This novella by Kate Chopin was first published in 1899. It "aroused a storm of controversy for its then-unprecedented treatment of female independence and sexuality, and for its unromantic portrayal of marriage". It takes place in New Orleans and despite being only 116 pages the novella gives a rich view of the setting.
Twenty-eight year old Edna has been married to Mr. Leonce Pontellier, a successful businessman of forty, for the last six years. He looks at his wife "as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage." He's often perturbed that his wife isn't interested in the things he's interested in; usually after he has been out all night at the club and comes home wanting attention. He constantly chides her for "her inattention, her habitual neglect of the children" and thinks nothing of his own inattention and neglect. She is fond of her children in what the narrator calls an "uneven, impulsive way." She could be passionate about them one minute or neglect them the next. Most days she is fond of her husband but I wouldn't say she loved him. The opportunity to marry a affluent man arose and she took it because it was expected of her. Her whole life has been one expectation after another.
While away at an island summer retreat with a few other couples and their children, Edna begins to experience something she hasn't before... freedom. Leonce goes back to the city to do some work and she spends a lot of time with a young man by the name of Robert Lebrun. They become great friends but she doesn't really show him any outward affection. She has him panting after her the whole time but he maintains a friendly distance because of her circumstance (being married and all). During this time away Edna develops some independence that her husband begins to regret. There is an interesting scene where she's lying in a hammock at one in the morning and her husband wants her to come in but she refuses. He goes in and comes out again. But she still refuses. It becomes obvious at this point that she's starting to rebel against his control and the power struggle between them begins. It leads to some humorous altercations between them throughout the book.
When Robert leaves suddenly to go in search of himself in Mexico, Edna becomes "newly awakened" to her feelings for him. As time passes she eventually becomes distraught and begins doing (and not doing) things out of character. When Edna and Leonce return to the city, her husband tries to get her to pick up where they left off before they went away; as his doting and obedient wife. But it's too late, she's become deeply infatuated with Robert, hearing from him and being near him even if only through his friends.
In an effort to break further away from her husband and develop some independence of her own she begins to stockpile money from her mother's estate, sales from her paintings and winnings from her time at the racetrack for a place of her own away from Leonce's big house and responsibilities. "Whatever came, she had resolved never again to belong to another than herself." When she moves out, Leonce is more concerned with the appearance than the realization that she has left him. He immediately hires an architect to do renovations in an attempt to cover up her actions. The era's treatment of women and their role in society becomes most evident halfway through when the Colonel, Edna's father, gives Leonce advice on dealing with Edna. "Authority, coercion are what is needed. Put your foot down and hard; the only way to manage a wife."
It was very easy for me to side with Edna who was trying to express her desire to have her own way. I took this to mean her own path in life and not the tantrum cries of a child trying to get what she wants. It wasn't until I read the last few pages that I was able to appreciate the words that came before. I was left wanting to read them over again. If only to find some hope.
The copy I read was uncorrected but I didn't find the mistakes a hindrance to the story. I find Chopin's style at times non-descriptive ("flowers and plants of every description") while other times quite vivid. Keeping in mind the era of the story was written, I can see why it is such an important literary classic. Chopin was a voice of change in a time when women were meant to know their place. Unfortunately, were the story written today, I would probably set it aside and not give it further thought or recommendation.
The Awakening is available from Amazon.com.
The Awakening is available from Amazon.ca.
M. E. Wood lives in Eastern Ontario, Canada. If you are going to find this eclectic reader and writer anywhere it is probably at her computer. For more information visit her official website.