The Awakening by Kate Chopin

the-awakeningIn the summer of her twenty-eight year, Edna Pontellier and her children spend the summer in Grand Isle, an idyllic coastal community on the Gulf of Mexico. Away from her husband and the sweltering heat of 1890s’ New Orleans, Edna releases herself to her deepest yearnings, plunging into an illicit liaison that reawakens her long dormant desires, inflames her heart, and, eventually, blinds her to all else.

The Awakening is a well-crafted, articulate novel that is considered a classic. (Why else would I be reading it for AP Literature?) But it’s a classic not only because it is considered to be one of the earliest feminist novels, but because this is feminist literature at its finest. Chopin’s story of a housewife who, feeling unhappy and unable to continue in her current course of action, takes the steps necessary to forever break the ties that bound her to the life she loathed, is way better than those with moaning, groaning, and a “whoa is me” mentality.

I very much enjoyed Chopin’s writing style. I would be leisurely reading along, watching the plot develop, and then she would suddenly surprise me with a very profound statement about society, identity, or duty. If an author who wrote in 1899 can still connect with a reader of 2008, that’s skill.

“I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself. I ain’t make it more clear; it’s only something which I am beginning to comprehend, which is revealing itself to me.” (pg. 80)

A part of me, though, shutters to think that The Awakening is sold as a feminist novel to students who are still working to define what Feminism is. Feminism does not involve throwing duty, responsibility, your marriage, and your children to the wind to go “find yourself”. But then again, The Awakening is a very personal work. The novel is about Edna, not all women. It may raise questions about the identity of women and their role in society, but the novel is, ultimately, about Edna.

Yet, what worries me about The Awakening is that it’s the first “feminist” introduced to students, at least at my school. There’s no denying The Awakening is a Feminist text because it does challenge the vastly unquestioned (in 1899 and still, by some, today) belief that a successful woman must marry, have children, stay home, and love it. Edna is unsuited for and unhappy in this lifestyle, suggesting, very forcibly, that not all women are Adeles, beaming at their husbands and planning when to have their next child. (Two years apart at all times!)

My problem is, in Edna, feminism takes the form of self-absorption. She throws duty out the window, and compassion and consideration too. She reaches the point where she lacks any consideration for others outside of what others can do for her. She cares only for herself.

Apart of me can understand how a woman unfit for the domestic family life, under extreme pressure from society, can choose to hide away in herself but I fear that, rather than encouraging my fellow students awakening, it hinders it and they will dismiss Edna as mad. And that will only continue to lead to a feminism is bad mentality.

Book Mentioned:

  • Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. New York: Avon, 1982. Originally published 1899.Print. 190 pgs. ISBN: 0380002450. Source: PaperBackSwap.
Book Cover © Avon. Retrieved: November 21, 2008.

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