working of her body and her soul. (47)” “She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before.”

From this moment on, a change is evident. Edna point-blank refuses her husband’s request that she go to sleep, and instead spends the night on the porch swing. Once back in New Orleans, she abandons her appointments and obligations, spends time with a socially-shunned and disagreeable old woman, and eventually moves out of the home she shares with her husband and children.

Edna is not without faults, and one can sense her pain and frustration at the sheltered life she is forced to lead. These traits make her a sympathetic character, one that the reader can not only identify with and admire, but also learn from.

Initially, I was unimpressed with her “rebellious” actions. I felt that she was behaving like an insolent child testing her parent’s limits, mindlessly defying her husband without fulfilling any purpose. As the novel progressed, however, it became evident that Edna was simply attempting to be happy on her own terms, while still remaining cordial with her husband and taking part in her children’s lives.

I also enjoyed Edna’s relationship with Robert. It seemed very logical that a woman defying the expectations and societal norms of her time would conduct an affair with a man younger, and culturally different, than she.

Chopin very successfully illustrates the transitions in Edna’s character and relationships in a subtle way. They progress naturally, and the reader doesn’t feel as though anything has been rushed. Rather, Edna’s developing independent spirit, and her still-growing friendships and relationships, are nurtured gradually.

One cannot help but feel their heart break, along with Edna’s, as she experiences the ups and downs of her love with Robert. The sadness and heartbreak of what seems to be every facet of her adult life are almost too much to bear. Edna’s strength to abandon all that she knows, and the opposition she then faces, make her an inspiring character.

The Awakening must have been nothing short of earth-shattering in the time of its publication; and it is exactly because of this revolutionary importance that it was abhorred by all those uncomfortable with the new direction women’s lives were taking.

By: Casey Feldman