(Sea) Salty Thoughts on The Awakening by Kate Chopin

The Awakening is one of those books that has been sitting on my bookshelf for ages, unread. I finally sat down and read it, and now I have Some Thoughts.

The introductory note in my Dover Thrift edition teases with the following:

Chopin’s second and last novel, The Awakening, was published in 1899 and aroused a storm of controversy for its then-unprecedented treatment of female independence and sexuality, and for its unromantic portrayal of marriage. Socially ostracized for her scandalous frankness, Chopin died in 1904; it was not until the second half of the twentieth century that The Awakening was rediscovered and assumed a place of significance in the canon of American literature.”

Dover Publications, 1993

So far, so good. A feminist book by an author writing ahead of her time and upsetting everyone’s delicate sensibilities? I’m here for it. The Awakening is the story of Edna Pontellier, a young woman living in New Orleans with her husband and their two small sons.

The book begins during the family’s summer vacation in Grand Isle, an island in the Gulf of Mexico (technically a part of Louisiana). While staying in Grand Isle, small things begin to shift without and within for Edna. She learns to swim; she is deeply moved by the musical talents of an enigmatic woman; she experiences moments of lucid self-realization; and she forms a close friendship with the young, charming Robert Lebrun.

Perhaps it is these things that lead to Edna’s crisis. Or, perhaps it is her emerging crisis that leads to the awareness of these things. In the end it doesn’t matter. What matters is that the already narrow boundaries of Edna’s life—dictated by the strict gender, race, and class structures of Victorian society— have started to close in around her, and it all becomes too much.

Book cover of The Awakening featuring a dark blue background with waving light blue lines going horizontally across it and silhouettes of women as though they are being increasingly submerged in the waves.
Penguin Classics, 2018: Book design done right, imho

I loved a lot of things about this book. For one, the writing is exceptionally beautiful—from the sensory passages that vividly evoke the coastal setting, to the minute everyday details of life, to the descriptions of Edna’s most intimate thoughts and feelings. Kate Chopin was clearly a lover of language, and she crafted her sentences with care.

There were strange, rare odors abroad—a tangle of the sea smell and of weeds and damp, new-plowed earth, mingled with the heavy perfume of a field of white blossoms somewhere near. But the night sat lightly upon the sea and the land. There was no weight of darkness; there were no shadows. The white light of the moon had fallen upon the world like the mystery and softness of sleep.”

The Awakening, Chapter X

The plot moves at a glacial pace. This is not a criticism—I happen to love books like this, in which moments and moods spiral around a central axis, inching slowly forward, but barely. I like the chance to see through another person’s eyes, to witness the things that change them, to watch it happen. Such moments are like double epiphanies, where the character realizes something or sees something anew, and you do too.

But there were also some hugely troubling things about this book. Of course it is of its time, and while it pushes back on the misogynistic beliefs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it is still full of the casual racism and classism that was socially acceptable back then. Further, there are Black women and people of colour on the periphery of this narrative—nameless, voiceless—and the author does not spare them a passing thought.

Even given that this is a vintage book, there were moments that shocked me. More than once we are told of the white families’ wealth that comes from plantations; we also learn that Edna’s father was a colonel in the confederate army. The nanny that is raising Edna’s children is known only by a dated and offensive term.

What lurks beneath the surface of this book is Edna Pontellier’s staggering privilege. Yes, she is a woman who is trapped to a certain degree by her role as a wife and a mother and the lack of agency afforded women in society. But she is also white, wealthy, and able to rebel against the things that constrain her with very few consequences. All the while, in the Louisiana background, there are Black women and children casually depicted as servants and the working poor.

Edna’s struggles to be free are, to a large extent, metaphorical ones. When she decides she’s had enough of her role as a society wife, she cuts it all loose. She abandons her social duties, closes up her large house, and rents a small one with her own inherited money so as to be independent from her husband and remove his claims on her autonomy. She is able to do this because of her class and race privilege. The Black woman raising Edna’s children has no such freedom. For the lower classes, the struggle to be free is very literal, and this is not something that the narrative acknowledges.

And so while I enjoyed parts of this book and related to Edna to a degree, I was also frustrated by the self-indulgent and narrow-minded existence that allows one person to be so totally and wilfully ignorant of the struggles of those around them. Edna’s wealth is built on the backs of slaves, of oppression, of exploitation, of cruelty. And in her “awakening” to her own unhappiness she never thinks to look around at the experiences of others, even those who are directly impacted by her.

It would be easy to claim ignorance on the part of the author, but I don’t think I can let her get away with that. As early as 1851 (the year Kate Chopin was born), the former slave and activist Sojourner Truth gave her famous speech “Ain’t I A Woman?”, highlighting what we would now call the intersectionality of race and gender. And Ida B. Wells, the Black feminist activist, was a contemporary of Kate Chopin.

The Awakening, though told with lovely prose and offering insights of a very specific perspective, is only really a partial awakening. Edna Pontellier has a ways to go still.

‘One of these days,’ she said, ‘I am going to pull myself together for a while and think—try to determine what character of a woman I am; for, candidly, I don’t know.'”

The Awakening, Chapter XXVII

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