My reading choices over the past month have left me feeling somewhat deflated, and so this month’s classic came as a timely reminder of what great literature can make me feel. First published in 1899, Kate Chopin’s feminist classic felt as fresh as any contemporary literature and was easy to read yet full of subtext and rich imagery. It is the kind of book where I wanted a notebook by my side to scrawl down particularly moving passages (and there were many).
The book is about Edna Pontellier, an American housewife and mother who, whilst on holiday with her family, falls in love with a young man and experiences an ‘awakening’. After realising that she is unhappy with her role as mother and wife, Edna strives to alter her fate but struggles against the confines of the society in which she lives.
I understand that The Awakening was not enthusiastically received when it was first published as it deals with extramarital affairs, but I think that the book’s focus goes much further beyond this to look at the expectations put upon women to conform. Edna is ‘fond’ of her husband and children but no more, and after her awakening she realises how much she deplores the role of mother and wife that she has assumed unthinkingly over the years:
“An indescribable oppression, which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar part of her consciousness, filled her whole being with a vague anguish. It was like a shadow, like a mist passing across her soul’s summer day.”
I loved Chopin’s prose as much as I loved her themes, and I could easily go back and read this novel again for phrases such as these that I may have missed.
Within the first few pages of the novel it is clear that feminism is at the forefront of the author’s themes, as Mr Pontellier is seen “looking at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage.” Mr Pontellier is quite liberal towards his wife’s behaviour, not really minding too much what she does so long as she does not cause disgrace to his name. But it is clear that he does not understand her or work out why she cannot be happy as she is. As the novel progresses we see that he cannot even recognise the changes that come upon her for what they are:
“He could see plainly that she was not herself. That is, he could not see that she was becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world.”
I love the way that Chopin phrases this, and draws the reader in with her conspiratorial ‘we’. The question posed throughout the book is whether Edna does possess the strength to fight against her role as a woman, a wife and her place in society, and if she can truly be herself. I won’t give away the ending, but it was a particularly memorable one.
I absolutely loved this book, and would thoroughly recommend it. I found The Awakening gripping, thought-provoking, intelligent and very easy to read. In its exploration of feminism the book is certainly a classic and one which is very relevant today. Read it if you haven’t already, and if you have then please tell me what you thought.