Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Awakening

I just finished reading The Awakening, by Kate Chopin, for the first time. Somehow I missed the boat in high school when everyone read this in 20th Century Literature, or American Fiction, or one of those classes that's rather mandatory. I guess I had a different teacher who didn't deem The Awakening to be important in the melding of our young minds. I'm actually glad I didn't read it until now--I probably wouldn't have understood it. I probably would have hated it along with everybody else, either because a) I didn't end up reading it and thus could not successfully defend a minority view, or b) it would seem to me then a ranty, feminist novel that didn't know what it was talking about.

Reading it now, it did affect me in a few ways. First, regardless of the context in which the novel was originally written, I related pretty deeply to Mrs. Pontellier's inner monologue, to her longing to know herself in relation to the world, to be free. It's funny, though there were several different scenes that alluded to her "awakening," I don't feel like Edna ever awoke. She realized her discontentment in a marriage that wasn't based on love (whatever her definition of love is, I'm still not sure), and sought to free herself of its ties, of its rituals, of its customs, of its responsibilities, but she never completely frees herself. Or at least she doesn't ever find a suitable alternative to this arrangement. She quite unknowingly befriends Robert, and eventually cultivates a passion for him throughout the summer, but once she goes home and he travels to Mexico, the sexual tension just languors between them, growing more obsessive the longer they are apart. In his absence is Arobin, who is little more than a distraction, even though they spend so much time together.

I was bothered by the fact that all three men (her husband, Robert, and Arobin) all fell in love with Edna, and were willing to sacrifice everything for her, while she wallowed in her own search for freedom. If she did not want love, she shouldn't have led these three on, and if she did, she should realize that love is only valuable when it is two-sided. I'm convinced she wasn't, in the end, looking for love--but she also didn't seem to be searching for understanding either, since she received this in abundance from Madame Reisz. Really, this whole "awakening," if it really took place, was merely sexual, which explains why Edna's psyche took a rather tumultuous ride as she explored her options, trying to assert her independence and then finding that being alone wasn't what she wanted. I was let down by the ending, in which she lets herself drown in the ocean. First, because it was written during the 1890s when the "women's movement" was really getting started, this offers a pretty bleak picture of female independence. While Chopin wasn't a feminist, it's obvious that we are to empathize with Edna's journey, and so it seemed like a reversal of everything that had led up to that point: by killing herself, Edna wasn't as strong, wasn't as free as she thought she was.

In the end I think Edna does realize that she doesn't, and never did, love Robert. And I think Robert realized, too, that Edna was a wandering soul, and would never be able to commit herself to him, even if she were able to get a divorce from her husband. In the end, I'm conflicted: there were some beautiful passages of hope for her restoration as a woman, of the excitement that she might have a unique purpose outside of her husband, that she was worth the capacity of a mind and heart, that she deserved to love and be loved in return. But, she never got there. Somehow, just as she had mechanically performed the orders of her husband, she now swam further and further out into the water, seemingly without thought to the consequences, until it was impossible for her to come back, to live.

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