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Mikhail Gorbachev, the last President of the Soviet Union, is often quoted with the sentence, “He who comes late is punished by life." Kate Chopin (1851 - 1904), author of The Awakening experienced after its publication: “She who comes early is punished by life.“
Chopin began writing when she was widowed at the age of 32 to support herself and her six children, her stories and sketches were published in magazines and were well accepted as was her first novel At Fault, she gained national recognition during the 1890s as a member of the local-colour movement focusing attention upon the distinctive regional cultures of America. She lived in New Orleans and northwest Louisiana for many years where she got to know the Creole culture. In 1899 her second novel The Awakening, a novella rather of only 116 pages, was published ending her literary career with a bang because of its scandalous content. It slumbered for about 70 years and was then awakened (!) by the women‘s rights movement.
What was considered scandalous at the turn of the last but one century? The story begins at Grande Isle in the Gulf of Mexico where wealthy Creole families from New Orleans spend their summer holidays, in fact the women and children do, the men only come down for the weekend. We get to know 40-year-old Mr Pontellier, his wife Edna, 28 years old, and their two small sons. There are two other families and a pianist whose names are mentioned as well as two lovers and a woman in black who remain anonymous. With the exception of Edna all protagonists are flat, we learn more about the ones whose names are mentioned than about the others, but they don‘t change, they never surprise, their function is merely to interact with Edna thus showing the different facets of her character. I see the nameless lovers and the woman in black as symbolic whose significance becomes clear only later on.
Robert Lebrun is visiting his mother who runs the holiday facility as he does every summer playing with the guests‘ children and flirting with the ladies. This summer he‘s the constant companion of Edna who‘s only two years older than he is. Edna is not a Catholic Creole but a Presbyterian from Kentucky and feels a bit of an outsider among the other guests, Robert‘s attention flatters her and does her good.
Madame Ratignolle, a woman of Edna‘s age she has befriended asks Robert to leave Edna alone. “She is not one of us; she is not like us. She might make the unfortunate blunder of taking you seriously.“ This remark takes the innocence out of the relationship, Robert is angry but has to admit to himself that he has indeed fallen in love with Edna. Head over heals he escapes to Mexico where he had been offered a job some time before.
And Edna? She doesn‘t think she loves Robert, in fact she doesn‘t think at all about her situation, but she isn‘t content, she feels unhappy. Once she‘s sitting alone on the porch at night crying her heart out, why, what for? “An indescribable oppression, which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar part of her consciousness, filled her whole being with a vague anguish“.
Her marriage was “purely an accident“, but with time she has grown fond of her husband, “realizing with some unaccountable satisfaction that no trace of passion or excessive or fictitious warmth colored her affection, thereby threatening its dissolution.“ Yet dissolve it does.
Why does Edna never talk with her husband? He adores her, he lives and works only for her and their children‘s happiness; Edna resents, however, that he views her as his personal property, she doesn‘t want to belong to him or anyone else. She knows that he wouldn‘t understand her, so instead of opening up to him, she simply drifts away from him.
When the summer holidays are over, Mr Pontellier has to go to New York on business for a long time, the children visit their grandparents, Edna takes a lover, buys a small house with her own money and for the first time lives a life which isn‘t dictated by anyone. How can it go on? Where will it lead her? She doesn‘t know and doesn‘t care. Then Robert comes back from Mexico and her husband is due to return, too, she must take some action, mustn‘t she? The solution Kate Chopin found for her protagonist was considered as scandalous by contemporary readers as her lifestyle.
The Awakening deals with many themes still discussed today: open marriages, women‘s liberation, the importance of sex, the ‘mother woman‘ versus the ‘career woman‘, changing morals and the role of the individual. I found the remark on the net, “This is an appropriate book for high school students to read“ - lessons on this book can‘t be boring to be sure!
What has struck me most about Edna‘s character is the fact that she doesn‘t have a positive aim in life, she only knows what she doesn‘t want. On the one hand this can be a trick of the author‘s inviting the readers to think for themselves or - I favour this idea more - the author didn‘t know herself where to send Edna. There were no role models then, alternative life styles didn‘t exist yet, being a child of her time Kate Chopin could only describe the beginning of the journey, it was for the authors following many generations later to suggest possible destinations.
I think the book isn‘t only interesting for high school students, it‘s a good read for everybody who‘s interested in literature; it‘s a pleasure to read Chopin‘s descriptions of the landscape, the interior of houses, dresses, food - everything comes to life.
I‘ve also enjoyed the book as a period piece, I read it during my winter trip to Puerto de la Cruz on Tenerife, a seaside resort comparably (vaguely) to Grand Isle, but oh, how the times have a-changed! A century ago the women dressed in long clothes when they went to the beach, Edna‘s friend even wears a veil to protect her face from the sun, Edna only wears a straw hat and carries an umbrella. Not that I would want to have to undress for half an hour before I could go for a swim, but when I looked up from my book and saw the hordes of half naked meat loaves shuffling along the promenade, I longed for a bit of the old decorum!
Put the book on your reading list for your next holidays, it‘s short, intelligent, well written and cheap, it may only disappoint you sex-wise, I re-read a paragraph three times to make sure that that was *it*!
Dover Publications First published in 1899 116 pages 1,90 GBP