Monday, January 17, 2011

The Awakening

I am happy to write another entry about a book by a female author.  Unfortunately, I realize that my male-to-female ratio is highly unproportional, but I am not doing it intentionally.  However, I recently read Kate Chopin's The Awakening for the first time and loved it.

I understand that there is a perspective you can take with this book that could potentially negate its literary significance.  On the surface, it may appear that this is the story of a selfish woman.  She falls in love with a younger man, neglects her husband and children, moves into her own place despite social appearances, and refuses to do anything except what she wishes to do.  If this were all there was to the story, I have no doubt that it would frustrate me.  At the time it was written, so many people objected to these very things that the book was  protested and repeatedly condemned.  Tragically, Chopin never wrote another novel and struggled to publicize any further writing for the rest of her life.  However, I believe that there is much more going on in The Awakening which makes it a Classic.

First of all, I think this book is deeply concerned with existential philosophy.  The main character, Edna, is "awakened" out of her listless pattern of life and thrust full throttle into an existential crisis.  The tipping point happened to occur at the same time she fell in love with a younger man, but the story is about so much more than love.  At the start of Edna's crisis, Chopin writes: "In short, Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her."  Chopin consciously avoided mentioning Robert (the love interest) in the critical moment of "awakening" Edna experienced about herself.  I believe Robert exists merely to break Edna's spell of clouded listlessness, or "appalling and hopeless ennui", and wake her up to identifying matters of herself and her life.  Significantly, Robert is absent from the majority of the story, and I think Chopin does this to avoid overstating the love affair between them.  The despair of wanting something to happen, anything at all, overtakes Edna as it does to many existential characters in literature.  She may have neglected her friends and family, but she did so in order to discover her identity apart from the people and customs she had so long associated with it.

I think this is revolutionary in feminist literature, and it still contains poignant significance for our society over a century later.  Personally, I am fascinated by existential literature, and this is the first time I've discovered a book of this kind with a female protagonist.  Unfortunately, it fails to offer a positive outcome, which I believe was sadly suited with the negative reception of the book itself.  But I hope we can pick the book up again today and appreciate it for what it offers to literature.


Sarah G. said...

Yay! A female writer! :)

A Journey in Reading said...

I read this book about a year ago and absolutely loved it. Many of Chopin's books were ones that pushed the "norm" of her time. She stirred controversy in her writings, that is probably the reason that I loved her writing.

Kat @ A Journey in Reading

Jillian said...

For me, this was a work of naturalism -- woman against nature (ie: childbirth.) I am just learning about existentialism and find that angle intriguing too, as a perspective of this work.

Have you read Chopin's short stories? I recommend "The Story of an Hour." :-)

Amy said...

Hi Jillian! Yes, I do think this book is a strong argument against what was condsidered to be a "natural" way of life for women. Edna shows us that it doesn't always feel so "natural" and women need more for their identities.

I have not yet read Chopin's short stories, but I am actually planning to embark on a short story or novella series soon, so maybe I can read it quickly enough to include it in the list. Thanks for stopping by!

Anonymous said...

Late to comment as I just found your blog. The Awakening has long been a favorite of mine and I appreciated your review but have a different opinion on the ending than the one expressed in your comment: "Unfortunately, it fails to offer a positive outcome, which I believe was sadly suited with the negative reception of the book itself." I think Edna's final decision (similar to Lily Bart's in Edith Wharton's House of Mirth) accurately reflects the inevitability of that decision for a woman who finds it impossible to live a fully awakened existence in Edna's circumstances, place and time.